There was a time when Sweden's hockey team was coached by Anders Parmstrom, a droll, professorial-looking man who was nicknamed the Duck, although back then a different fowl was more closely associated with Swedish hockey: the chicken. Parmstrom knew his team had a reputation for shying away from rough play, and he understood how sensitive his players were to the barnyard epithet. But as he watched his players' timid performance in the 1981 Canada Cup tournament, he came to an inescapable conclusion: The problem with the Swedish team, he said, "is too many Swedes."
In Nagano that will be a problem for the United States and Canada, but certainly not for Sweden.
Now there are too many good Swedes, tough Swedes. There's center Peter Forsberg, the best two-way player in the world. There's Niklas Lidstrom, the best defense-man in the world. There's Mats Sundin, the best forward in the 1996 World Cup. These aren't the nifty-but-meek players who drove Parmstrom to distraction as they were being driven into the boards, not the stereotypical Swede who would rather play chess with the devil than fight the traffic in the corner to retrieve a puck. The Swedish team has a strong, mobile defense, quality role players and as much grit as a sandstorm. "You used to be able to intimidate the Swedish teams, but not anymore," says Theo Fleury, who will play for Canada at the Games. " Forsberg's one of the toughest guys in the NHL."
Still, in the first Olympic tournament to feature big names like Gretzky and Roy instead of long names like those of obscure, eight-voweled Finns, either the U.S., which has essentially kept its victorious World Cup team intact, or Canada, which is Canada, will be the favorite. "On paper Canada and the U.S. have the strongest lineups with the most depth," says Forsberg. But during Colorado Avalanche practices, when he slams into Adam Deadmarsh, his good friend and a winger on the U.S. team, Forsberg playfully growls, "We will rock you." Paper might not cover rock in Nagano.
Five factors point to a Swedish upset.
1. The big sheet
The international rink used in the Olympics is 197 by 98 feet, instead of the NHL's 200 by 85. The nearly 2,500 extra square feet-some of it additional space behind the net—and the positioning of the face-off circles closer to the boards change the game's geometry. The skating prowess of the Americans and the Canadians should make it easy for them to adjust, but the Swedes grew up with these dimensions and remember each theorem. "The big ice is huge," says Barry Smith, a Detroit Red Wings assistant coach who's serving as a Team Sweden assistant. "In the NHL a defenseman has to take two or three strides to cut off a pass along the boards. Now he may have to take five more. You try to take the passing lanes, but the ice is so big that's almost impossible." International hockey revolves around puck possession, and only the crafty Russians can play keepaway the way the Swedes do.
The large surface should even cover up the underbelly of the Swedish team, a soft one, no doubt, considering that New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury called goalie Tommy Salo one of me poorest-conditioned athletes on his team during an arbitration hearing last summer. Salo lacks the stature of Canada's Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, the athleticism of the U.S.'s Mike Richter and the creativity of the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek, but he will see fewer shots in Nagano than he does in New York because the big ice seduces forwards to make an extra pass, even from the top of the face-off circles.
2. There's no I in lag, the Swedish word for team
Whether it is because they can speak their own language for a couple of weeks while playing or because they realize the necessity of scrapping personal agendas, Swedish national teams bond quickly. In a tournament that offers elite nations three get-acquainted practices and three preliminary games before the knockout round, you look for fast-drying glue.