I mentioned to as many people that have asked over the last year that Vancouver had no idea what was coming when the Olympics would arrive.
I hoped Vancouver would be a lively, exciting place to be and my hopes were wildly exceeded.
I live two blocks from the Live City venue (where the lines would queue to get in each day) and on Sunday the people were waiting 90 minutes before puck drop to get in and watch the men's hockey final. The venue ended nightly with a fireworks display, which of course killed any chance of our three-year-old going to bed at a decent hour! The city was alive and it was so great.
Now I was pretty much locked into Canada Hockey Place for the last 17 days and the hockey tournament could not have been much better, ending as it did with Sidney Crosby's overtime goal. Here are the highlights of my Olympic experience, and a few thoughts to go along with them.
The Olympics are about competition of course, but are more so about the athletes themselves. Many arrive looking for nothing more than to do their very best. An example would be the back-up goalie for Latvia, Sergei Naumov. He is 40-years-old with a long career and just wanted to be at one last Olympics. He knew he wasn't going to play and that only slightly mattered. We started chatting during the first period of their game against Russia. I was shocked that he spoke very good English and wanted to ask me a question!
After the second period, he stayed the entire intermission and we talked. And this same scenario happened during the next two Latvia games that I covered. I found him to be a great, regular guy. And with the help of Darren Pang, I was able to get an autographed Marty Brodeur stick for Sergei's son, Anton. (Thanks Marty, Sergei was thrilled!).
Meeting Sergei and spending time with him was the highlight of these games for me. After they lost out, we exchanged small gifts and emails and stayed way late into the night over a few. A great guy - and we will stay in touch.
And how about Slovakia? With several players long in the tooth and looking for their first-ever Olympic medal, this team was on their last legs. I was so impressed with their effort, how much they wore their emotions on their sleeves, and how crushed they were to fall short in the bronze medal game to Finland. Pavol Demitra was fabulous. He led the tournament in scoring and played like the player who was a points machine in St. Louis from 1998 to 2003. Do you think he will ever forget his last second chance against Canada or hitting the post in the last minute against Finland? I doubt it - and his expression after the Finland loss told me just that. These guys were underdogs and they almost pulled it off. I was also told by a volunteer that he hadn't come across a nicer team than the Slovaks. They should be proud.
The Russians laid the most surprising of eggs. They were totally unprepared for the fast start by Canada and it was too late before they got their feet on the ground. I felt they would be thin on defence, but they looked totally shell shocked. So did their coach. Did Vyacheslav Bykov and Finland's Jukka Jalonen go to the same coaching school? They left their starting goaltenders in way too long in important games, made no line adjustments and looked completely passive behind the bench. In the games I covered, I was standing 20 feet from them and they both looked completely unable or unwilling to take charge.
In the final, I was so impressed with the young players - who showed no sign of their ages. This was the first time I saw Erik Johnson play in person this often. Man, he is a star! He's big, mobile and smart. He and Jack Johnson will give the U.S. a great foundation in the years to come. Zach Parise is an impressive young man and a terrific player. If anyone was to score for the U.S. late in the game, I would have guessed him.
Ryan Suter is overlooked in Nashville because of Shea Weber. And the same could be said on the U.S. team because of the Johnsons. He is on the all-underrated team for me. And it would be hard to be better than Ryan Miller was. When the U.S. faltered, he was there.
As for Canada, they too have such a terrific collection of young players. Drew Doughty might be 20 and sing on the bench between shifts, but he has zero pulse with the puck. I loved watching him play. Jonathan Toews is, in a sense, a lot like Parise - unaffected by pressure, serious about his job and a great person. And clutch - over and over again!
Duncan Keith was steady, unspectacular and rock solid. I was told before the tournament that Shea Weber always has had to work his way into being comfortable on the ice. He started just fine and got better and more dangerous each night. And who wrote that finish? After a pretty quiet game, I don't know too many people who were shocked that Sidney Crosby was the OT goal scorer.
Crosby's reputation will continue to grow and a Stanley Cup and Olympic Gold medal just eight months apart solidifies his already lofty place in Canadian hockey lore.
My last thought is about the man who put the gold medal team together - Steve Yzerman. His group spent countless hours poring through games, going over potential lineups and knowing that a silver medal was a loss to the Canadian public. I watched as the players, management and staff gathered for the team picture at centre ice. The pictures were snapped and the first person to leave the ice was Yzerman. He knew it was about the players at this time.
And as always, he conducted himself with humility and class. Congrats to Steve, Team Canada and everyone involved with the 2010 Winter Olympics.
I had a great time working the games, and I won't forget the way the public supported these games. It was awesome.
Oh yeah - and the NHL season starts up again!
Got a question for Ray? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!