Toronto Maple Leafs legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Mats Sundin joined TSN Radio 1050's Jim Tatti and Jeff O'Neill on Friday to give his thoughts on the Olympic hockey tournament ahead of Sunday's gold medal match-up between his native Sweden and Canada.
While there is a lot that Sundin has liked in the tournament so far, the performance that Russia put forth against Finland in the quarterfinals left a bad taste in his mouth.
"I was almost disgusted by their performance when they played Finland," said the 43-year-old who played 18 seasons in the NHL. "I look at the Finnish team and they're missing key players. They don't have any of their big stars and now [Rask] is hurt and that Russian team is stacked with great players and to come out and have that performance they had in the quarterfinals. It was an absolutely heartless performance.
"It was very disappointing and I don't think it's very good for hockey either to have them out of their home tournament. You wonder when you have Putin in the stands on home ice and you can't get heart out of these guys? What's going to bring it out? I don't know," he said.
Sundin believes simply chalking up Russia's crashing out of the tournament to the tremendous pressure the team was under is a bit of a cop-out.
"Even though you're nervous or you have a lot of pressure built up, you can always still get into the motions and show that you're actually trying," said the former first-overall pick by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. "We didn't see anything of that in the quarterfinal."
The captain of the gold medal-winning Swedish team in the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Sundin believes that it's impossible to compare trying to capture a Stanley Cup to winning Olympic gold.
"You can't even compare it to me," said Sundin. "I mean, the Stanley Cup is the biggest thing you can win playing for a club team in the world. It's over a [full] season and you try to get that, but saying that, international hockey and the Olympic Games go to a little bit of a higher level. You have all the absolute best players in the world competing. It's a short tournament, but it's the absolute best, biggest thing you can win as a hockey player today where you face every country's best players on the ice. And also, for any athlete, women or men, winning an Olympic medal is a little bit beyond just the sport of hockey, as well. You can't compare them, but obviously, you want to be part of both for sure."
Sundin thinks that an unfamiliarity with the larger ice surface is one of the main reasons why Canada's offence has yet to really click in Sochi, despite the team being undefeated.
"The last time the Olympics were around, the tournament was held on a smaller ice surface, an edge to the North American teams, no doubt," said Sundin. "The US and Canada were more comfortable. You look at the tournament right now, you can tell [Canada] is not as comfortable on the big ice surface...with the bigger ice surface, it becomes a little bit of a different game."
The all-time Leafs leader in points acknowledges that an adjustment needs to be made for North American teams playing on the big international ice.
"Just one big difference is when you come into an end, whether it's your own end or you're in the offensive zone, you're further away from your opponent," explained the nine-time NHL All-Star. "There's a little bit more room for a forward to slip away or get out of the way, out of position, so when that happens, and I think a North American feels that, you get a little more tentative and if you're tentative in hockey or you wait a little bit, then you're a step behind. I think that's the biggest thing."
With NHL participation up in the air for the 2018 Olympic Games to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sundin believes it would be a mistake for the league to stop sending its best to the tournament as it's a perfect opportunity to put a spotlight on the sport.
"For me, it's a no-brainer," said Sundin. "I think you've got to look at the broader picture. For the game of hockey, and if you want the game to continue to grow, there's no better window than the Olympic Games, where you can get new fans watching our great game, people from different parts of the world. I don't really see a reason why not. I know it affects the game short term. Some guys get hurt (and) when they get back they might not perform as well. But if you look at a long term picture, I think it's just too big of a window to promote our sport to not be part of it."
As for Sunday's clash between his home country and the country he spent 18 years playing in, Sundin gives the edge to Canada.
"There's no doubt that the Swedish team...are not where you would think to call them a gold medal favourite at this point [without] Henrik Sedin and Henrik Zetterberg, two of the best centremen we have playing right now," said Sundin. "For them to get to the finals here, to get by Finland...I'll hold Canada as the favourites to win the gold medal, but if you have [Henrik] Lundqvist playing an enormous game in the final, there's a shot. But it's a long shot for sure."