We live in an age where football coaches do not know when to go for two, how to effectively use timeouts or even whether the game is mathematically over and time to take knees. The idiocracy has spilled over into the media, and unfortunately, into the pool of “readers” and listeners who get a headline and let it form their opinion of the facts of life.
Last Sunday afternoon, an online blog hosted by the Denver Post put up a headline reading “Forsberg shocker: admits Sweden may have tanked game in 2006 Olympics.” The article was written by a man named Adrian Dater, who apparently has been covering the Colorado Avalanche “since before they were even called the Avalanche.” It should be noted that he never claims to have covered the Quebec Nordiques.
The content of Dater’s article was rather thin, but it includes some quotes from Forsberg that were translated from the 2003 Hart Trophy winner’s native tongue: Swedish.
First, I’ll give the quote. Then, I’ll explain why only a moron would think any of this is controversial. It should be noted that Dater himself seemed to be saying that this story was controversial mainly in Sweden, but there’s no mistaking the title of the story.
“We maybe discussed within the group will probably it is better if we do not go out and charge us too much. All knew that this was our chance. We did all that was needed to win the tournament. I think you can blame the whole system.”
What Forsberg Meant
To understand what Forsberg meant by the line, “All knew that this was our chance,” one must understand the setup of the Olympic ice hockey tournament.
The 2006 Olympic ice hockey tournament consisted of 12 competing nations. The field was split into two pools of six teams each. Every team played every other team in its pool once, for a total of five games. The top four teams in each pool advance to the quarterfinals. The winners of each quarterfinal game advanced to the semifinals, or final four, or what’s referred to in the business as “the medal round,” because three of the four remaining teams will win medals, and each team is guaranteed to play two more games (as opposed to teams that lose in the quarterfinal round and go home).
The quarterfinals are set up in a very distinct way. The winner of pool A plays the 4th place team from pool B. The #2s play the #3s from opposite pools. It’s exactly like every college basketball conference tournament that involves separate divisions.
Now, the game in question was Sweden’s final game in pool play against Slovakia. The Swedes knew that a loss meant a 3rd place finish in the pool, which normally would be a worse fate than to finish 2nd or 1st.
The other pool, however, had a bit of a shocker: Switzerland had finished 2nd, ahead of the previous two Olympic gold medal winners, Canada and the Czech Republic. So for Sweden, to finish 1st or 2nd in the pool meant a quarterfinal date with a hockey powerhouse that had more recent success than the Swedes themselves, who in fact had won the Olympic gold in 1994 — immediately prior to the Czechs and Canadians. It would have been ballsy and gunslingeresque to win the game against Slovakia and set up some sort of a “previous twelve years consolidation match,” but this isn’t pro wrestling. The Swedes’ best chance to get into the medal round was to finish 3rd in their pool, and it would take a loss to assure themselves of that spot.
Does that mean that Sweden “tanked the game” according to Dater’s headline, or “threw the game” according to nesn.com gem Dan Duquette, Jr?
Not necessarily, as Forsberg is never quoted as saying, “We tried to lose,” or “we wanted to lose.” He said it was “probably it is better if we do not go out and charge us too much,” which I think translates to “not go out and try too hard and expend too much energy on a meaningless game.” There’s no actual use of the words “tank,” “throw,” or even “lose.” Just a line acknowledging that the Swedish team was entering a dead rubber, which come up all the time in every league of every sport.
Even if Forsberg meant what these “professional journalists” have twisted his words to mean, what’s the problem?
We’ve already established that Forsberg never said anything in any language about throwing a game. But we also know from watching sports that a team can essentially ensure its own defeat just by the players not having their hearts in the game. It seems that even those who deemed it necessary to come out in Forsberg’s defense have admitted that the Slovakia game was meaningless.
Duquette’s article quotes Henrik Sedin, another prominent member of the ’06 Swedish team, as saying that something was lost in translation, and that Forsberg was not suggesting they tried to lose. Just maybe, that they didn’t really care to win. Um, has anyone watched the bottom 25% of teams in any league on this planet?
Sedin says, “You have to remember, too, that we were already in the quarterfinals. It wasn’t a big game for us, so to speak. So that might have been part of it.”
My point exactly. Nobody said Sweden “tried to lose.” What Forsberg and anyone with a brain knew, however, is that there was really no reason to try to win. Hence, Forsberg’s quote at the end about “blaming the whole system.”
And I know there are always going to be dumb shits out there who scream that tired old line, “you always play at 110%! You always have to go all out every shift of every game or you’re not a real athlete!” Spare me. First off, nobody can ever give 110%. It’s not mathematically possible. The reason we use that tired old cliché is that it makes us feel like we give 100% much more often than we do. Here’s a dirty little secret: most of us give somewhere between 50 – 75% toward everything in our daily lives. To give around 90% is taxing — mentally, physically and emotionally. The moments when we as humans are able to enter “the zone” and give anything close to 100% of our attention, preparation, effort and desire are so rare that they actually have their own cliché (in the zone). Nobody thinks that they’re “in the zone” for most of their waking lives unless they’re under the influence of copious amounts of blow, and even then, it’s probably not productive or sustainable. I don’t know, that’s just what my D.A.R.E. officer told me.
Sweden won the Gold Medal
Here’s another reason none of this matters: Team Sweden went out and won the entire tournament. They won the gold freaking medal in the one competition in which they were allowed to compete. What in the hell could they have done to succeed more during their two weeks in the Olympic village, impregnate Lindsey Vonn? (Easy, she was Lindsey Kildow at the time and would remain so for another 19 months, so let’s all just relax. I’m not advocating for extra-marital affairs here — just against growing idiocracy).
So, the International Ice Hockey Federation set up a tournament and laid out the ground rules for determining a winner. The Three Crowns won that tournament under those rules. So, what exactly are we talking about here?
Sportsbooks already take dead rubbers into account
The main argument in favor of making a big deal out of Forsberg’s comments is that the integrity of sport is destroyed when a competitor or team of competitors intentionally loses a game. The assumption is always that the person or persons throwing the game / match is making money by gambling against themselves and ensuring the success of their bet.
There is absolutely no way an objective and logical person can take Forsberg’s comments and make the leap needed to conclude that the Sweden – Slovakia game was thrown. Yet, there that leap is in every headline. It’s not because the language of throwing a game is there; it’s because that’s the kind of language that gets internet users to click on a link. It’s really sad, but that’s the beginning and end to this story.
It would be naive to assume that sportsbooks and bettors are not aware of the differing degrees to which a team needs to win a specific game. Only an outsider, a person entirely foreign to the concepts and tongues of sports betting, would take Forsberg’s comments in conjunction with these sensational headlines and buy into the hype. Betting lines from week 17 of the NFL are always goofy, with an 8-7 club favored to beat a 12-3 club that has nothing to play for. Lines can be 14 points different solely based on the timing of a matchup.
The Indianapolis Colts have become famous for benching their entire team late in the season, and while that creates uncertainty, the bookies do their best to adjust the lines accordingly. There’s nothing unsporting about a team using its brains to set itself up to win the championship in the best way possible. That’s exactly what the Swedish hockey team did at the end of pool play in the 2006 Olympics.
Dead rubbers happen in just about every sports competition that separates “regular season” from “playoff.” Once it is decided that the ultimate champion of a competition is the winner of a playoff, then all of a sudden the importance of each singular regular season game is diminished. Winning a top seed or finishing as high as possible is nice, but ultimately all that matters is to win the playoff, and to accomplish that, a team really needs only to make said playoff. Check out the latter parts of any North American regular season, or the end of the group stages of soccer tournaments such as the UEFA Champions League. Once a team no longer has an incentive to win a specific game, the tendency is to not trot out the best lineup or give blood to the cause. After all, why would you?
I don’t hear anybody alleging that crappy baseball teams are “throwing” or “tanking” games when they call up their minor leaguers at the end of the season to see what they’ve got for the next campaign. Nor do I hear these loaded words launched at bad teams trying to get more ping pong balls in a draft lottery; but I sure do hear joking slogans thrown around like the “Fall for Taylor Hall,” or “Suck for Luck,” to say nothing of the obvious desperation to pile up the losses by the Cleveland Cavaliers during LeBron James’ senior year of high school. So again, what the hell are we talking about here?
I cannot say this too many times: this is an absolute non-story. There’s nothing shocking about what Peter Forsberg said. There’s nothing unsporting about the way Team Sweden approached its fifth and final round robin game against Team Slovakia. And there was no seedy, dark underworld story worthy of a Scorsese film. The Swedes played the game according to the rules that were set up by administrators, and then went out and won that game.
If you don’t like the idea of “setting up your seeding,” then stop locking teams into slots and start allowing the best seed to choose its opponent. Then the #2 seed can choose its opponent and bracket slot, and on down the line. Going into the quarterfinal round of the ’06 Olympics, the first seed would have chosen to play Switzerland, and there would have been no built-in incentive for Sweden to lose its final game to jockey for the proper lower position to play an inflated Swiss team.
There are seven hockey nations that are clearly ahead of the rest: Sweden, Finland, Canada, United States, Russia, Czech Republic and Slovakia. This fact has been proven year after year in both international competitions and here on this continent with the makeup of NHL rosters. Those were the seven quarterfinalists aside from Switzerland in the 2006 quarterfinals. The same can be said for the 2010 Olympic tournament.
Frankly, nobody in this crowd would choose to face three of the others en route to a gold medal when it is possible to instead face only two. The Swedes chose to take their final game easy and end up only having to defeat two of its top-7 brethren. It should be noted that the United States was one overtime goal away from duplicating Sweden’s feat and winning the gold medal after facing Switzerland in the quarterfinals in 2010, but Sidney Crosby foiled those plans in front of the Vancouver crowd.
Lastly, anyone who wants to suggest that Slovakia needs Sweden to “tank” or “throw” a game in order for it to go the way of the Slovaks should check out the 2010 quarterfinals. Last I checked, the final score was Slovakia 4, Sweden 3. Jaro Halak and the boys were 40-to-1 to win the tournament for some reason, but sent the defending Olympic champs home in the round of eight. I wonder why nobody involved in the discourse of this topic ever refers to that fact. Probably because it would just add water to the extinguisher.