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Olympic Hockey and why Olympic Basketball isn’t even close.

Another marvelous Olympics has come and gone. I love everything about the Games. The enormous amount of attention it receives, its global appeal, the collection of sports ranging from fencing to field hockey, and just the bringing together of hundreds of different cultures to compete against one another.

The games have always been more popular for their “Olympic sports” rather than the traditional American team sports – which is fair. In America we sometimes like to think our athletics are the most important. The deletion of baseball from the lineup in London 2012 is one piece of evidence that shows otherwise. To be fair the MLB regular season is going on, but either way I don’t think anyone thought it fit to begin with. Id honestly prefer cricket… And with the additional of Rugby Sevens in Rio 2016 you can see the Olympics doing well to add more international team sports.

My biggest issue with this mentality is the lack of parity. What makes the

Olympics so great are moments like the one in the Men’s 800m race. Nijel Amos took home the silver. He comes from Botswana, an African nation which borders South Africa with a population of maybe 2 million. This was the nation’s first medal ever in any Olympic games.

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver

Basketball in the Olympics to me has always been the least interesting event. Sure to a lot of Americans its fun to see star NBA players dominate and win gold, but that’s the exact reason I dislike it. Whether you think USA got tested by Spain in the finals, or Lithuania early on, the truth is you sat there and watched the game doubting they would lose. They would tease you a couple times but there was nothing more of a lock than USA not only winning every single game in the London, but winning the gold.

This lack of parity makes basketball uninteresting with no real competition. And sure, im willing to hear a case for sports like Table Tennis where China is all but a lock but even in comparison I think the basketball competition is even more lopsided.

When people would ask me if I was watching soccer and basketball at the Olympics the most, I would simply reply no. If I had to pick the team sports that were the most interesting at London I would answer Women’s Field hockey, Men’s Water Polo, and Handball.

All I could think about when watching USA play Spain in the gold medal game is how great Olympic Hockey at the Winter Olympics is. Its certainly another sport that has its best talent and league in North America, but has enough international flavor and parity to satisfy an American sports fan and the Olympic level sports fan.

I don’t have to rewind to Vancouver 2010 to remind anyone of how exciting that tournament was. Even if USA had lost in the final 8, they were already incredibly popular led by new national hero Ryan Miller. Even non hockey fans from Louisiana wanted a Miller USA hockey jersey. (Trust me I know from Ebay!)

But to stay on course here, Olympic Hockey provides much more parity than Olympic Basketball.

Most will say Canada should still field the “Dream Team” at this event. While they are capable of putting together the most solid lineup in the world, it works differently in the sport of hockey. Even since 1998 when NHL players were allowed to participate, Canada has only medaled twice out of four attempts – both being gold against the US. But showing there is enough competition to make the Gold medal chase wide open.

In basketball, to me, USA is tier 1, and then there are a handful of Tier 2 countries which fight it out for bronze and silver. However in Olympic hockey, I believe there are as many as 7 nations who can compete for gold.

Below I have broken down the countries. Consider this also my very tiny preview for the 2014 games in Russia.

 

TIER 1 (The medal contenders)

-          Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, USA, Czech Republic , Slovakia

Comments: Like I said before, when the tournament starts, if one of these 7 teams won gold, it wouldn’t be a jaw dropper. This is the main reason why the Ice Hockey competition is so much more fun to follow. I almost made a 2nd tier with Slovakia and the Czech Republic… and even USA actually. However I think its fair to include all 7 of these nations. A team like Slovakia would need more breaks to win gold, but they have enough talent to be considered. With Chara and Sekera on the back end, Hossa and Gaborik up front, and Halak in goal, it’s reasonable if they overachieve. In Vancouver they beat Sweden in the round of 8 and lost to Canada 3-2 in the Semis.

With the Olympics being back on International Ice in Russia in 2014, you have to like Sweden, Finland and Russia’s chances at making it to the finals. I project USA to do well again. Brian Burke is the perfect GM for team USA whether you care for him or not with the Leafs. He picks the right amount of skill and grit for this tournament. When 2014 rolls around, the USA will actually have more quality goaltender depth than I can ever remember. I expect Miller to bounce back and make the team but with Quick, Howard, and others popping up, it should be a good thing for the US.

 

TIER 2

-         Switzerland, Belarus, Norway, Germany, Latvia, Denmark

Comments: This Tier includes mostly nations you can expect to see at the Olympics but perhaps not to medal.

Leading this tier is certainly Switzerland and one of the fastest growing hockey nations. I got to experience for myself firsthand the interest level of hockey there. They get great crowds at the domestic league. At the time I visited the highest attendance in any European league belonged to Bern of the Swiss NLA. You can even enter a bar during playoffs and find multiple TVs showing different games from around the league. Switzerland is the one country from Tier 2 that could steal a medal at a future Olympics. They simply need more top quality talent but everything is pointing in the right direction for them. They are never completely out of a game with their style of play.

Latvia is another country that could see growth. They have arguably the most popular KHL team and outside of Finland, most consider Latvia to be the most hockey mad nation in Europe… where the sport is clearly number 1. Maybe Zemgus can lead the charge for them

Germany is unfortunately always the nation that seems stagnant. Never going forward or backward. It’s a nation that really needs a couple star NHL players to emerge.

 

Again, I could go on and on. I love the international level of ice hockey. I could make a Tier 3 involving Austria, Kazakstan, Slovenia, France or a Tier 4 with Italy, Ukraine, South Korea…. Tier 7 with South Africa, New Zealand and so forth.

But the main point is that the Olympic Ice Hockey tournament is the premiere Olympic team sporting event. The passion, level of competition and amount of competitive nations makes it something special.

Sochi 2014 can’t get here soon enough.

Twitter @derekrenner

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