By Helene Elliott, Tribune Olympic Bureau
6:03 PM EST, February 23, 2014
SOCHI, Russia — Team Canada's journey to its second straight Olympic hockey title began six months ago not with intense strategizing, but with a game of ball hockey.
Seeking a way to get players to bond when insurance costs prevented them from skating at an Olympic orientation camp, Coach Mike Babcock told them to wear sneakers and improvise a game on land. It seemed silly at the time but it was the memory Ryan Getzlaf invoked Sunday as Canada prepared for the third period of its gold-medal game against Sweden at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
"Getzy said, 'It's all about the ball hockey, guys. It's all about the ball hockey,'" Babcock said, and it really was.
A child's game became a touchstone to a group of grown-up, well-paid professional athletes. It reminded them of the joy they used to feel and made it easier for them to submerge their egos, a selflessness that was evident in every game and peaked Sunday with Canada's 3-0 victory over the top-seeded Swedes.
Jonathan Toews, NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby and Crosby's Pittsburgh winger Chris Kunitz each scored his first goal of the tournament as Canada — which was unbeaten and never trailed — became the first repeat champion since the Soviet Union won in 1984 and 1988. It also was Canada's first men's hockey gold medal outside North America since 1952.
"Everyone's kind of laughing at the ball hockey in August," said Crosby, who scored on a breakaway by slipping a backhander past Henrik Lundqvist, "but you know what, all those little things go a long way sometimes."
The little things became big weapons, like puck control, cohesive team defense and Carey Price's superb goaltending in shutting out the U.S. in the semifinal before blanking Sweden. "I can't say enough about the team in front of me," Price said. "This group of forwards, this defense — it was a pleasure to play behind them."
Sweden, already depleted by injuries, lost center Nicklas Backstrom hours before Sunday's game when it was notified that a urine test had detected above-acceptable levels of pseudoephedrine from Zyrtec-D, a medication he takes for allergies.
The test was performed last Wednesday and team officials contended they should have had the result sooner. Tommy Boustedt, Team Sweden's general manager, said the International Olympic Committee "has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history." Said Mark Aubry, chief medical officer of the International Ice Hockey Federation: "We feel strongly he is an innocent victim of circumstances."
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the substance in question isn't prohibited by the league "nor was [it] used in an improper manner here," and therefore it would not affect Backstrom's eligibility to play for the Washington Capitals.
How much Backstrom would have helped Sweden on Sunday is impossible to know. Canada played as well defensively as it did against the U.S. and scored more: Toews finished off a pass from Kings forward Jeff Carter at 12:55 of the first period, Crosby scored on a breakaway at 15:43 of the second period, and Kunitz added an insurance goal at 9:04 of the third.
Toews and Crosby had scored in the gold-medal game at Vancouver, with Crosby setting Canada abuzz with his overtime winner. His lack of scoring here was among many criticisms lobbed at Team Canada. None had merit, as it turned out.
"Big-game players," Getzlaf said of Toews and Crosby. "That's the thing — everybody wants to talk about Sid all the time and the things he's not doing or doing. Big games, he showed up and obviously got us a big goal."
Even Lundqvist had to admire his conquerors.
"It's a big disappointment to be this close and not win the gold medal," the goalie said, "but Canada deserved it. They were the better team."
Canadian players linked arms as "O Canada" played and their flag was raised above those of Sweden and bronze-medalist Finland. Eleven Canadians became two-time gold medalists. All were sorry to see the moment pass but their focus turned quickly to their NHL teams.
"This is over now," said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who led Canada here with four goals and six points. "I'll be back playing on Wednesday. I've got my goal set on another Stanley Cup."
Maybe the Kings should try some ball hockey first.
Copyright © 2015 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC