Of course, the biggest game of the day is the gold-medal final of the 2011 World Championship, to be played between Finland and Sweden. But for hockey fans in the Czech Republic and in Russia, the game that precedes it, the bronze-medal game, is very big as well.
For Czech quarterfinal and semifinal games against the USA and Sweden, large numbers of fans gathered at Staroměstské náměstí and other outdoor locations to watch on large screens. It will be no different for the bronze-medal game, and the atmosphere will likely be just as enthusiastic. Such was the case at the 2006 Winter Olympics, when the same two teams, Czech Republic and Russia, met for the bronze medal. The victory by the Czechs touched off celebrations that were not equal to the 1998 gold-medal victory, to be sure, but significant nonetheless.
|Alois Hadamczik (above) and Vince Lombardi (below)|
have different philosophies on third-place games. Photos:
hokej.idnes.cz and matttroupe.blogspot.com.
For the Czechs and Russians, who each have good track records in bronze medal games, a win Sunday would indeed make the tournament a success. But across the pond, that's not always the case.
Since 1992, when the IIHF adopted a knock-out playoff structure for Olympic and World Championship tournaments, European and North American teams have faced off for the bronze medal ten times. The European team has won seven times, while the North American (either Canada or the USA) has won three times.
Most hockey fans in the Czech Republic and in Canada remember very well the 1998 Olympic semifinal in Nagano, won by the Czechs in a shootout. Largely forgotten in Canada is the team's performance the next day in the bronze medal game, which they lost 3-2 to Finland. Even if they had won, nobody in Canada would have been happy with a bronze medal in the face of such a disappointing semifinal loss. In Finland, however, the win was a big deal. "In North America, they celebrate only one winner, but in Europe, there are three," was how Esa Tikkanen described it.
If anyone suggested that, for example, the losers of the National Football League's two conference championships play off for third place, it would be laughed at. Most people would probably be surprised to learn that such a game actually did exist at one time. After losing the 1963 Playoff Bowl, as it was called, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi reportedly called it "the Shit Bowl. A losers' bowl for losers." Publicly, he described it as "a hinky-dink game played in a hinky-dink stadium, by two hinky-dink teams. That's all second place is--hinky dink." The game was discontinued after 1969, and nobody seems to miss it.
Sunday's bronze-medal games pits two old hockey rivals who have bad blood between them stemming from their meeting in the group stage. For teams that might view it as a "hinky-dink game", the recipe could be right for a brawl. It seems, however, that both Hadamczik and Viacheslav Bykov are more focused on getting their teams ready for winning the bronze than worrying about
Good thing Vince Lombardi's not coaching this game.