VANCOUVER -- When Canada played Norway in the opener of the 2010 Olympic men's hockey tournament the only matter at issue was the extent of Canada's victory. The final score: Canada 8, Norway 0.
Although Norway is a winter sports power and has amassed more medals than any nation in Olympic history, the country diverges from its Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden and Finland, when it comes to ice hockey. Retired Espen Knutsen, the only Norwegian to have played in an all-star game, is probably the most recognizable name of the five Norwegians who've made it the NHL, most of whom had brief careers.
That's not the case in sledge hockey, however, where Norway has been involved in every world championship or Paralympic Games final since 1992, when the sport debuted at the Albertville Winter Games. Tuesday's game at Thunderbird Arena against Canada, a traditional sledge hockey rival, will be the most anticipated, and most significant, game of the 2010 Paralympics so far.
"We have a past with Norway, and we get really pumped to play them," says Canada's Brad Bowden, who won a gold medal with Team Canada in 2006 following a 3-0 win over Norway in the Paralympic Games final in Turin. "They've been the top dog for years and years, but they've had their day."
Since most Norwegian players know English as a second language and their assistant coach is George Kingston, the former head coach of the San Jose Sharks, Bowden's words could be used as convenient bulletin board material in the Norwegian dressing room tonight.
Still, he has a point. While Canada blanked Italy 4-0 and thrashed Sweden 10-1 in its first two games of the preliminary round, the Norwegians merely tiptoed around the same opposition. Norway needed a late goal with 1:43 left in the third period to avert a 1-0 upset loss to Sweden before winning 2-1 in a shootout. They were involved in another squeaker against Italy, scoring with 61 seconds left for a 2-1 win after the giant-killing Italians took a 1-0 lead into the third period.
The silver medalists from the 2009 world championships are in unfamiliar territory, in more ways than one.
"We play on the European rinks, where you have more time, more ice," explains veteran Rolf Einar Pedersen. "And the teams are getting closer [in their ability]. Canada prepares on a small rink, and they play on a small rink, all year. They keep moving the puck. It's speed, speed, speed. But you have to believe in yourself and your team. We've been in this position before."
Kingston, originally from Biggar, Sask., was an assistant coach with Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary before leaving to become Norway's national men's team coach for two seasons when the country was trying to raise its performance level as host of the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. He is now in his second tour of duty with the Norwegian Ice Hockey Federation as an eminence grise and general factotum whose knowledge of North American and European hockey is being put to use by Norway's men's and women's Olympic teams as well as the sledgers.
"He's doing something about our power play," Pedersen says. "And he knows a lot about hockey on the small rink, how to keep the puck moving, how to get away from the checking, how to find the open ice. He has great experience. We all know a lot about his career. When he's talking, you listen."
At 70, Kingston's flowing silver locks complement the spiffy, shiny silver jackets of Team Norway. He probably knows more about Norwegian hockey than any Canadian -- or Norwegian -- alive.
"Men's hockey is really under the radar," he says. "We have very few arenas, that's the first answer. The interest is there. But the opportunity to play, and get a lot of ice time to develop, isn't what it should be. And the better players have to leave Norway. Most of the men's team -- 11 players -- play in Sweden. And we have 12 players in the women's league in Sweden."
The home base for Norway's national sledge team is in the capital region, and its composition is derived mainly from one team -- the Oslo Sledge Hockey Club. Familiarity, coordination and experience dovetail nicely, but the Norwegians can't shake the perception that they're a little too seasoned. Their two best players, Pedersen and Tommy Rovelstad, are 40 and 37, respectively.
"That's one of the reasons I feel we have a bit of an edge on them," Bowden says. "We have a lot of youth, but we have a lot of talent. The game is evolving and the style is changing. That's how sport goes. You can't always been on top."
Pedersen's riposte? Don't squeeze your sticks too tightly, Canada.
"They have a lot of pressure on them," he says. "Canadians are expecting them to win gold. But we intend to spoil their party."