Posted: Tuesday February 21, 2006 12:48PM; Updated: Tuesday February 21, 2006 3:53PM
Paul DiPietro (15), Olivier Keller (right) and the Swiss team were one of the surprise stories of Week 1 in Turin.
David E. Klutho/SI
Darren Eliot will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
As the Olympic hockey experience moves into its second week, it is apparent that Week 1 was about the spirit of the Games while Week 2 is about the best from around the world facing off in meaningful games. Not that the first seven days were full of meaningless games -- at least not to the Latvian contingency who came, stood and cheered their heroes at every turn. As former NHL netminder Arturs Irbe said, "Hockey gives our small nation a glimpse outside the window to the big world." Spoken like a true future politician -- who some think could one day be president of Latvia.
And don't try to tell Team Kazakhstan that their tilt versus Russia wasn't important. Long looked upon as third-class citizens in the former Soviet Union, the greatly overmatched Kazakhs played a prideful match, losing by the narrowest of margins, 1-0. Then there is Team Switzerland, with wins over Canada and the Czech Republic. They've taken a bunch of minor league pros and added NHL goaltending in Martin Gerber and David Aebischer to their mix and come up with the two biggest wins in that nation's hockey-playing history.
This is what the Olympic ideals are all about -- overcoming great odds to achieve at the highest level possible. Political histories and personal triumphs color the experience to make the Olympics unique. When you couple surprise stories like Paul DiPietro's scoring three goals for the Swiss -- two against Canada, the country in which he grew up -- with the brilliant displays we've come to expect from players such as Teemu Selanne, Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson, and a four-goal performance from Ilya Kovalchuk for good measure, the first week of action was certainly worthwhile -- even if it only led to a slight shuffling of the tournament seeding for Week 2.
But before we get to the hockey-centric portion of the competition -- the best in the world going head-to-head in single-elimination games on Wednesday -- Team USA's head coach Peter Laviolette's decision to start Robert Esche against Russia gets to the heart of the Olympic spirit. Rick DiPietro has performed very well in goal, and a change might seem like a potential controversy prior to the all-important quarterfinal game, which will pit Team USA against Finland on Wednesday.
Laviolette, twice an Olympian, understands the importance of participation. The inclusion of Esche far outweighs continuity or avoiding the question of who starts versus the Finns should Esche play the game of his life against the Russians. As Laviolette intimated many times here in Turin, Esche, DiPietro and John Grahame -- who opened the Olympics versus Latvia -- are all No. 1 netminders for their respective NHL teams. To bring Esche to Turin and deny him the essence of participating in the Olympic Games just wouldn't be right.
And what if Esche turns in a performance that cries of "Why would you not start him the next game?" To that I say, don't worry. By giving Esche the start in the first place, Laviolette proved that his decision-making is very clear-minded, second-guessers be damned. They don't get the true meaning of the Games anyway.