Thursday, January 29, 1998
Canada fears big Czech
"Look, even Shayne Corson is afraid of the Czech Republic,'' King said. "And Shayne Corson's not afraid of anything.''
It is all about Dominik Hasek. He scares people."
This close to the very odd Olympic hockey event at the Games of Nagano, the tournament the NHL rigged and set up as its own, there is an X-factor with an ability to change the color of money and the color of medals.
His name is Hasek. He will play for the Czech Republic in Nagano. You might have heard of him. He just happens to be the best goaltender on the planet.
And in the ridiculous format of this coming tournament, in which so many of the hockey games have little or no meaning, this could be a tournament more about moments than momentum.
A tournament in which medal hopes could be based upon avoiding a meeting with Hasek.
"The crossover game is the game that makes me nervous,'' said King, the longtime Team Canada coach, now working with the Montreal Canadiens who will assist Team Japan in the preliminary round. "If you look at the tournament honestly, basically it's three exhibition games and then it gets very real fast. The first three games are meaningless except they determine position for the crossover game (quarter-final) round."
This is the flaw in the great NHL sell. What they're actually selling here is a whole lot of hype. This isn't about hockey. This is about making sure no one from the NHL side is embarrassed and no one is eliminated early.
The first round of play involving the real hockey countries - Canada, the U.S., Sweden etc. - is actually the second round of the tournament. The second round determines nothing more than playoff seeding. Everyone advances.
Then comes the game Dave King fears so much.
"That's the thing with Hasek. If you wind up in the crossover game against the Czech Republic, he can win that game by himself," King said. "If you're in a one-game showdown, he's the one guy you don't want to see on the other side of the ledger. I just talked to one of the Czech coaches the other day and they're still talking about how they were embarrassed by their play in the World Cup.
"They really want to make up for it (at the Olympics). If they get (Jaromir) Jagr going and they have Hasek in net and they make a commitment to playing well defensively, that team scares me."
The crossover game in the quarter-final round will see Team Canada play against either Russia, Finland, the Czechs or a qualifying team. The key could well be to avoid playing against Hasek.
The Russians aren't particularly strong in goal. Neither is Finland. The qualifying team, unless it happens to be Germany, won't have big-league netminding.
Accidental positioning could wind up playing a significant part in who wins what medals.
But ultimately King believes it should be Team Canada's tournament to win or lose. He bases that opinion on the results of the World Cup and what has happened since.
"You look at the Americans and it's basically the same team," King said. "And in some ways, not as strong. They're not that deep on defence, especially if they want to play six. Their goaltending, based on what's happened this year, is not as strong as it was. That's a big difference to me.
"In Canada's case, the biggest difference is on defence where you add (Al) MacInnis, (Chris) Pronger and (Ray) Bourque and (Rob) Blake is playing much better than he ever has. Then you add (Patrick) Roy in goal and the huge addition of (Paul) Kariya and it's a much stronger team than it was at the World Cup.''
King considers all the probabilities in picking the medals this way. Gold: Canada. Silver: United States. Bronze: Sweden.
"I think Sweden is a really fine team," King said. "They'll play a version of the trap and they'll be difficult to play against. They play their system better than anyone else will in the tournament."
But ... and there is always a but.
"In a best-of-seven playoff, I can't see anyone beating Team Canada. But in one-game showdown, funny things sometimes happen."
Which brings us back to Hasek, who is not a particularly funny man.
He can make history and change history, all on his own.
Finding a way to avoid him could be the path to Olympic gold.
Steve Simmons can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com