The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Location: Palms - L.A, California

Monday, February 27, 2006

Mats Sundin's Olympic Golden Glory


Mats Sundin is the real King of Sweden, and as a consequence his country claimed the Olympic Gold Medals in Men’s Ice Hockey. History sometimes definitely does repeat itself, and even when basking in golden glory, the Swampmeister cannot escape the politics of it all. Read on for these lessons - and their assorted tangents – from the past fortnight in Turin.

So, the Wooley Swamp has been paying plenty of attention to Olympic events on the ice rinks in Turin or Torino (even the Italians do not have one name for the place). No, not the figure skating, the short track, the speed skating, the curling or the ice sculpting. I am talking about HOCKEY sur glace.

This is the main event of the Winter Olympics, akin to the track and field races at the Summer Games. It sees the best players in the world playing for country rather than pay check. Blazing speed, hard checking, scintillating shots....In short: heaven for hockey geeks.

Mats Sundin

Captaining Team Sweden’s quest to avenge past humiliations (see below) was one Mats Sundin, native of Stockholm (unusual since most players still come from smaller towns like Örnsköldsvik - Eagle Shield Bay - in the Arctic regions) and resident of the great Canadian metropolis of Toronto, where he captains the legendary Maple Leafs.

Doing what he does best, ´Sudden´ driving the net (c) Elsa, Getty Images

Sundin has been around for ages, and is close in age to this blogger outta Stockholm, so the connect is stronger than usual. But there is more to it all: he is a talismanic player with a unique style that all can appreciate. With the hands of Raphael, the wingspan of an albatross and the legs of an ox, he is extremely hard to defend against. When he takes off down the ice, it is power of a jumbo jet you are witnessing. An unstoppable force leaving ice, air and players in its wake.

While he has won personal accolades, minor tournaments and league championships, he has never gone all the way. Until yesterday that is. So it was poetic justice that he helped set up the game-winning goal, silkily dropping the puck to legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidström, who blasted it past the tough Finnish goalie, Antero Niitymäki.

Sundin had actually lost the preceding face-off to open the period, but the third great man on the ice, the inimitable Peter Forsberg had collected the puck and fed it to his center man. Forsberg is generally considered one of the world’s best players, and scored the winning goal on an outrageous penalty shot (e-mail me for the video clip) for Sweden’s only other Olympic win in Lillehammer 1994. (Click here for another great video with highlights from his career and that of his childhood friend, Vancouver captain Markus Näslund.)

In Norway, the professionals were not allowed to play, so Sundin (already in Canada) was not there. Not so this time. And Forsberg summed it up best “This one was for Mats Sundin”

Sweden? You mean Switzerland? Or Slovakia?

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the heroics of the goalie, young Henrik Lundqvist. This Broadway poster boy, he plays for the New York Rangers, made the save of a lifetime against Olli Jokinen (see photo, that is the puck!) There were only 30 seconds left in the game....click here and here for great New York Times stories on their hometown hero. His helmet has the Three Crowns of Sweden on one side, and the Statue of Liberty on the other. My kind of symbolism.

As for history repeating itself: Well, Sweden didn’t lose in the quarterfinals again, but it was still déjà vu in the Swamp. You see, 12 years ago, I was also in a Washington area living room watching Sweden contest an Olympic hockey final played in Europe. That time I was staring at the screen in Rosslyn, Virginia (of Watergate, “Deep Throat” fame) and the opponent was the Brazil of hockey, Canada. This time in Laurel, Maryland (interesting history too) the bout was against Sweden’s kid brother, Suomi-Finland. Outcome both times: Gold.

Coincidence? Whatever.

Anyway, here are some (short) assorted comments on the tournament itself. Judging by the Swedish media frenzy following the gold medal game, you would think they had believed in the team all along. But this was not the case. First they hyped them, then tore them to shreds, and now they try to bask in the glow of the achievement of others. Same goes for a bunch of bandwagon-pessimist-fair-weather fans.

Reporting from New Jersey a few days ago I wrote:

“Today, it’s quarterfinals day and all four winners will be playing for medals while the losers go home without any chance of collecting heavy metal. The match-ups are the result of the bizarre preliminary round format: two groups of six teams from which four from each advance. Basically, they play five games to find out who they play in one sudden-death elimination game.

What does that mean? Well, your team might wind up playing a very strong team in the quarterfinals if you finish in the ‘wrong’ position in your group. And thus you can potentially avoid that fate by losing a game on purpose. Naturally, this is considered unsportsmanlike and against the unwritten hockey code. Still, you’re playing for medals and the pressures are immense.

So, here we are with Sweden playing Switzerland, and that only because Sweden lost to Slovakia yesterday. This is great for lots of reasons, but especially because these “S” countries are always confused with each other. So you have the commentators on MSNBC saying things like ´Sweden just scored the first goal of the game…Those Swiss are great on the power play. Switzerland 1 Sweden 0.´

It’s been that way my whole life, and thus I have often been called Swiss. The slip-up does tend to occur in English-speaking countries, but it has happened several times in Germany as well. Which is even odder since Switzerland is partially German-speaking. Still, there is a yearning to call them Swedes or less often Swedes, Swiss.

Slovakia, admittedly, doesn’t sound much like the other two but as a ‘new’ country, it’s bound to happen. And their hockey is also very different, it’s pretty awesome. So beating Sweden isn’t that unheard of, but the Swedish media would have none of it. Instead they immediately started up a campaign accusing the Three Crowns (team nickname and Sweden’s national emblem) of throwing the game and bringing shame to the homeland and disrepute to the sport.

All the websites have filled with lurid allegations, conspiracy theories and wild speculation. The media wanted to stir things up a little and the poor souls who had tickets to an essentially meaningless game wanted someone to pay for their gamble. To me it all seems extremely contrived and the comments from the rest of the world have basically been: SO WHAT?

Sweden’s professionals handled the game just as any others would have. They tried, but in this case came up short against a very good team. They knew they would likely (but it wasn’t for sure) play against Switzerland with that result, instead of playing everyone’s nightmare, Team Canada.

What everyone seems to be forgetting is that in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games: due to early good play Sweden wound up playing a weaker opponent, hockey minnow Belarus. The result? Sweden lost 3-2 in the most humiliating loss in Olympic hockey history. So the idea that Sweden would go out of its way to play another team that could upset them, Switzerland, is preposterous. Especially when Switzerland is coming off wins against the 1998 Gold Medalists the Czech Republic and 2002 Champs Canada.”

Even after Sweden’s early loss to Russia – a pretty comprehensive 5-0 thrashing – I felt no sense of panic. But once again the media, and various “fans”, missed the point and were baying for the blood of the heroes they now call their own. To win you need to peak at the right time, play a smart tournament and bring home the gold.

That is what Canada did last time and the Czechs in 1998. Everyone knows that, you would think. Canada, so deep in talent that it could leave ten A-teams off the roster, is not making excuses- IF they don’t win at home in Vancouver in four years time, I will eat humble pie from here to eternity. No one else is making excuses. So it was sad to read that kind of premature vulturism early on in the tournament. Luckily, they all have amnesia now.

Fellow finalists Finland had a great tournament, but it is not making excuses after losing a close final. Finland great Teemu Selänne is their equivalent of Sundin, so there are many real hockey fans who would have been thrilled to see him with the gold as well. Yours truly included.

Sverige-Ruotsi & Suomi-Finland

And this leads us into the last lesson of the day. How to be humble and show respect for history and acknowledge reality.

REAL respect between two great players, Selänne and Sundin, (c) Mike Blake, Reuters

The day before the final, a Swedish tabloid encouraged Finns to emigrate to Sweden if they wanted to partake in golden glory. The paper even provided links to the necessary immigration documents. Color me humorless, but I found this pathetic and chauvinistic.

For perspective, I refer you to the seven centuries of Swedish colonization, with Finland then being taken over by Russia after Sweden’s wartime adventures had overstretched its little empire. And then following World War II, during which Sweden had escaped harm due to its questionable/dishonorable “neutrality” while Finland had fought back the Soviet armies and lost territory – there was a large-scale labor migration from Finland to Sweden. The rich former colonial master imported labor if you will.

This kind of guest worker migration happened all over Europe back then, but rest assured that this particular wave resonated in a unique way. Add to this mix, the existence of significant Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, one that is perceived as well-off, and you can begin to imagine that some of the ´friendly´ jibes from big brother Sweden are more than a little overbearing.

But the Swedish tone media is rather tone-deaf and the population at large knows close to nothing about Finland. Oh well, you gotta pity them. Some wise folks have compared this to how some Americans perceive Canada and Canadians. With the major difference that the American media does not insult Canada (except for Conan O´Brien and Jon Stewart, who just mock it mildly and in so doing know that they are betraying their own ignorance). And that the histories are nowhere near as entangled.

And finally since I’ve mentioned Canada in a couple of different contexts above, let me tie those together with one final thought, which I believe is worthy of some reflection. Both Sweden and Canada see themselves as hockey-powers and lovers. But who plays hockey in those countries, and who watches it? How representative are these folks of the general population, majority and minority? And what does all this say about how the countries deal with immigration, diversity – indeed how they perceive themselves?

When you think of the French national soccer team, you think of a group that is more than representative: it shows France’s diversity to the world and to France itself. Conversely, in Germany this is not the case: all Turkish Germans wind up playing for Turkey.

Now, hockey is not exactly a global game and the chances that immigrants from all over have grown up in societies where the sport was even played are not great. It is also an expensive sport, not like polo, but still not cheap with all the equipment. In this sense, it is not soccer. So, even in an immigration society like Canada, the players remain mainly Anglo and French Canadian.

But this is likely changing in the junior ranks or it at least it will. For if you go to any hockey game in cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto you will see the diversity amidst the spectators to a greater degree than on the ice. Over time, Canada’s ethos of immigration and love for hockey will converge.

But back in Mats Sundin’s Stockholm, this is simply not the case yet. And I wonder if this will change anytime soon. For him this must be so odd. I mean, he now plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs and thus lives in the one of the most diverse cities in the world.

Today, large crowds gathered on the main square in Stockholm to greet their heroes from yesterday. As Sundin looked out into the crowd, he would have been hard-pressed to see the diverse reality that exists in today’s Stockholm. If he lifts the Stanley Cup later this year – the Leafs have been deprived of it since 1967, an eternity – a very different sight will greet him.

What I share with him is a love for the game and a hope that Stockholm will become a Toronto. That it will embrace its future. I wonder if anyone in the Swedish media or many in the majority population are even thinking about this. But those who are excluded from what is supposed to be a ‘national’ celebration, almost certainly are.

And there is no reason in the world not to consider this aspect, while screaming that Sundin is the real king of Sweden. Simple multi-tasking. Next summer, some may be screaming that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the real king of Sweden. Now that would be revolutionary.

EPILOGUE:

To ‘console’ my Canadian host (while celebrating a little) we headed off to Sweden’s Embassy in the beautiful state of Maryland, the IKEA at College Park. Felt an urge to read off the random names on the furniture – which are all geographic locations, names or just plain Swedish words – and pick up some Swedish fish. Oh yeah, and chow down on some meatballs.

jo


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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you choose ro share those meatballs with non-Canadians too! Jennie

7:41 PM  
Blogger Give 'em enough rope said...

I would love to be able to say that I share your interest in ice hockey (have you been suffering from this affliction for long?). I have, however, been forced to pay attention to this year’s Olympics due to the fact that a budding ice hockey player has emerged in my family. Through no fault of mine (or his father’s), my son appears to have been born with skates on his feet, and as I am quite clearly going to be “hockey mom” rather than “soccer mom” as anticipated, what can I do? “Everybody’s got their problem”, as I believe the Swampmeister himself said to me many years ago.

Anyway, I’d first of all like to raise an objection as to the “lurid allegations, conspiracy theories and wild speculation” regarding Sweden’s giveaway match vs Slovakia. Come ON! I am not claiming to be an expert – about as far from it as you can get, actually – but even I could see there was something fishy going on.

It wasn’t so much that they played BADLY (which they may well have done for all I know). It was that they played DIFFERENTLY. As clueless as I am – and perhaps that’s why you should listen to me – I could tell that the “three crowns” that played Slovakia weren’t behaving like the same team as the one that beat the US or Finland. As for what this actually means, who am I to say. But in a multi-billion dollar industry, there should be very few ‘so whats’, and I wouldn’t say fixing a match is one of them.

Secondly, I am most impressed by your ability to make a political topic out of ice hockey. Of course, I can never read about subjects like diversity, integration and social structures without having to stick my oar in. So here it is:

Proposal No 1: People are interested mostly in sports they play themselves, have nurtured dreams about playing or can at least imagine their kids playing.

Proposal No 2: The barriers to entry for ice hockey are substantially higher than for soccer. You mentioned the expense, which is one thing, but there are other factors too. Ice hockey is a game which from the word go (skate) requires parental input. If the parents are not at home in society and perhaps don’t even speak the language, it’s unlikely the kid will get to play hockey. A soccer ball can be picked up and kicked about in the street.

Proposal No 3: Sweden is a country with sub-standard integration policies. We all know how much a part of society the average immigrant – even from an ethnically and culturally close(ish) nation like the US or the UK – feels in Sweden.

Conclusion: Well, I’m going to leave the ball (puck) in your court for this one, as I know very little about Canada’s immigration situation or ice hockey following. Would you say that Canada is a country where a) immigrants are better integrated and so the playing field (ice rink) (jeez – I’m so witty I’m even boring myself now) is more level and/or b) the barriers to entry for ice hockey are lower as it is a national sport?

(As usual, I welcome you to Ropesville, where not all subjects may be exactly up your street, but it never hurts, does it?)

1:30 AM  

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