SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Blame Canada.
The creators of “South Park” had it exactly right.
Blame the Canadians for being bigger, stronger, faster, tougher, deeper, too in love with a game and maybe even too polite to boot. They were so modest and so sneaky good carving their way through the bracket that somehow they lulled the rest of the hockey-playing world into believing it actually had a chance.
Sweden was the last domino to fall, but just like all the others, once the Swedes fell – 3-0 in Sunday’s gold medal game, though it could easily have been 5-0 and even worse – they fell hard. The Swedes started fast, but any realistic chance they had of winning disappeared almost as fast.
Sweden was playing with four of its best forwards sidelined by injuries, yet they managed to build a 7-2 advantage in shots on goal a few minutes into the opening period. But once Canada tightened the screws on its forecheck, the Swedes couldn’t consistently carry the puck out of their own zone. They wound up playing dump-and-chase the rest of the way, and all that that did was buy them a few extra gulps of air between one Canada attack and the next.
The Canadians are the winningest nation ever at the Olympics, and now the only one to have three golds in the National Hockey League era, as well as the only one to have won gold back-to-back. There are a half-dozen other ways to measure the distance between the Great White North and everybody else, but here’s two quick ones:
Leaving aside goalkeepers, how many players off the rosters of Sweden, Finland and the United States, the other semifinalists, could play for the only Big Red Machine still in operation? One or two, tops, and that would be on the second line. Russia, a quarterfinalist, boasted a half-dozen glamour guys, but the only one Canada would really covet is captain Pavel Datsyuk, and only because he plays unselfishly whether going forward or back – just like a Canadian.
Which brings us to No. 2.
Canada arrived at the gold-medal game without its two best forwards scoring even a single goal. Jonathan Toews is the best two-way forward in hockey, but until he deflected a pass from Jeff Carter past Swedish goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist 7 minutes into the game, he contented himself by playing like the best defensive forward in the tournament. And you could almost say the same for Sidney Crosby.
Crosby is a perennial contender for the NHL scoring crown, as well as the unofficial title of “most creative attacker in the game.” But up until he finally cracked the score sheet, Crosby simply kept hustling and backchecking like he was possessed. That became its own reward, finally, when he picked the pocket of defenseman Jonathan Ericsson just inside the Canadian blue line and zoomed away from the rest of the Swedes like they were wearing galoshes.
In the span of a few strides, it was down to Crosby and Lundqvist, one of the two or three best goalkeepers on the planet.
“The chances were there all tournament long and you just got to trust they’re going to go in,” Crosby recalled afterward. “Knowing it’s 1-0, you get a good chance, you want to put it in.”
“Sid the Kid” has been working on beating guys as good as Lundqvist nearly his entire life. As legend has it, Crosby banged so many practice shots off the laundry dryer in the basement of the family home that it bears more dimples than a golf ball and now resides permanently in the Nova Scotia Hall of Fame. He didn’t miss this time, either.
It’s worth remembering that Crosby had the game-winner in overtime in the gold medal game against the United States in Vancouver four years ago. That rare moment of vulnerability, like the few the Canadians let out of the bag here, was taken as proof that the rest of the world had caught up. Don’t believe a word of it.
What happened four years ago was a case of nerves. It was a team playing a game that unifies 30-plus million of their countrymen, many of whom still believe they’re good enough to don the same fabled red sweater – and a few who actually were, yet had to be left behind.
When these Olympics started, a lot of the smart money was on the home team, based less on the results of the past 20 years than the previous 40, when the original Big Red Machine burst on the scene, revolutionized the way the game is played, and challenged the Canadians to catch up.
But tradition is simply a measure of where you’ve been, not where you’re going next. It has to be renewed by one generation after the next, the way it is in Canada, where every kid who straps on a pair of skates loves the game so madly that it’s hard to imagine almost anything else mattering that much for the rest of your life.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.