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Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2014 Winter Olympic Hockey Tournament

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistFebruary 23, 2014

Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2014 Winter Olympic Hockey Tournament

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    No other event at the Winter Olympics catches the attention of fans across the world—and especially in North America—like men's ice hockey. Almost regardless of the result, a tournament like this one has ramifications that extend beyond the individual players and teams participating in it.

    The games weren't always pretty, but the tournament had all of the drama that could have been hoped for. A tentative start for Canada set nerves on edge but ended in jubilation. A stellar start for Team USA finished in heartbreak.

    Those are just two examples of many, and to one degree or other every team participating in the tournament had reason for deep emotion—either a feeling of triumph or a sense of disappointment. 

    We recap both ends of the spectrum here. Read on for the winners and the losers of the 2014 Winter Olympic hockey tournament.

Winner: Canada

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    In a lot of ways, this was a special tournament for Canada.

    For one, it represents the first time since 1998—when NHL players started going to the Olympics—that the Canadian team won gold off North American soil. The Nagano Games were disappointing for Canadian hockey and Turin (2006) was a disaster, but Sochi goes some distance in making up for those performances.

    Far more importantly, though, this is Canada's third gold-medal win in five Olympics featuring professionals, and if one includes two World Cups (held in 1996 and 2004), it is Canada's fourth win in seven recent contests between the best players in the world. 

    That means that in a best-of-seven tournament for international hockey supremacy, Canada has triumphed over the rest of the world. 

Loser: Russia

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    Martti Kainulainen/Associated Press

    Four years ago, Team Canada avenged a disappointing showing in Turin, winning the gold medal at home in Vancouver. It was a wonderful moment for the country and was made more poignant by its achievement on home soil.

    The Russian team must have dreamed about replicating that feat—possibly winning gold for the first time since NHLers started going to the Olympics, and doing it at home. Instead, they were felled in the quarterfinals, falling to an upstart Finnish team that many didn't even rate as one of international hockey's top squads. 

    It's the kind of disaster North American fans should be able to appreciate easily; one only needs to imagine Team USA falling in the quarterfinals in Salt Lake City in 2002 or Team Canada failing in Vancouver.

Winner: Russian Hockey

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    A big win on home ice can inspire and encourage a nation's hockey participation, but it also provides affirmation that the status quo is good enough. For the Russians, a gold-medal win in Sochi would have sent the message that their current work in coaching, management and player development was getting the job done.

    A loss, and especially a loss like this, sends a different message.

    It says that Russian coaching, which was exposed repeatedly in the tournament, is behind the times and in need of innovation. It says that Russian politics, which played a big role in player selection, cannot be allowed to interfere with icing the best team. And it says that Russia, a formidable hockey power with a rich history, needs to provide better support at all levels. 

    There is lots of work to do, and there should now be an appetite to do it. 

Loser: The United States

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    Martin Rose/Getty Images

    It's tempting to play the contrarian here and call Team USA a winner. After all, their fourth-place finish represents the best final result of any of the three Olympic hockey tournaments held overseas involving NHL players.

    But that perspective simply doesn't fit with the disharmony between this team's expectations and its actual results. 

    The United States impressed a lot of people early with its offensive prowess, but all along the way that scoring superiority was built on a shooting-percentage house of cards rather than a solid foundation of consistently outplaying its opponent.

    When it mattered most, Team USA was no match for Team Canada, despite the modest goal differential in that game. Then it was embarrassed by a depleted Finnish team in the bronze-medal game.

    This American team should have been on par with hockey's greatest powers; instead it fell short. 

Winner: NHL Ice

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    There has long been a debate about whether or not a move to an Olympic-sized ice surface would boost scoring and creativity. These Games delivered the answer: No.

    In Sochi, we saw virtually every team prioritize defence over offence, and underpowered clubs, like Latvia, proved they could hang in games against the big boys if they defended their hearts out.

    NHL.com's Dan Rosen quoted Team Canada forward Matt Duchene after a particularly frustrating match as saying: "This is why the NHL should never go to a big ice, it'll take the scoring out of the game."

    Few spectators would disagree. 

Loser: The KHL

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    The 2014 Olympics represented a huge opportunity for the Kontinental Hockey League to establish itself as a legitimate rival to the NHL. 

    The Russian entry boasted a pile of KHL players (others were sprinkled throughout other teams), some of them in key roles, all under the oversight of two-time KHL champion coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. If the Russians had won it all or at least came off favourably in games against top opponents, the KHL's reputation would have been bolstered.

    Instead, Bilyaletdinov was ridiculed for his Eurocentric coaching tactics, and Russia's brain trust was excoriated for its willingness to lean on KHL players.    

Winner: Finland

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Finland proved a lot of people wrong.

    Not only did the Finns begin the tournament outside the medal calculations of most—and outside the consensus "Big Four" of international competition—but the team suffered critical injury after critical injury in the lead-up to its bronze-medal win.

    Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula were both unable to participate, while Aleksander Barkov fell in action during the Sochi Games. The cumulative effect was to rob Finland of arguably its No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 centres in international play.

    It didn't matter. The Finns took both Canada and Sweden to the limit in individual games and routed Team USA to win bronze. In so doing, they made it undeniable that international hockey is at least a "Big Five" sport. 

    And just for good measure, they sent Teemu Selanne off in style. 

Loser: Slovakia

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    Martin Rose/Getty Images

    After watching the 2014 Games, it's easy to forget that Slovakia came within one goal of beating Canada and playing for the gold medal at the 2010 Olympics.

    The Slovaks entered the tournament minus two top players (Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky) but still shouldn't have been burned as badly as they were.

    Slovakia was trounced by the United States, somehow lost to Slovenia and finished the group round with a loss to Russia. They followed that 0-3 run by dropping a game against the Czech Republic in the tournament's elimination round.

    Long considered one of international hockey's "Big Eight," the Slovaks are in danger of falling off the map. 

Winner: Ales Hemsky

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    Pool/Getty Images

    Ales Hemsky has had a rough couple of years, and that was reflected in the Czech team's decision to start him as its 13th forward, dressing him for the first game against Sweden but keeping him on the bench for the entire first period in favour of people like Petr Nedved. 

    By the end of the tournament, Hemsky (despite very little time on the power play) had emerged as the team's scoring leader. He scored both goals in what was otherwise an embarrassing loss to the United States in the quarterfinals.

    As a pending free agent, it's the kind of performance that could help Hemsky land a new home at the trade deadline and a new contract next season.  

Loser: Zach Parise

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    In the rush to criticize Patrick Kane, who took some bad penalties and failed to score a goal (it is helpful for the purposes of such criticism to ignore Kane's four assists), many have passed over Team USA's captain, Zach Parise.

    Parise, who is generally regarded as one of the finest two-way players in the NHL today, was largely a non-factor for the American team. He failed to record a point in five-on-five play; his lone goal was a power-play marker that occurred in the game against the Czech Republic after the U.S. had already built up a formidable lead. 

    Some of that can be excused by his usage on Team USA's defensive line, but the simple fact is that Parise wasn't good enough in Sochi. 

Winner: Chris Kunitz Critics

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    Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    Critics of the selection of Chris Kunitz to Team Canada are generally united by two common traits. First, they tend to see Kunitz as a decent player who posted grossly inflated NHL numbers thanks to linemate Sidney Crosby. Second, they tend to care deeply about his selection because they very much want to see a Canadian victory. 

    The Sochi Games worked out more or less perfectly for such hockey fans.

    Kunitz was clearly Canada's weakest forward, and his vaunted chemistry with Crosby failed to ensure production from Pittsburgh's superstar. Despite that, Canada's scoring depth was enough to compensate for the lack of production from the team's top unit. 

    Thus, those critics got to see what they wanted most—a gold-medal win—and got to feel justified in their pre-tournament views.  

Loser: Ondrej Pavelec

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Ondrej Pavelec entered the 2014 Sochi Games at a difficult time in his career. 

    While still under contract through the 2016-17 season with the Winnipeg Jets, Pavelec's status as a true NHL No. 1 goalie has come into question given lackluster performances in recent years. He was so lightly regarded by the Czechs that he didn't even dress for that team's first game of the tournament.

    Eventually, he won his way back into the Czech net. It would have been better if he hadn't even played. Pavelec was at best ordinary in his team's 5-3 win over Slovakia and then repeatedly allowed soft goals before being pulled in the quarterfinals against Team USA.

Winner: Slovenia

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Slovenia had, prior to 2014, never qualified to play in this tournament. That's not surprising, really; the International Ice Hockey Federation notes only 148 registered senior-level men's hockey participants.

    Typically, teams like this come to the tournament, get embarrassed badly and head home having made no impact. That isn't the case here.

    Slovenia won two games, remarkably beating Slovakia in the group round and then eliminating a much more established Austrian team in the qualification round. It was a stellar showing for a team participating in its first Olympics.    

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