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Swede Success
Michael Farber
March 06, 2006
After an easy route to the finals, the Swedes won--and celebrated--gold medals that they wrested from their Nordic neighbors
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March 06, 2006

Swede Success

After an easy route to the finals, the Swedes won--and celebrated--gold medals that they wrested from their Nordic neighbors

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In a delightful act of cheek last Saturday, the day before the Finland- Sweden Olympic hockey final, Sweden's top-selling tabloid, Expressen, invited Finns to become Swedish citizens so that they could take part in a gold medal hockey celebration scheduled for the next day. Expressen provided a convenient link that would enable users to download Sweden's immigration form. This would have been, as it turned out, the only time any form held in a wild Olympic hockey tournament. In Turin's Nordic Combined, Indoor Division, Sweden did indeed edge Finland, 3-2, in a tightly played match not quite as good as its backstory.

The third, and probably penultimate, Olympic tournament with NHL players--the grueling eight-games-in-12-days schedule, and its disruption to the NHL season, has made league officials loath to commit beyond the conveniently located 2010 Games in Vancouver--had it all: prominent players going for MRIs and North American teams going MIA; a post-game vivisection of USA Hockey; an all-tournament defenseman named Kenny Jonsson who plays with gardeners and real estate agents in the Swedish Second Division; and a dream final ... at least if you dream in a language with dots over the vowels. As Swedish and Finnish players patiently explained to sportswriters who get Duke-Carolina but are a little fuzzy on Scandinavian Smackdown, this was Big Brother ( Sweden) against Little Brother ( Finland), with all the requisite complexes.

One problem was that Little Brother had to stay up past his bedtime to get to the final. The undermanned Finns, impeccable for seven games, played the final on leaden legs. "We weren't as fresh," captain Saku Koivu said. "[The Swedes had] an extremely experienced team, and they didn't have to play as hard in the last two games as we did."

With a mix of gamesmanship and a compliant Czech coach who did not pull his sievelike goalie, Milan Hnilicka, until after Hnilicka had allowed five goals in the semis, the Swedes waltzed to the final. In the quarters they faced Switzerland, the cupcake of the last eight teams, a matchup Sweden snared by losing its final preliminary-round game, with Slovakia. Beforehand, Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson had ruminated about tanking against Slovakia to avoid powerful Canada or the Czechs in the quarters, telling Swedish television, "One is cholera, the other the plague." Then, on an extended two-man advantage against the Slovaks, the scary power-play unit of Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Lidstrom and Fredrik Modin--five men out?--didn't put a puck on net. If the Swedes had passed the puck any more, their next opponent would have been the Washington Generals. "[They] were even afraid to shoot!" exasperated Russian coach Vladimir Krikunov said.

For the first time since 1992, no North American team reached the semis. The Canadians fell in the quarters 2--0 to Russia, the third time in four matches they were blanked, which made them less like cholera and more like acid reflux. Forward Todd Bertuzzi, who had been a controversial choice for Team Canada, was in the penalty box when effervescent 20-year-old Alexander Ovechkin scored the decisive first goal. In a country where people Monday morning quarterback every power play, Canadians debated the absence of young stars such as Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal and Dion Phaneuf on their team.

Meanwhile on the 26th anniversary of the American win over the Soviet Union--Feb. 22--a mewling Mike Modano, benched in the third period by coach Peter Laviolette, eviscerated USA Hockey moments after a knockout loss to the Finns. One complaint: The organization hadn't adequately handled transportation and ticketing for players and their families. Apparently the U.S. rallying cry has gone from "Do you believe in miracles?" to "Can we get three on the red-eye?" After returning to the U.S. on the same flight as Team USA general manager Don Waddell, and not exchanging a word with him, Modano, the Stars' top center, told The Dallas Morning News he regretted the timing of his remarks.

But like writer Dickie Dunn in Slap Shot, Modano was just trying to capture the spirit of the thing: a negative vibe that marred the tournament. Not that the Turinese were expected to rabidly support what is, to them, essentially an exotic sport. (Before two of the quarterfinal games, tickets were offered to Olympic accredited personnel for three euros, the price of a prosciutto and provolone sandwich at the rinks.) But the NHL also seemed distinctly lukewarm. There was fretting over an All-Star team on the injured list--goalie Dominik Hasek (groin); defensemen Mattias Ohlund (ribs) and Sami Salo (shoulder); left wing Simon Gagn´┐Ż (knee); right wing Jaromir Jagr (groin); and Modano (feelings)--and grousing from owners like the Flyers' Ed Snider, upset that Forsberg, who missed his last eight games before the break with a groin injury, had suited up for Sweden.

If 2010 is the NHL's Olympic swan song, though, that would be a shame for hockey fans. The final provided some indelible moments for Sweden's so-called Golden Generation-- Forsberg, Sundin and Lidstrom, who scored the winner 10 seconds into the third period--as its NHL stars finally won as a group. As the Finns pressed in the last minute, goalie Henrik Lundqvist made a point-blank, blocker save on Olli Jokinen, and Henrik Zetterberg hurled himself at Kimmo Timonen's blast with four seconds left. "It hit the shin pads," Zetterberg said. "Felt good."

Maybe this fine madness didn't register across the Atlantic, but back home, Big Brother was watching. And smiling.