International Hockey: A War of Attrition

By on February 27, 2014


Were you not entertained? Is that not why you watched?

Ok, aside from paraphrasing Gladiator I was thoroughly entertained by this year’s men’s ice hockey tournament. Not that the women’s tournament wasn’t entertaining. Thats a whole different story (Kevin Dineen and Dan Church, most decorated Canadian Hockey medalists, that EPIC comeback against the States!)

With all due respect to Switzerland, the women’s results don’t spark the same argument that the men’s tournament does. But hopefully that will change in the near future with IOC discussing women’s hockey for the 2022 Olympics in South Korea. Hayley Wickenheiser, we are counting on you!

The men’s tournament featured a ton more parody and for that I thank the Hockey Gods!

We seen Slovenia capture their first Olympic victory upsetting Slovakia in round robin play. Latvia’s first Olympic win in 12 years over Switzerland and how can we not mention Russia going down to Finland in what former Swedish Captain Mats Sundin called a “heartless” effort.

The tournament was full of twists and turns. But aside from the entertainment value it was also extremely fascinating. How is it that Canada can only squeak by Latvia 2-1 but then absolutely shut down an electric American offence 2 days later?

The States must have totally gotten the wind knocked out of their Red, White and Blue sails after Canada held the Americans to no goals. Nobody predicted a 5-0 drubbing in the bronze medal game. And if you did, I don’t believe you.

As an obsessive hockey fan I was puzzled at the results of some round robin games.  But as I watched the tournament go on, it became clear that the NHL players were adapting to a different style of team play on the ice.  An international style; a war of attrition.

There is a common saying throughout the hockey community. If Team Finland has a lead, you do not see the numbers on their jerseys. In Lehman’s terms that means they sit 5 guys back at their own blue line and don’t do any forechecking.

But Finland has the most medals in the men’s tournament since NHL players were allowed to play in Nagano 1998 with 1 silver and 3 Bronze.

European Teams, and for moments even Team Canada, were visibly cautious as to not make a major mistake. It was a defence first, sit-back, get-to-the-shootout approach, where Power-plays were your golden goose to score.

When I watch international soccer tournaments, I feel it is the exact same case. The lesser skilled teams on the pitch will play the same style as the men on the ice (minus the power-plays) and try to attain a 0-0 draw until they get to a shootout where their chances are significantly higher to win the game.

Take the Latvians coached by good ol’ Teddy Nolan of the Buffalo Sabres. In the game against Canada, Latvia tied the game up with a cheeky little play where the defence made a stretch to a floater coming off the bench. They tried that play 3 times and it worked once. Imagine if it had worked again?

There were 9 one goal games in 2014 and 9 one goal games in 2010. Most of them came in the knock-out stages of both tournaments.  (The previous Olympic tournaments had ties)

When it comes to international hockey, the team with the mostly skilled players is expected to win. But as we saw from all of the results, a team that has a particular game plan has a good chance to win the game as well.

Kudos to Steve Yzerman, Mike Babcock and his Olympic staff. In hindsight, leaving guys like Martin St.Louis, P.K Subban on the bench for most of the tournament was the correct move. Everyone speculated who should be where and why. But when it came down to the knock-out stages, it was the best all-around players that got the job done.

Yzerman has stated that he will not be returning to manage the 2018 Olympic team. Whether the NHL players will be there or not is a totally separate argument. But Yzerman has set an example of the kind of team a GM would want to build based on North American and International ice sizes.

Hockey Canada pinpointed the International pattern of the way the games in this tournament. Because they are playing on a larger ice surface, they brought in Ralph Kruger as a special adviser. Kruger coached Switzerland in the 2010 Winter Games and coached the Edmonton Oilers during their 2013 season. It proved to work in the latter stages of the tournament as the team noticeably used a lot more of the ice and utilized different tactics that we did not see in the earlier matches of the tournament.

One argument I will make (and again hindsight is 20/20) is that Canada should look into having a Canadian-born player from a European league on the roster. Imagine if a guy like Matthew Lombardi, who we seen in the Spengler cup playing for the Genève-Servette HC of the Swiss League, was on the 4th line instead of a guy like Matt Duchene. (Not to knock Duchene, he is highly skilled and one of my favourite players in the NHL)

If the Olympics are to shift from having NHLers eligible to having them banned, then there might be some merit to this argument. Nonetheless, we are seeing international hockey develop into something more than a shootout. We are seeing a war of attrition and its not going anywhere.

 Featured image: olympics.cbc.ca

Brett Innis

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