There is scant evidence to support the theory.
And yet, you can’t kill it with a sledge hammer.
The theory is this: sending players to the Olympic tournament will ruin an NHL team’s Stanley Cup hopes.
The theory is out there, every day at NHL rinks, and it is particularly endorsed by fan bases of teams that aren’t overly represented at the upcoming Sochi Olympics. Let those other teams send packs of players to the tournament — they’ll return too beat up and tired to survive the NHL playoff grind.
Maybe. But more often, the best teams have the highest Olympic representation, and that talent wins out in the end — in Olympic play and the NHL.
For example, the Detroit Red Wings had 11 players participating in the 2002 Olympic tournament in Salt Lake City and won the 2002 Stanley Cup in a breeze — a five-game final against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The last Cup won during an Olympic year went to the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks, who were moderately represented in the Vancouver Games (six players). They included Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, all in Canadian jerseys, playing in the gold medal, overtime final against Patrick Kane and his USA team.
And while Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal for Canada to beat the U.S., it was Kane’s overtime goal in Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers that delivered Chicago the 2010 Cup.
Having their best players — Toews, Kane, Keith, Marian Hossa, etc. — extend their season with an extra handful of Olympic tournament games did not stop the Blackhawks from winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961.
“When we came back in 2010, the guys who were at the Olympics came right back, having played under that spotlight and pressure, to go back to the NHL rink,” Toews told the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, after he was again named to Canada’s team for Sochi. “Everything felt like you hadn’t missed a beat. Those players played really well going all the way into the playoffs. As long as everyone stays healthy, it’s a great thing for our team.”
That last reference was to the fact the Blackhawks will have 10 players in the 2014 tournament, as will the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings. Other Cup contenders, namely the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins, each have seven players going to Russia next month. The Los Angeles Kings will send six players, the Boston Bruins, five, the San Jose Sharks, four. The Ottawa Senators have two — Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson and Czech forward Milan Michalek.
Kane told the Tribune that participating in the Olympics “almost prepares you even more for playoffs and the rest of the season.
“If you take advantage of the rest, it can be a good thing, but at the same time you want to be over there competing for your country.”
If the Blackhawks hit a cul-de-sac in the NHL playoffs, it may have more to do with the combined toll of having won the Cup in 2013, thus the pressure and long odds of repeating, along with the difficulty of a short summer prior to 2013-14, PLUS the Olympic tournament on top of it all. The cumulative effect could be an issue.
Head coach Joel Quenneville says he will be looking to rest some of his stars when they return from the Olympics.
If the Hawks and Wings (in 1998 and 2002) illustrate that Olympic participation does not rule out a Cup parade, why does this theory persist that it’s better to have NHL players resting their butts on a beach rather than playing in an elite tournament such as the Olympics?
It may have something to do with the 2006 Olympics, a year that Senators historians recall with some bitterness. The problem for Ottawa that season had little to do with sending nine players to the Turin tournament, but hinged on the injury suffered by one of the nine while he was in Italy: goaltender Dominik Hasek, playing for the Czechs.
Hasek suffered an adductor injury that sidelined him for the rest of the 2005-06 NHL season, and cost the Senators what was likely their best chance at winning a Stanley Cup.
While the Senators did reach the Cup final in 2007, it was the potential with the veteran superstar Hasek in 2006 that was a one-time opportunity lost. With backup Ray Emery in goal, the Senators fell in a five-game Eastern Conference semifinal to the Buffalo Sabres, who finished fourth in the east, three points behind the first-place Senators — a 113-point team that year.
Of course, Hasek could have been hurt anywhere, but it happened to be in Turin. And he did suggest that the long overseas flight made him susceptible to tightening up.
The year 2006 also delivered a somewhat surprising Cup champion in the Carolina Hurricanes, although people do forget the ‘Canes were a 112-point club that season, second in the east and third overall in the NHL.
Carolina also happened to be lightly represented at the 2006 Olympics. Six Hurricanes went to the Games, but only four played, as Eric Staal and Matt Cullen were on the taxi squads of Canada and the USA respectively, just before the Hurricanes’ ship came in.
Health, talent and good fortune are a Cup-winning recipe, whether or not the Olympics are on the calendar.
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