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.

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.

The strategy also gives lesser-known players a chance to shine on the Olympic stage. Many considered Penguins forward Chris Kunitz a controversial selection to the Canadian team, but he has benefited from the constant support of Sidney Crosby, his linemate in Pittsburgh. Canada’s superstar and 2010 gold medal hero has repeatedly praised his NHL teammate’s offensive skills and recently said that Kunitz “[has] earned every right to be a part of this team.”

Kunitz has said that playing with Crosby has elevated his game, but superstars like Sid the Kid can benefit equally from having a familiar face on the ice. Hockey legend Steve Yzerman, the executive director of Canada’s team, offered a simple but profound distillation of the teammates-as-linemates setup when asked about Kunitz’s selection.

“A lot of people have asked me ‘Is Kunitz being helped by Sidney Crosby?’” Yzerman said. “They help each other. [Kunitz] is a tremendous player and ultimately, we asked ourselves, does he belong on this team and the answer is 'Yes.'"

The benefits of familiarity on the ice extend beyond linemates. Team USA appeared to synchronize the shifts of forward Ryan Callahan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, both members of the New York Rangers, to maximize their ice time together in the win over Slovakia. Though that duo failed to produce a point on Thursday, they'll be on the ice together quite a bit when the American men take on the host Russians on Saturday.

Pairing teammates together on Olympic lines does have its limitations. Hoeler noted that familiarity could be a disadvantage "if you're playing someone on another team who’s also on your NHL team," such as Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who plays with Callahan and McDonagh on the Rangers.

And remaining beholden to the strategy would strip teams of the ability to put together all-star lines of elite players who play for different NHL teams, such as Russia's terrifying trio of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Alexander Semin. And any coach will tell you that it would be foolish to overlook on-ice chemistry that develops during Olympic tournament and blindly stick to keeping teammates on the same line. Because most Olympic hockey tournaments took place without NHL players, all but a handful of the greatest lines in Olympic history—such as the USSR trio of Valery Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov, and Vladimir Petrov in the 1970s—were made of stars who were only teammates when they put on their country’s colors.

But the five men's hockey favorites in this Olympics—the U.S., Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Finland—are so evenly matched that any advantage could mean the difference between winning gold and missing the podium entirely. When it's this close, a few telepathic plays from longtime teammates could be the key to a gold medal in Sochi.