Respect the Slovakians

Pssst… maniacal Canadian hockey fans, there are still other teams in this Olympic tournament.

Tonight’s game against Slovakia is not a sure thing. I repeat, not a sure thing. While their 4-3 win over defending champion Sweden Wednesday was an upset, this ain’t no Belarus.

The Slovaks are made up almost entirely of NHL players, including superstars Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks and Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers (the Manliest Marians this side of John Wayne). Jaroslav Halak, the 24-year-old Montreal Canadiens goalie, is capable of standing on his head, which can make all the difference in these one-game eliminations.

Any team can win in this one-game format, as the aforementioned Belarussians did when they ruined Sweden’s Olympic run in 2002, setting up an easy semifinal win for Canada. At its best, Slovakia is right there with any other team.

One storyline a lot of people probably forget is that Slovakia got totally screwed at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. That tournament had some ridiculous format that forced Slovakia to play its preliminary round without NHL players. They iced something like five midget players, no subs and a Shooter Tutor, while Ziggy Palffy and Miroslav Satan flew in for a period after GM Peter Stastny begged their teams to let them play. (Slight exaggeration disclaimer). Despite being a solid team on paper at their best, Slovakia was penalized by the roster rules and not having its NHL players for the first part of the tournament. They ended up 13th, and nine players remain from the 2002 party that never got started for Slovakia. To be this close gives them plenty of motivation to make this the year.

I was happy to see them win the world championship in 2002 after that screw-job, especially since the world championship means so much more to the European countries than to us North Americans. I won’t be cheering against my own home country tonight, but if Slovakia pulls off the upset, part of me will admire them and want to support them the rest of the way.

Unless of course, they meet Finland, as I am married to a beautiful half-Finn with a lovely family full of hockey nuts who love the game just as much as we do. When we first went to visit Finland, her cousin showed up at the train station in an Oilers jersey and spent the night giving me beer and showing me his extensive collection of Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne and Esa Tikkanen photos. It’s easy enough to cheer the Finns on against the U.S. The Americans are flying high after beating Canada, then winning their quarter-final against Switzerland. I’d love to see the hard-working Finns knock them down to the bronze-medal game. Finns really are just like Canadians. Only with terrible food. And the world’s most difficult, k-filled language. And cell phones the size of thimbles. And an entire song dedicated to making fun of them in Spamalot.

How could you not love them?

So, my ideal scenario sees Canada and Finland in the final, with Slovakia exacting a measure of Olympic redemption by taking the bronze over the U.S., which dared beat Canada in the prelims. Although my wife owns a Finland jersey (that I bought her at last year’s world juniors), we have a house rule it’s not to be worn in games against Canada. Here’s hoping we come through that scenario with our marriage intact!

INSPIRING PERFORMANCE

By the way, I can’t write a post about the Olympics without congratulating Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette for her outstanding performance in the women’s free skate.

Competing just four days after her mother Thérèse died at 55 of a heart attack, Rochette delivered a solid free skate to finish with a score of 202.64 and a bronze medal.

It was Canada’s first women’s figure skating medal since 1988, when Elizabeth Manley won silver in Calgary, an incredible accomplishment on its own, but even moreso given the circumstances.

Here’s hoping Rochette can find comfort with loved ones now that she’s out of the spotlight, and eventually look back with pride on her performance.

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~ by Nathan White on February 26, 2010.

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