NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Carolina Hurricanes

In just a few short hours, the Canadian Olympic brain trust is set to, at long last, unveil the team they’ll take to Sochi. After months (or even years) of speculation, hockey fans all across Canada get to sink their teeth into the roster.

It’s great fun, a source of endless debate in the lead-up to the announcement. Who’s in, who’s out, who deserves to be on the team that goes for gold. Barroom debates drill down to potential line match-ups and third goalie choices. Hockey reporters offer their educated guesses on the final roster, fans on twitter howl over perceived slights of their favorite player and on and on.

The debates are fun but they are nothing compared to the actual tournament – simply the best hockey we get to watch. The intensity level explodes through the roof as the most skilled players in the world go head-to-head over a two-week span. Seven games separate immortality from four years of second guessing.

But here’s the thing: it is a seven game tournament played over two weeks. Seven games, twelve days. should preclude it from second guessing. Or even first guessing. The best team or The Right Team isn’t guaranteed to win gold – the team that wins the gold medal game wins the tournament.

If this comes across as “don’t sweat the small stuff” Mitch Albom pablum…that’s because it is. It might seem a little rich coming from a man who swore on twitter that he would a) join a Somali terrorist organization and b) stand in Maple Leaf Square singing the Russian national anthem while wearing a CCCP jersey if PK Subban was left off the team, but I come by it honestly.

Maybe it was one too many waking nightmare of a Subban-less games but that nagging “it’s a seven game tournament” thought just wouldn’t go away. The Scott Burnside piece for ESPN cracked a window in the decision making process when filling out an Olympic roster. It was an engrossing and eye-opening look at the power of confirmation bias, groupthink, and cronyism. Professional hockey minds stumping for Their Guys and come across more risk-averse than the Tin Man.

Smart men confess to nightmares about “untrusted” players – an understandable fear. In a single-game elimination, one mistake at the wrong time could send you home. But what about the value in the kind of player who can win a game with an unbelievable play? It is easier to skirt risk than to embrace game-breaking skill.

Just take the best players. If there’s concern that guy can’t play in a given system, he’s not one of the best players. If you’re worried about a right-handed shooting defenseman stuck on the wrong side, he’s not one of the best players. Just take the best players and hope they stay healthy and win games. Just hope – it’s all you have once the tournament gets underway.

Because the difference between Chris Kunitz and one of the (many) superior options for his roster spot is mighty small over (at most) seven games. It isn’t as though sending Kunitz to Sochi is akin to sending a former hockey pro who now blogs about the game and drinks more beer than you can even begin to fathom. The difference between Kuntiz and, say, Patrick Sharp is small. Over a handful of games? Negligible.

There is no good reason NOT to bring anything but the very best players but the reality of the situation remains unchanged – it probably won’t matter much anyway. The worst team in the NHL could string together a four-game winning streak and nobody would bat an eyelash. Chicago could get a few bad bounces and lose to the Islanders in overtime and they’d all shrug and move on to the next game.

Just because the Olympic games are more important, just because the stakes are higher doesn’t mean any one player or coach or talent evaluator can exert more control on the outcome of one single game. They can’t. They can try but pucks will bounce and penalties will go uncalled and sticks will break and life will get in the way. It always does. Life can match lines with anybody. Life is undefeated.

Nobody needs to overthink it. Hope that the folks charged with picking the Olympic squad for your birth nation don’t squeeze their sticks too hard and just play. 23 best guys, get on the plane. Throw the puck out on the ice and go. If you’re Steve Yzerman, take the best players or take the players that will let you sleep at night. Own the selections. The “wrong” team might win or the best team might run into a hot goalie and go home with a lesser medal.

Any one of a half dozen countries could claim the ultimate prize in Sochi. There is enough talent to build two Team Canadas and either could contend for a medal in a few weeks. Put faith in that talent and then let it go. Anything can happen, embrace that irrefutable fact of life and just hope the good players play good enough to win. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a pitchfork to sharpen.