The 2014 Winter Olympic hockey tournament begins today with Team Sweden and the Czech Republic meeting head-to-head at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi. Both nations boast a rich hockey history, including a gold medal apiece since NHL players began competing at the Winter Games in 1998.
Sweden enters the tournament as one of the favourites to win gold, however, their recent track record suggests they are sort of a hit or miss type of hockey nation at the Olympics. When they hit, they win gold. But when Sweden misses, they bow out disappointingly early. In fact, Sweden’s only Olympic hockey medal with NHLers is a gold medal from Turin 2006.
At the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, Team Sweden finished the group stage 2-1-0 despite being situated in a difficult division with Canada and the United States. Unfortunately, the Swedes solid preliminary round play earned them a dreadful quarterfinal draw against the always hungry Finns. Finland won 2-1 and Sweden went home early.
Salt Lake City 2002 was an Olympic hockey tournament Sweden would love to forget. After a strong opening round, including a decisive 5-2 victory over Team Canada, the Swedes drew Belarus in the quarters; a team made up of virtual no-names from European leagues.
The Swedes, perhaps a little too overconfident, played a loose first two periods that saw them tied at 2 with the Belarussians after forty minutes. Skip to less than three minutes remaining on the clock in the 3rd period in a 3-3 tie with Sweden outshooting Belarus 44 to 18. And then, one of hockey’s most legendary mishaps occurred – Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo was handcuffed by a harmless shot from centre ice. The long distance blast pounded the shoulder of a jumping Salo, who then lost sight of the puck as it flipped over and tumbled into the gaping cage behind him. The Swedes had been stunned.
The quarterfinals loss to Belarus in 2002 was an embarrassing moment for one of hockey’s most powerful nations. Yet, as often happens in hockey, one great embarrassment leads to a miraculous victory down the road. And with redemption in mind, Team Sweden won gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, defeating their biggest rivals from Finland 3-2 in the gold medal game. Gold for their country. Redemption for 2002. Sweden had finally hit with NHL players.
The 2010 Games in Vancouver were another miss for Team Sweden who lost its quarterfinal contest against the Slovakians led by Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik.
Will Sweden hit in 2014? It’s very possible. The current Swedish roster features a plethora of NHL superstars who’ve won major individual awards and possess Stanley Cup pedigree.
Of note: Sweden won the last Olympic tournament played on international sized ice (Vancouver 2010 was played in an NHL rink), however, much of the ’06 roster is no longer with the team, including its incredible core of NHL legends Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg.