Hockey rivalry Sunday rules

By CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency


Team USA goaltender Ryan Miller will start tomorrow when his team meets Team Canada at the Olympic Games on a big day for the hockey tournaments. (ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY)

VANCOUVER — For all the grief the Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments visit upon themselves — lop-sided games, a goofy playoff system, bad ice — they’ve got this one right.

Rivalry Sunday.

After some decent hockey through the early part of the preliminary round — think of it as a so-so salad with your second-favourite dressing before a good filet — it gets ratcheted up Sunday with a collision of traditional rivals.

Russia vs. the Czech Republic.

Canada vs. the USA.

Sweden vs. Finland.

That’s a pretty strong tripleheader to prime us up for the real part of the tournament.

“This is one of the greatest hockey days of all time. It’s all natural rivals. Border rivals,” USA coach Ron Wilson said the other day, sounding like hockey’s Don King.

Saturday, he put it this way to QMI Agency: “It’s historic — not that Canada is playing the U.S. — but the three games, each of gold medal finalists from the past three Olympics are playing. All of them natural rivals. I don’t know what Canada considers their rival, but deep down, I think it’s us now. Russians and Czechs are a political rivals. Sweden and Finland are border rivals. It’s rivalry day at the Olympics.”

Never mind that the outcome of Sunday’s games doesn’t matter that much, other than to figure out which countries go straight to the quarterfinals.

The Americans have supplanted the Russians as Canada’s top rivals for the moment (like that won’t change if it’s Russia and Canada for the gold in a week, as Wayne Gretkzy predicts), so Sunday’s game sets up as a good way to transition into the elimination games.

“A lot of (American) players will never play in a more hostile environment,” said Wilson. “This will be a great rehearsal for us. Let’s say we get to gold-medal game and are playing another country. I don’t think the atmosphere will be near what it is (Sunday).”

Is the rivalry between Canada and the USA legitimate for the principals?

“Absolutely. You like the guys, but as the games wear on, and you realize how important they are, you’re doing everything you can for the teammates wearing your jersey at that time,” said American Paul Stastny.

“World juniors, the Olympics, World Cup. Not a lot of love there. A lot of hatred between them. A lot of respect for both countries, but in every sport, it’s always fun to watch.”

For Canada’s Jarome Iginla, beyond the obvious, a Canadian win will give him some barbs for the inevitable dressing room back-and-forth. On the Calgary Flames, it’s with Eric Nystrom.

“We’re neighbors and compete at everything, right? It’s definitely there on the ice, and off the ice, we see it in the dressing rooms. We play with Americans and we start bragging about past accomplishments between the two countries, or which players are better in the draft … it goes on a lot and it’s a fun part of the game.”

HEAR AND THERE: Team USA GM Brian Burke took a poke at Team Canada after QMI Agency reported the Canadians’ unhappiness with the quality of the ice at GM Place. “Maybe they should play at noon like we’ve been forced to and they’ll find out the ice is fine.”...It looks the Russians, who have the worst record of the pre-tournament favourties, will be shaking things up for Sunday. Like Canada, they’re looking for some chemistry up front. Alexander Ovechkin will be with Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin, and Pavel Datsyuk will centre Ilya Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov, according to Russian reports.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

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