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Sochi Olympics: Stretching Loyalties, Dan Bylsma versus Sidney Crosby

Its not just Canada versus America, but from an NHL perspective, thats exactly what it is.

Where The Loyalties Lie

Professional sports test many things about a person's character, but perhaps the most important one is the issue of loyalty. In simple terms: players get traded, leave of their own accord, retire and become coaches and, as will happen in seven months or so when the puck drops between Canada and Norway in the opening game of the men's hockey tournament in Sochi, take time to play for a team other than the one that pays them. They move around. Don uniforms other than the one they wore last week or last year. It makes for a complex set of fan loyalties, one being layered on the other, indented and cast to a hierarchical form just so one's head doesn't explode.

I will cheer for Team Canada. And all its players. In February they will be my team and every player on it will have my absolute loyalty. When they come back to North America only a few will retain it. The names will be sorted and the list reformed and my own version of the hierarchy of loyalty will settle back into its pre Olympic state. While it may be true that the rolling stone gathers no moss, it does not seem to be true that the roving heart gathers no affection. 

Not in sports, anyway, except in rare moments, when the heat of the battle is not yet cooled and the wounds not yet healed. When the Pittsburgh Penguins met the Buffalo Sabres for the first time after the 2010 Olympics, the Pittsburgh crowd gave American goalie and tournament MVP Ryan Miller a standing ovation while Crosby's own team's fans booed him when he was announced. Crosby's face tells the story. He might be the best player in the game, a professional, but he is still a man with emotions and feelings and his, frankly, seemed hurt. Here was a team that he more or less singlehandedly saved from extinction, who he led to their third ever Stanley Cup, who he has represented with decency and ... yes, loyalty. He was not to be forgiven, not that night anyway, for his loyalty transfer, for the transgression of playing for his home country, for beating his adopted one. Last year, Crosby was booed in Ottawa and a Pens fan remarked that it was a classless act, for the crowd for whom he had won a gold medal, to boo him simply because he wore a Pens jersey. I reminded that fan of the moment referenced above and I was assured that it was "different". I laughed and moved along.

Keeping those hierarchical forms in order is not always clean and neat, it can get messy when one loyalty inspires that special sort of hatred the vanquished have for the victors. The "American", the vanquished, in them needed to boo the victor, the "Canadian". It was a catharsis. It had to be done. After that it was back to normal and Crosby once again became the hero of Pittsburgh. The loyalty thread might grow weak, but it rarely breaks and there would be few Pens fans who continue to hold that particular grudge against their captain. It might well renew, or reverse itself, after 2014, in Pittsburgh or any of the other NHL towns, but it will indubitably right itself across the league over time.

Canadians live the dilemma daily. Our friends, relatives, hometown heroes and favourite players don't quite slip across the border in the dead of night like Federov had to do when he switched his loyalty from CKSA Moscow, during the Goodwill games no less, to the NHL and the Detroit Redwings, but across the border they go, in droves, to play for teams that sing The Star Spangled Banner instead of O Canada. And more and more, American players slip across the border going in the other direction and suffer the same reversal of anthem and national residence. Professional sports give a more transitory meaning to the word "loyalty" than the one the American Heritage dictionary states: a feeling or attitude of devoted attachment and affection. It's the devotion part, of course, that lends the lie to nature of the loyalty of a professional athlete.

In team sports the jersey has provided a defacto replacement for the flag. At the Olympics, loyalty is owed to the person bearing your national insignia on their jersey, the one who wears your flag. In the NHL, loyalty is owed to the person wearing the jersey with your teams' logo emblazoned on it. Were it not for the visual clues, a person could become positively stymied on who to cheer and who to boo ... and when.

It's Bylsma versus Crosby, Babcock versus Datysuk

Next year, a very interesting division of loyalties will take place at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. One that might prove an even bigger testing ground than the 2010 Olympics. Dan Bylsma, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, will coach against his own two NHL marquee players when he gets behind the bench as coach of the American Olympic team and Sidney Crosby takes to the ice as the centerpiece of the rival Canadian team and Evgeni Malkin suits up for Russia. "I've coached Sidney and Evgeni a long time now, four-plus years, so I am acutely aware of their strengths as players," Bylsma said, according to CSN Philly, "... having said that, I'm a little concerned [Crosby] knows me as a coach and knows my strengths and weaknesses and will bring that to the Canadian team."

One of the reasons you rarely see big name trades within NHL divisions is to offset this very concern. That not only the coach, but the opposing players, will know the traded player in a way that makes him foilable, if not beatable. Does this strategic philosophy pervade the Olympic rosters, particularly between the American and Canadian teams who, when not playing in International tournaments, are as nationality mixed and matched a bunch as exists anywhere in sports?

Other than DeKeyser and Abdelkader, neither of whom could be considered game changers, and the goalie Howard who have all been invited to the American team selection camp, the only other Americans on Mike Babcock's Detroit Redwings roster are Brian Lashoff and Drew Miller. Not that this has any bearing on Babcock's selection to coach the Canadian team, I am absolutely certain, but it is something of an advantage for the Americans whose Coach is NHL bench boss to four of the Canadians selected, one of whom is Sidney Crosby. Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Kris Letang round out the Pittsburgh four.

But it does beg, if not the question, certainly the curiosity about the politics and strategies involved in selecting Olympic team players, coaches and managers. Is it as Machiavellian as some suggest, or does the placing of pieces on the board happen in more of a vacuum, where external issues such as familiarity and weakness/strength insight are only secondary considerations, if considerations at all?

Brooks Orpik, as an example, is certainly an excellent defenseman, and is known as a capable "shut down" guy who likes to stay at home. He can be deadly in front of his crease, protecting it a little like a rabid dog when the crowd is thick and the stakes high. But, whispers around the Penguins fandom last year were that "Orpie" was slowing down, looking a little frayed around the edges, not as quick on the jump or as hard on the hit as he was during the famous "shift" of 2008 in the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit that defines his career. But he is on the invitee roster for the American team. One wonders if that has as much to do with his ability to get into Crosby's head better than virtually anyone else? Except maybe one of his linemates, defenseman Paul Martin, who has also been invited to the camp.

If you believe that Dan Bylsma is a motivating coach and knows how to get his players going, then you must also believe he knows how to stop them. Being able to stop Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could only be considered a bonus at Sochi. I would put forth the idea that a player who knows the coach has a far less useful advantage than the coach who knows the player. The coaches don't score goals, after all, and nothing a player can tell his own coach about the coaching weaknesses of the opposing coach will really help the game once it hits the ice. In this case I believe the advantage goes to the Americans in the "America versus Canada" battle.

Of course, it might well be said that Canada enjoys a similar advantage against the Russian team. Who knows Datsyuk better than Babcock? Who knows Malkin better than Crosby? Or against Sweden where Babcock will have a familiarity with a large percentage of their projected team. It is for people smarter than I to determine what, if any, the exact magnitude of the advantage might be - but one can't pretend that the possibility of it does not exist.

How the players themselves separate out their loyalties, form their own hierarchies and keep their head in the game is a testament to their long experience, by the time they get to the NHL and Olympic level, of having to switch loyalties on the whim of a General Manager who sends them off to wear a different jersey and play in front of a different set of fans. How the fans adapt to the temporary and permanent shifts in loyalty that both the Olympics and the in-trading of the NHL generate is a testament to their having rewritten the meaning of "loyalty" in their heads when they became hockey fans.

The Olympics: Where Simmering Turns to Boiling

The Olympic Games, the modern trial of athletic excellence, rooted deep in ancient history, pull the loyalty strings tighter than any other event simply because they mean so much to the sports faithful. They are the closest thing we have to a universally accepted proof of supremacy. Should the Americans win the gold medal in 2014 and even up the playing field, the string will be so taut, at least in the short term, that it might well make the boos heard in Pittsburgh seem like a whisper in the night. Always engaged in rivalry, the two country's sports faithful, will likely witness a more acrimonious edge to the rivalry than previously existed. Every fanbase in every sport is as full of bad winners as it is bad losers.

The good side of an American win in Sochi is that it would make the 2018 Winter Games a rubber match, of course. The down side is that the ease with which fans slipped from their non Olympic loyalties will be actively resisted and the NHL fanbase, always an active hotbed of rivalry, will become positively contentious. At least for a while. Until the loyalty hierarchy reasserts itself, aided along by the visual clues the jersey brings to the situation. Should the Canadians win again, it might be even worse. If someone else wins, it will actually be a unifying force and the NHL fans can commence with the various conspiracy theories that seem to soothe the savaged breast, sharing that special bond that only the vanquished have. They will range from dirty play (by the winning team) to officiating to the nefarious secret wishes of the IOC cabal and will prove entertaining, if nothing else.

At some point the Pittsburgh mind did stop seeing Crosby as "The Canadian" and saw him as "The Pittsburgh Penguin" again and all was well in the world. Loyalty may be fickle and a fairweather friend, but it is a necessary defining characteristic of hockey fandom, even if it cannot be with the players. That is why there is a hierarchy: it allows us to choose one or more logos to which we remain loyal, each placed in an unchanging order that is most often: Country, City and Team. For many Canadians it is Country and Team - but the fact remains that without that hierarchy, we would muddle about in conflicted loyalty until we made ourselves mad.

If the Americans do win in Sochi and, say, Ryan Kesler gets the game winning goal, I can assure you that the Vancouver Canucks fans will have a similar response to the one Pittsburgh had in 2010. It's not because they don't love Kesler in his Canuck's jersey, it's because in the hierarchy, the Canucks jersey falls below the Canadian jersey and in non-Olympic years, and after the sting of defeat has passed, the team jersey is king and defines the hockey loyalties.

It kind of makes you have an increased respect for the players and coaches who can navigate those loyalties with so much public decorum. If either Canada or America or Russia wins the gold medal, Dan Bylsma, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have to find a way to switch their loyalties quickly and absolutely, free themselves of the rivalry to within a grain of perfection, letting the temporary "team switch" go into the abyss of the past and not affect the present or the future. In some ways, this is good, it carries with it a certain guarantee that none of them, and none of their player or coaching brethren, will conduct themselves in a way that would cause enduring acrimony. While the "country" loyalty reigns supreme at the Olympics, the "team" loyalty is just under the surface, waiting to re-emerge. Fans could take a lesson from that.

Fans can say what players and coaches can't and often, amid the muck, little things get said that make you laugh out loud, despite the fact that you feel vaguely dirty afterwards. When the coaching staff was announced, just after the Pens-Bruins ECF series, one American based fan on an ESPN message board responded to another Canadian based fan who had queried how well Bylsma could coach against Crosby. The reply: "Well, he just proved he could."

Frankly, I can't say that any result will make navigating the fan forums any easier after the Sochi games. Whoever wins is going test fan loyalties as they have never before been tested.

Previously on Sidelines:
Hockey in Canada: Are the Shooters Getting Worse or Are the Goalies Getting Better?

Next on Sidelines:
Pittsburgh Penguins: Their Loss of Brenden Morrow Will be Someone Else's Great Gain