ESP on Ice: When NHL Teammates Become Olympic Teammates

Ever since players from the North American pro hockey league began competing in the Games, coaches have found innovative ways to capitalize on their team chemistry.
Matt Slocum / AP

In the USA's 7-1 drubbing of Slovakia in the preliminary round of men's hockey tournament at the Olympic Games in Sochi on Thursday, two Americans appeared to be able to communicate telepathically on the ice. Forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, who are both among the NHL scoring leaders this season, combined for two goals and three assists against the overmatched Slovaks and seemed to be a half-step ahead of the defense when they were on the ice together.

The two forwards are teammates on the Toronto Maple Leafs, and U.S. coach Dan Bylsma paired them together on the same line because he believed that all the ice time Kessel and van Riemsdyk have shared together in Toronto would pay dividends in Sochi. Though it was just one game and Slovakia is not nearly as talented as the Canadians or Russians, Bylsma looked like a genius as the two Maple Leafs led the offensive onslaught during America's six-goal second period.

Bylsma had ample Olympic precedent to pair Kessel and van Riemsdyk together on a line, best defined as a group of three offensive players (usually the three forward positions: center, left wing and right wing) that cycle on and off the ice together over the course of a game. Adding NHL players to the pool of Olympic hockey talent in the mid-1990s has not only vastly improved the level of competition on the ice—it has given coaches a host of new opportunities to boost team chemistry by leveraging the familiarity of longtime linemates.

Though ice hockey has been a Winter Olympic sport since 1920, this is only the third Olympics in which NHL players have participated in the entire tournament. The league first allowed its players to participate at the 1998 Nagano Games, but only for the medal round, changing that format to full NHL participation in 2006.

Earlier Olympics featured linemates who were familiar with one another through their childhood or club teams, sometimes with great results. The aforementioned Miracle on Ice team that won gold in 1980 featured a line known as the Coneheads, named after the famous Saturday Night Live aliens. The Coneheads—Mark Pavelich, John Harrington, and Buzz Schneider—all grew up in a remote section of northeastern Minnesota known as the Iron Range and played the same idiosyncratic style of hockey, which drove Team USA's opponents crazy.

Because of the longtime NHL rule, though, famous Olympic lines featuring high-profile teammates is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2010, the trend came front and center when Canada paired San Jose Sharks teammates Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley together on a single line. The Shark Line, as it was known, averaged one goal and one assist per game for Canada in the tournament, helping the host country win gold in Vancouver.

"They were just so much more in sync than everyone else," Chris Hoeler, former assistant director of player personnel for the Federal Hockey League's Danbury Whalers, said of the Shark Line. "Each of them knew where the other two were going to be on the ice at all times."

The advantage to pairing teammates together on an Olympic line is obvious. Familiarity breeds comfort and increased efficiency on the ice, which leads to better scoring chances and more polished set plays. And their power plays can be particularly deadly. Sweden has already shown that it will use former Ottawa Senators players Erik Karlsson and Daniel Alfredsson that way, with Karlsson picking up two power-play goals in Sweden's 4-2 victory over the Czech Republic on Wednesday. Alfredsson then scored the only goal is Sweden’s 1-0 defeat of Switzerland on Friday, with Karlsson getting the assist.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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