It’s that time again when the best hockey players from around the world take a break from their respective teams and leagues to participate in the highly-anticipated Winter Olympic Tournament.
For fans, it’s an opportunity to see the most highly-skilled players compete on the largest stage on Earth that only comes around once every four years. For players, it’s an opportunity to represent their countries and make their family, friends, and nations proud.
But it's also an odd time when, for a two-week period, friends become foes, and teammates become opponents.
So when San Jose Sharks fans watch this Sunday’s preliminary match between team Canada and team USA, they might be conflicted over which team to root for.
For those of us living below the 49th parallel, the inner patriot will be urging us to wave the Red, White and Blue. Team USA is the underdog to be sure, but remember 1980? Better still, the upset over Canada in 1960?
The American team has shown strength in the first two games, and Canada seemed to show a bit of weakness in Thursday’s match against Switzerland. But rooting for the upset will also mean rooting against Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, and Dany Heatley, something that may be hard to swallow for die-hard Sharks fans.
When one team represents your country, but four of your hometown heroes are on the other side, just who is your home team anyway? If any of you are still on the fence about this, let me offer my two cents: root for Canada. Here’s why.
First, consider the immense pressure on team Canada, which includes four of the Sharks best players. Hockey is Canada’s game, yet the men's hockey team has never won an Olympic medal on home ice.
With the incredibly stacked lineup Steve Yzerman has put together, and the home crowd behind them, everyone expects this to be Canada’s year. Joe Thornton summed up the nation’s expectations when he called anything less than gold a “failure.”
If Team Canada fails to win the gold this year, the players will return to San Jose embarrassed, let down, and under extreme scrutiny. And that’s no way to feel as the team enters the stretch and moves towards the playoffs.
If Canada wins gold, however, then the Sharks best players will come back champions. They will finally eclipse the hurdle of not living up to high expectations that has dogged them in recent years; finally experience what it takes for a team to push through to the end and emerge victorious; and finally experience the euphoria and pride of winning a championship.
And they will bring that experience and that confidence back to San Jose with them. They will come back from the break feeling like champions, at just the right time of year to start playing like champions.
Now, Sunday’s game is not an elimination game. The Americans can win on Sunday, and the Canadians can still go on to win the gold.
However, if the Canadians fall to team USA in the last preliminary game, not only will they enter the round robin lacking confidence, but they will have to play an extra game as well.
The top teams in each pool get a bye into the semifinals, and the remaining eight teams must play a quarterfinal round. As it stands right now, USA is leading the pool with 6 points, one more than Canada.
Canada needs a win in regulation on Sunday to top the pool and play less games in the round robin. Less games means less fatigue, less potential for injury, less stress, and more time to practice for our Sharks stars. These are things that any real Sharks fan should be hoping for, if they hope to see a long playoff run this spring.
So, at the risk of offending my patriotic countrymen, and with condolences to Joe Pavelski, I will be rooting for the boys in red on Sunday.
While seeing my home country win a gold, or even an upset in the preliminary round against the Goliath-like frontrunners would be nice, seeing a Stanley Cup parade in San Jose this summer would be much nicer.
For that reason, on Sunday and for the rest of the Olympic tournament, I’ll be cheering on my favorite Sharks players with “GO CANADA, GO!”