Searching for Gold in Sochi

The time for international competition is here. Nothing belongs in the same breath as the Olympic Games, where athletes all over the world get one opportunity every four years to showcase their abilities. The Olympics are rarer than a moment of gratitude from Shia LaBeouf, and are a throwback to a different time. Before million-dollar contracts and individual accolades dominated the landscape, sports were pure. Athletes performed their craft because they loved it.

While the days of true amateurism are all but extinguished, the Olympics still capture why we played sports to begin with. They are fun.  Olympic athletes don’t compete for themselves, they compete for their country. And I could only imagine just how euphoric the feeling of hearing your national anthem on the medal stand is. Every so often, we need a break in the current athletic culture. That’s where the Olympics step in.

OK, so maybe the IOC is having second thoughts about selecting Sochi as the host city. There have been hotels without lobbies, yellow water and bobsledders stuck in bathrooms. This sounds like scenes in “The Hangover” that were left on the cutting-room floor. I never could understand the selection process, whether it is truly an informative decision or if there is some funny business we don’t know about (like Vladimir Putin staking out a few houses). We have to face facts: The games are in Russia, and nothing works properly. It didn’t ruin the traditionally confusing opening ceremonies, which somehow failed to include Rocky defeating Ivan Drago to end the Cold War. But is there anything cooler than witnessing the pride of each athlete during the Parade of Nations? Whether they were among 200 teammates or flying solo, everyone was filled with the spirit of Olympic competition.

I’ll be honest: I’m not an aficionado when it comes to most Olympic events (or big words). Like most of you, I’m simply a fan of major sports and competitions that make little sense to me. Here are some random thoughts I have on each major event classification. Don’t be afraid to shock me if I get too off track:

Alpine Skiing – This has always been one of my favorite Olympic sports, and I’ve never even skied a day in my life (unless you count my high score on “Alpine Racer”). The slalom and super-G feature some insanely precise turns, but the downhill is absolutely ridiculous. Speeds around 80 mph? It has to feel like you’re on the verge of time travel. Lindsay Vonn is unfortunately out with an injury, robbing us of the chance to see a certified star take the slopes and Tiger Woods miserably shivering in a custom-made parka. Eighteen-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin could break through in these games. Meanwhile, Russian vodka distributors are overjoyed that Bode Miller is in town for what should be an epic farewell tour. His best days are certainly behind him, and Norway’s Lund Svindal appears poised to dominate.

Biathlon – I can’t get enough of this game! Name another sport in which you can (1) ski long distances at your own pace (2) carry a bore rifle (3) shoot things with a bore rifle. There is something insanely awesome about a biathlon competitor one-pumping a quick celebration after a perfect shot, and then just skiing off into the wilderness. Ole Einar Bjoerndalen already won his seventh (!!!) 10K spring to start these games, and the 40-year-old is known as “Old Man Winter.” This event just keeps getting better.

Bobsled – Another epic event. Germany had won four straight in the four-man competition, before Steve Holcomb led Team USA to its first gold in 62 years. Now, Holcomb will try to do the same in the two-man race, where no American team has tasted gold in 78 years. If he pulls it off, Holcomb should challenge the Undertaker at this year’s WrestleMania. The Swiss, Latvians and Germans are all expected to contend this time.

You know who’s not? THE JAMACIANS! Back in the Olympics after a 12-year drought, Jamaica’s two-man unit qualified for Sochi. The power walk during the Parade of Nations clinched it for me. I’m on board. ‘NUFF PEOPLE SAY YOU KNOW WE CAN’T BELIEVE. JAMAICA, WE HAVE A BOBSLED TEAM (do it for John Candy, boys)!

Cross-Country Skiing – I know very little about this sport, other than the fact that it’s tiresome and surprisingly exciting. Norway and Sweden are practically the co-inventors, so no surprise that they are the favorites. The Americans are looking for their first medal since 1976, and there is a really good possibility for both genders. Come on, Kikkan Randall, Jessica Diggins, Andy Newell, Simi Hamilton and Noah Hoffman! I know I just found out who you were a few minutes ago, but we’re all counting on you.

Curling – The Canadian men and Swedish women have dominated this sport, each going for three-peats this year. Don’t you just love a game that promotes cleanliness, too? Every time I watch a curling match, I marvel at the intense strategy involved and remember to sweep my floor.

Figure Skating – I’m not going to fake it through this section. I think the precision in a few of the events is nice, and I like watching people try to spin. But ice dancing ruined this sport for me a long time ago. Well, that and Tonya Harding. I mean how do you recover from one skater having her goons take out her rival with a lead pipe?

Freestyle – Finally, something I can talk about. The Americans are loaded with dope rhymes, from old vets Jay-Z/Eminem to young MCs J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Drake’s trying to get Canada on the medal stand, while Nicki Minaj tries to make history for Trinidad and Tobago.

Wait, what? Oh, freestyle skiing. There are five new events for a sport that belongs in the X Games and not in the Olympics. It’s entertaining but unnecessary, like the recent Charlie Sheen/Ashton Kutcher feud. And while we’re here…

Snowboarding – Another game that has no business in the Olympics. These are highly skilled athletes, but how is this an international sport? Hardly anybody outside of North America wins anything, yet wrestling was the sport on the chopping block. The X Games are the perfect platform for snowboarding, the Olympics are not. That being said, I will be closely monitoring this Shaun White saga. Whether White is genuinely injured or afraid to lose, it’s pretty clear that he’s not a very popular guy. I’ll set the odds at -100 he wins the half-pipe, and +500 he falls and/or is jumped by a rapid pack of snowboard-wielding Olympians. Place your bets accordingly.

Speed Skating – The sport that doesn’t skip leg day. Speed skating has two classifications: the short and long track. Just as the name suggests, short-track races are lightning-quick. Space is tightly contested, and each skater has to scratch and claw for any advantage when making a tight turn. South Korea has skated to success the previous few Olympics, but Canada and Russia are expected to do well in Sochi. It’s certainly exhilarating, but I’ve always considered myself a long-track guy. The races take place on enormous sheets of ice with “one-on-one” settings that resemble a John Wayne Western showdown. Norway’s Sven Kramer (5000m), South Korea’s Mo Tae Bum (500m, and that is his real name), and American Shani Davis (1000m), are the men’s favorites. Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe could get the USA some medals on the female side, as well.

Luge – Who wants to slide down a slick, icy surface while laying flat on your back? Any takers? Me either. These competitors are crazy, and hell-bent on winning a medal. Each side has two distinct favorites, and they’re all from Germany. Felix Loch, David Moeller, Natalie Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner are the front-runners, but don’t count out David Hasselhoff to crash any German party. I am also intrigued to see how this new team event works. Two people on the same luge? Do they draw straws? I’m just curious.

Skeleton – This event is the same as the luge, only these brave warriors go face-first. 2002 was the first time the skeleton was featured in the Olympics, which is the last year an American won gold. That likely won’t happen on the men’s side, where the Latvians and Russians dangerously lurk. But the women’s event could be a different story, with Noelle Pikus-Pace remaining a huge factor. I don’t know how this sport is legal.

Nordic Combined – It’s cross-country skiing with jumps, which oddly enough seems like a match made in heaven. The U.S. hadn’t even sniffed a medal in 86 years until the 2010 games in Vancouver, where they claimed a gold (Billy Demong) and three silvers. While that level of success is probably a pipe dream in Sochi, several medals can definitely be won by the Yanks. Unsurprisingly, Norway is quite good at this event.

Ski Jumping – The ski jump is an absolute spectacle. The unique image of a person floating in the air after a mammoth jump doesn’t even look real. Simon Ammann has been ruling this sports for over a decade, and the Swiss leaper is looking to add to his collection of gold (he has four). American Sarah Hendrickson won the global championship last year and has defied the odds by returning to the sport after a serious knee injury five months ago. This is also a team sport, which the Austrian men are predicted to win. And if you can’t stop thinking about the image of a 66-year-old former Governator soaring into the Russian skyline while yelling “Cool off,” you’re not alone.

– Sorry, Russia and Finland, but this is a good old-fashioned North American showdown. Canada has won the last three gold medals, but the U.S. has won five of the last seven world championships. Team USA also owns four consecutive victories over its frosty neighbors. The two questions that you need to answer when predicting the winner of this inevitable matchup are as follows: Do you think the U.S. has enough scoring (Kelli Stack, Alex Carpenter and Amanda Kessel, brother of Phil) if the game opens up? And would you ever, in your dumbest possible state of mind, ever step up to the Lamoureux sisters (twins Jocelyne and Monique)? The answers are yes and never. This is Team USA’s tournament to lose.

MEN’S HOCKEY

And now (in my best Michael Buffer voice), to our main event. I am more excited for this tournament than any sporting event in the upcoming calendar year, including the Stanley Cup playoffs. This tournament takes place once every four years, giving most of your favorite players two or three (or, in Teemu Selanne’s case, six) chances to wear their nation’s sweater. The Olympics are the only time when you’ll hear a Blues fan cheer for Kane or a Canucks fan boo Ryan Kesler. With the NHL shutdown in full effect, the players only belong to their countries.

Twelve teams are in the tournament, divided into three groups of four. In an effort to save time and cut back on being mean, we’ll keep it short for the teams with little hope of medaling. Norway doesn’t have a chance. Jonas Hiller needs roughly 85 saves a game for Switzerland to make it to the medal rounds. Austria won’t last two periods with Canada. Team Slovenia is toast unless it can successful clone Anze Kopitar multiple times. And I had no idea Latvia knew what ice hockey was. That leaves the following seven teams with a realistic chance at the podium:

Czech Republic – Leading the Czechs will be Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved. Hey, what year is it? The old guys can still help out at the international level, as will Tomas Plekanec (captain), Patrick Elias and David Krejci. Not having NHL rookie sensation Tomas Hertl (knee injury) is a crushing blow to a team that could have used his speed on the big Russian ice surface. They’re the steady Eddies of the bunch.

Sweden – If this competition were awarded on style points, everyone else would be fighting for second. Their dress game is superb, and their facial lettuce is immaculate. On the ice, they’re pretty strong, too. Henrik Lundqvist might be showing signs of his age in goal, but he’s still an upper-echelon goaltender with a gold medal to his name (2006). Only one of the Sedins is making the trip (Henrik is out with a rib injury), but Mr. Henrik Zetterberg will have his guys ready to roll. The most dangerous aspect of the Swedish game is the emergence of fresh talent. Gabriel Landeskog, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Salad Man himself, Mr. Erik Karlsson, are some of the best young skaters this game has to offer. St. Louis fans might freak out having to root against Alex Steen, but he very well could be a driving force on this team that has a solid chance at gold.

Finland – Ten years from now (and not a second earlier), if I have a son who wants to be a goalie, I might move to this country. Finland is the goalie capital of the world, consistently churning out quality prospects between the pipes. Tuukka Rask will probably start for his team, which has medaled in the last two Olympics (silver in ‘06, bronze in ‘10).  This should be the final international tournament for Kimmo Timonen and Teemu Selanne – unless either really is Benjamin Button, like some suspect. The Jokinens (Olli and Jussi) and Valtteri Filppula are solid forwards, but this a team built on defensive principles that work in this tournament. Don’t be shocked if the reach the podium again.

Canada – The returning champs are clearly the favorites. Up front, they have Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, Rick Nash … I mean, where does it end? Marty St. Louis was added as an injury replacement for Steven Stamkos, and the thought of him skating with No. 87 is terrifying. The defense is disgustingly deep, with Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban (not to mention the Blues’ tandem of Alex Pietrangelo/Jay Bouwmeester). Goaltending has always been the weakness, and this year’s choices of Carey Price/Roberto Luongo/Mike Smith were fascinating. This should be Price’s tournament. The answer to the question of Canada’s biggest threat might be the same one Big Ern gave before the ‘96 Bowling Championships: “Me, if I get drunk, fall down and hurt myself, I might lose.” Canada will be tough to beat.

Slovakia – It’s tough to get a read on this squad. The Hossa brothers set the pace on offense, but the loss of Marian Gaborik will be felt. Even in international competition, big Zdeno Chara is menacing. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the key for this team will be the play of Jaroslav Halak in goal. Have fun dealing with your third periods, Slovakia.

Russia – We all remember what happened in 2010. Russia came into Vancouver with high hopes, and got publically humiliated by Canada in the quarterfinals. Now on its own pond, this country tries to win its first gold medal since 1992. Alex Ovechkin/Evgeni Malkin/Alexander Semin on a line is dynamite, and you can always count on Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk (hey, nice to see you again!) in international play. The key to Russian success will be defense and goaltending. Can the Russians slow down opposing forwards? Will Sergei Bobrovsky provide some stability in net, or will they turn to Semyon Varlamov? This has the makings of either a “host team triumphs” or “Russia shamed again” headline. There really is no in-between with this nation.

USA – Last but not least, we have the stars and stripes. Team USA lost the 2010 gold-medal game in OT, setting the bar outrageously high in Sochi. But they can reach it. This roster has no glaring weaknesses, an ideal blend of skill and grit, and goalies with a knack for the big game. A gold medal is possible, but it will take a great deal of production. Patrick Kane is the best American forward in hockey, hands down, and he’s coming into his prime. An epic performance could immortalize the man with the mitts. Captain Zach Parise can light the lamp with the best of them, Phil Kessel accumulates points like frequent flyer miles, and David Backes/Joe Pavelski/Dustin Brown/Kesler are all willing to take on multiple roles for the good of the team.

Defensively, expect to see Ryan Suter play 30-plus minutes a game. The Minnesota native is a beast on the blue line, and might be of distant relation to Secretariat and Man o’War. The rest of this unit is young, skilled and determined. Ryan McDonagh and John Carlson are terrific two-way players, while Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler can add instant offense from their point positions.

I admire Ryan Miller as a hockey player and as an American, but Jonathan Quick belongs in that net. If the murmurs are true, Miller will be getting the nod from coach Dan Bylsma. Why not play the younger goalie in the midst of a better stretch? Hopefully Quick gets a chance to display his greatness.

Mind in one place, heart in another. I’ll be rooting like a preteen at a One Direction concert for the Americans to capture the gold medal, but that’s not how I think this will play out. The draw was brutal (Russia and Slovakia in pool play), the selections could have been better, and the net situation is worrisome. Canada over Russia in the gold-medal game, with Team USA beating the Swedes for bronze.

That’s the best I can do. But hopefully it’s not the best they can do, and I’ll end up happily eating my words. Enjoy the Olympics.