Plenty at stake as USA battles Canada in Super Sunday frenzy
Sunday's USA-Canada hockey showdown is understandably the talk of the town
It's the centerpiece of a big three-game salvo of Olympic hockey competition
Both the U.S. and Canada will make changes to their lineups before face-off
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The buzz around town surrounding what's being dubbed "Super Sunday" is palpable. Team USA defenseman Tim Gleason got a taste of it the other day, when he was riding in a Vancouver taxicab, and his driver -- evidently not much of a Carolina Hurricanes fan -- struck up a conversation.
"You going to watch that game on Sunday, Canada vs. the U.S.?" the driver asked his fare.
"Should be a good game," Gleason replied.
"Who are you rooting for?"
There was a slight pause before the 27-year-old Michigan native deflected, "Well, I'm not too much of a hockey fan."
"Pretty funny," Gleason says after recounting the story. "But deep down, you're just amazed what people are talking about."
This seems to be all anybody's talking about, a back-to-back-to-back showdown of old rivals that is sure to get the nationalistic blood boiling and give hockey fiends a fix that should last for years. Not only will they play rematches of the three last three Olympic gold medal contests -- and in chronological order, to boot! -- but the games carry significance for the playoff rounds, which begin Tuesday.
It's also an important day for the NHL, considering the fact the six teams featured in Super Sunday's matches (Czech Republic vs. Russia, Canada vs. U.S., Finland vs. Sweden) are stocked with players from the league that went on hiatus for two weeks to be here. With the worldwide exposure -- and on a lazy Sunday with minimal competition for home viewers -- the spotlight will shine brightly on hockey, albeit perhaps not as brightly in the States as Tanith Belbin's sequin dress (live in prime time on NBC). Still, this display of hockey mania could be an indicator of how Olympic exposure can help a middling league.
The marquee matchup of the day belongs to the U.S. and Canada, two teams whose distaste for one another has grown over the years, despite the fact they haven't met in Olympic competition since the 2002 gold-medal game. "Do I dislike them?" U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson says. "Yes."
In a pre-Olympics poll commissioned by TSN and The Globe and Mail, 46 percent of Canadians believed the U.S. would provide the stiffest competition to the men's hockey team; more than half of the 1,001 people polled (age 18 to 55+) chose USA-Canada as their dream final. Surveying a reason for the finding is a decidedly harder task, given that Canada's traditional hockey rival for so many years had been Russia, not its neighbor to the south. But perhaps the memories of the 1972 Summit Series are fading and being replaced by the 1996 World Cup and the 2002 Olympic final. Or maybe the recent gold medal barnburner at the World Junior Championships in Saskatoon, when the U.S. defeated Canada in overtime, is still too fresh in the collective Canadian memory to overlook the Americans. Whatever the reason, it seems that this right here is not your father's rivalry.
"At the end of the day, Canada and Russia will always have a rivalry," Team Canada center Jonathan Toews says. "[But] the Russian one dates to a long time ago, and I've kind of grown up with the American [rivalry] being bigger and at the forefront."
As it goes, the U.S., so far the leader in Group A with two wins in regulation, faces a Canadian team that had the entire nation in knots, as it was dragged into a shootout by Switzerland on Thursday night. Though its team came out with the win, Canada certainly got a scare, and the game exposed some faults on a team that looks flawless on paper.
"There's no question we think there's been way too many passes," Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock says. "We get up 2-0 (against the Swiss) and we stop shooting the puck."
"It's not a question about our talent," says defenseman Dan Boyle. "But sometimes when you have too much talent, it's just the nature of player to look for other guys. You want to set up other guys. Sometimes you need the mentality that you just have to shoot the puck and score a rebound goal ... We're going to have to get back to that."
With a team that includes Sidney Crosby, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Jarome Iginla, who can really blame them for being a little deferential to each other?
After getting a chance to watch his team for two full games, Babcock looks like he will juggle his line combinations a bit against the U.S., opting to put Flyers forward Mike Richards on the top line with Crosby and Rick Nash, a move that is dripping with irony for anyone familiar with the Flyers-Penguins rivalry. "It's easier to play with him than against him," the Flyers captain says of Crosby. The switch puts Nash on the right side, where he feels comfortable, and gives Richards a chance to show his glittering offensive talent while also bringing a great dose of defensive responsibility.
As for the U.S., coach Ron Wilson made some changes to his lineup, as well, putting Patrick Kane on a line with Ryan Kesler and Bobby Ryan, Dustin Brown with David Backes and Chris Drury, and Paul Stastny with New Jersey Devils linemates Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner. Part of the reorganization has to be about addressing the size deficiency Team USA would have if Kane and Parise, two shifty wingers under 6-foot, remained together. With Canada's size at every position -- heck, Boyle, at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, is their smallest skater -- it will likely serve the U.S. well to balance the lineup a bit.
Now, the U.S. hasn't been without its own shortcomings in its first two games. Allowing a number of odd-man rushes and playing perhaps too aggressively from the back end may be tolerable offenses against the Swiss and Norwegian teams, but you can bet against Canada, Team USA will pay for those kinds of lapses. It is something the U.S. is mindful of coming into the game at Canada Hockey Place, where they'll be the prime targets of an assuredly raucous crowd.
"I'm anticipating one of the best atmospheres I've been in since the '96 World Cup," Wilson says. "Every TV in Canada is going to be watching, and a good many in the United States [will be watching too]. Anybody who is a hockey fan will be watching that game.
"It's going to be a great day for hockey."
That's an understatement; Super Sunday is going to be epic.