The Other Dream Team (Film Review)

The Other Dream Team (Film Review)

Most North Americans know the story of the use of professional athletes in the basketball tournament of the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. The United States basketball team, known as the “Dream Team,” consisted of the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, all together on the same team for the first time. They demolished the competition on their way to the Gold medal, to the surprise of nobody on Earth.

dream2But there was another story going on at the same time, and one that was more important for the political state of the world, and for basketball itself. It was theĀ other dream team. The group of men from the new sovereign state of Lithuania, who had taken an unprecedented route to make it not just to the Olympics, but to that point in their lives altogether.

The Other Dream Team is a documentary that tells the story of what eventually becomes the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, and the journey that they, and their country, took to get there.

This film seamlessly blends the political story of Lithuania and its quest for independence from the Soviet Union with the stories of the players, who went through lives that cannot be imagined by most Westerners, just to play the game that they love.

dream4During the heyday of the Soviet Union, the majority of its “national” basketball team hailed from Lithuania, the small Baltic nation that had been annexed by the USSR during the Second World War. They had grown up under the harsh foot of communism, and they weren’t allowed to play for their own country, because essentially, their own country did not exist. But they felt that it did. Basketball gave some of the players the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world, enabling to see how Western life compared to their dreary Soviet existences. And it provided them with dreams, not just for themselves, but for the freedom of their country.

Lithuania was the first nation to try and break away from the Soviet Union, declaring their independence before anybody else. They were a tiny nation, just hoping for the freedom that had been taken from them against their wills. This led to revolutions on the streets, and the world rallying around the case of this little country that most people had never even heard of before. Lithuania was making a stand on the international stage, and people understood their plight, and rallied for their cause.

This also led to the decision that Lithuania needed to have a basketball team at the Olympics, to announce their presence to the world, as a unified, and free country. With all of the political upheaval at home, there was no money for this, but the team found an unlikely source to help them out: The Grateful Dead.

dream3The Other Dream Team is an incredible story, about how this team took the world by storm. They were beloved at the Olympics, for their fun attitudes, and for their crazy tie-dyed shirts they wore, which had been given to them by the Dead, and had become their uniform off the court. The team embraced their new personalities, and the world ate it up. They were not underdogs because of their skill, but because of where the political landscape had placed them.

This documentary takes us from the childhoods of the team, where they would build their own nets in dreary playgrounds, and the importance of the game in their lives. We see them grow, playing for the Soviet national squad and being tremendously successful there. The Soviet pro leagues are also shown, including the heated rivalry between the Lithuanian team and the menacing Red Army team, and the intense battles on the court they would face. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the independence of Lithuania is woven perfectly into the storyline, as the battles on the court were always representative of the political battles being fought for the small nation. There was a feverish national pride in the country, and an intense love for the sport at the same time. We are also taken to the NBA, where some of the Lithuanian talent was being recognized by the biggest pro league in the world, and players were getting drafted, and slowly trickling over to America.

The story crescendos to the Olympics, where the Lithuanians roll through the tournament, only to get wiped out by the American team. But that game did not really matter to them. Nobody thought that they were going to beat the US, including the Lithuanian team. That was not their goal. As usual, they had fun with it, even taking pictures of the famous American basketball players while the game was still going on. The Lithuanians were free, and they were representing their brand new country, and the millions of people back home, who had just had their hope restored.

It was not the game against the US that mattered, it was the Bronze medal game against the Soviet Union (playing as the Unified Team, due to the collapse of the USSR), that would make all the difference. This was it. The small child playing against its imposing father, the one who had controlled it for so many years.

It was absolutely more than just a game for a medal. For Lithuania, it was everything.

AndĀ The Other Dream Team manages to chronicle that struggle, both on and off the court, perfectly. A great sports documentary.

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NHL Playoff Predictions- Conference Finals

NHL Playoff Predictions- Conference Finals

Another round of the Stanley Cup marathon is in the books, and I did pretty well in my guesses for the second round. I was right about the Kings, Blackhawks, and Rangers, while being wrong (again) about the Canadiens. I had the Bruins going all the way to the final, so I was pretty surprised by the results. But it happens, and I’ll take my 75% correct guesses any day.

Halfway done.
Halfway done.

Now we move on to the Conference Finals, the Final Four. After 82 regular season games and two grueling rounds of playoff action, we are left with the four teams who have survived up until this point. The Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, and the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

These both should amount to good series, and the first year of the new playoff format has been a massive success, in my mind, as all of the battles have been pretty good, and there hasn’t really been a dud series yet. You can see the rivalries continuing or developing, as they should for the foreseeable future.

On to my next round of guesses.

Los Angeles Kings vs. Chicago Blackhawks

  • How well do the Kings play with their backs up against the wall? So far this year, they are 6-0 when they are facing elimination. That is beyond impressive, as they have been dominant in those games, including both Game 7s they have played in so far. This is a team that knows how to show up and win when it matters most.
  • Drew Doughty is just awesome. He runs the Kings, and he does it well. The guy is absolute beast, and absolutely does it all for LA. He would be in the Conn Smythe conversation if he were putting up a few more points.
  • Someone who is in the conversation for playoff MVP is Anze Kopitar, who has been on fire for the entire playoffs, scoring a point in nearly every game. It will be a great battle seeing him going against another all-world defensive forward in Jonathan Toews. These guys are two of the very best (and both Selke nominees), and it will be a treat to watch them play against one another.
  • Goalie advantage goes to the Kings. I’ll take Quick over Crawford any day, even though I believe that Crawford is in that Chris Osgood area where he does nothing wrong, but still gets no respect from anybody. The guy is a Cup winner, but he is more apt to give up a bad one than Quick is.
  • These are two teams that have incredible depth. The Hawks have a great bottom 6, guys who can plug away, frustrate another team, and contribute offensively. It’s always tough when a team can roll out four lines that can do damage to you in one way or another. But the Kings can offer the same thing. They have toughness and scoring spread throughout their lineup, and they can always be dangerous as well.
  • Any time the Kings play, it will be a bruising series. They are so big and so fast. Chicago isn’t as big, but they can absolutely fly on the ice. That will be the biggest challenge for the Kings, is keeping up with the speed across the way. They will be trying to slow them down with their size, and hopefully they don’t have circles skated around them. Not that the Sharks or Ducks were slow teams, but they were built more like the Kings are, and LA is better at their own game. This will be the first battle where they are playing a different style of team.
  • I can see LA struggling to adapt to the different style of play the Hawks employ. This could get Chicago one or two valuable wins.
  • Have to wonder if LA is getting tired from the grinding seven game series they have had to play already. Chicago has won both their matchups in 6 games, and neither series was as physical as LA.
  • This is a rematch from last year’s conference finals, that the Hawks won. Can the Kings get revenge here? Did they learn anything from last year?
  • This is also the third straight year the Kings have been in the third round of the playoffs, which shows their consistency as an organization.
  • Honestly, I don’t see massive advantages anywhere. If the Hawks are better at one thing, the Kings are better at another. A pretty balanced series, which makes it hard to guess. So I guess I’ll go with my gut.

Prediction: Kings in 7

kings2

New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens

  • Well, I am 0-2 when it comes to guessing the Montreal series. I thought they would lose to Tampa and get whipped by Boston. I was wrong on both counts.
  • I predicted the Rangers to the finals since the beginning of the year (against St. Louis, but we won’t talk about that). Nice to have a horse still in the race.
  • This is a battle of perhaps the best two goalies on earth right now: Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist. You can’t say enough about how either one of them has performed so far. They are the backbones of their teams.
  • This is also an Olympic goalie rematch in the Canada vs. Sweden gold medal game. Of course, Price won that one and the gold medal.
  • Both teams are balanced in a similar way. There is equality all through the forward lineup. The Habs scorers seem to be scoring, while the Rangers scorers are becoming more all around players, even if they aren’t putting the puck in the net (hello, Rick Nash).
  • Overall, I’d say New York has the better D corps, but the Habs have something the Rangers don’t: P.K. Subban. This kid can change the course of a game. With a big hit, or a jaw-dropping goal. Every shift, he is a threat to do something crazy, or something incredible. That is a massive advantage for Montreal, especially coming from the back end.
  • Do I jump on the bandwagon, and cheer for the only Canadian team left (and the only Canadian team to make it, actually) in the playoffs? Or do I stick to my guns with my initial prediction from the beginning of the year?
  • Is it possible to bet against Price at this point. He is absolutely on fire, is completely unfazed by the pressure, and is now facing a team that is decidedly weaker than their previous opponent, the Bruins? Can he keep up this amazing pace? Will the team begin to relax in front of him knowing that he is standing on his head?
  • On paper, I like the look of the Rangers better than I do the Habs. Both teams have good momentum getting here, with the Rangers overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh. Something has to give. The Rangers are clicking at the right time, playing some of their best hockey of the season, while the Canadiens seem to be playing above their heads.
  • Again, this one is going to come down to a gut decision.

Prediction: Rangers in 6.

rangers2

I think the fact that both of these series are tough to guess, speaks to how good of matchups they are, and how good these playoffs have been. I can easily see it being a Chicago-Montreal final, or any other combination. But as it stands right now, I’m going for the New York-Los Angeles mega city challenge for the championship.

Round 2 Observations

Round 2 Observations

We are part way through the second round of the NHL playoffs, and it looks like we have some tight series on our hands, which is always great to see.

Boston and Montreal tied 2-2

  • I feel that with the Bruins winning Game 4 in overtime, it will be the turning point they need to take this series. Not that you can nitpick a 1-0 overtime loss, but the Habs really needed that one.
  • Carey Price is establishing himself as one of the best high-level goalies in the game. We should have known that before, and especially after he dominated in the Olympics, but he is awesome. If the NHL is back in the Olympics in 2018, I want him as my started for Team Canada.
  • It is weird that a goalie as good as Rask has such trouble with one team. But he stepped up in Game 4. No curses here.

Pittsburgh leads New York 3-2

  • Inspiring story of Martin St. Louis playing the day after his mother passed away. I can’t even imagine.
  • The Rangers offense woke up in Game 5 to stay alive. Can they show up for another game to push it to 7? Or will they go back into a slumber and make Fleury look like a good goalie again?
  • It would be nice if Rick Nash decided to show up on the scoresheet. His production will be key for what remains of the series.
  • Is Fleury rattled after giving up 5 goals last game? Will this crack him, or can he bounce back to his ways of back-to-back shutouts earlier in the series?
  • It’s odd how harsh we will be on Crosby’s games. He finally scored a goal in the series, but we want more. Regardless of the points he is putting up, he is still dominant, and by far the best player in the game.

Chicago and Minnesota tied 2-2

  • Will Minnesota ever lose on home ice?
  • If Bryzgalov can put together a decent game on the road, the defending champs could be in some serious trouble.
  • I like the look of this Wild team, and Parise has been great so far. Shown tremendous leadership and has raised his game to a new level.
  • I kind of want the Wild to win this one. I thought the Hawks would roll through this series.
  • Very strong performance by the Wild D so far.

anzeLos Angeles leads Anaheim 2-1

  • It’s too bad nobody sees this series, it may be the best one.
  • These teams do not like each other. Which is what the playoffs are all about.
  • Good black and blue hockey.
  • The Kings really need to put a stranglehold on the Ducks tonight. They don’t want to be going back to Anaheim with the series tied up. They need to finish, like the Sharks couldn’t do with them.
  • How amazing has Anze Kopitar been in this series? He has been on the cusp of stardom for years, and is one of the best two-way players in the game.
  • Who cares about Jonathan Quick’s regular season numbers? The kid plays big when it is important.

Shannon Szabados: Blazing a Trail

Shannon Szabados: Blazing a Trail

shannonRecently, Canadian women’s hockey goalie Shannon Szabados signed a contract to play with the Columbus Cottonmouths in the Southern Professional Hockey League. She is now one of the few female goalies who will have suited up with a pro men’s hockey team.

Szabados is already a hero to many hockey fans, especially female hockey fans, for helping lead Team Canada to another Olympic gold medal at the Sochi Olympics. Now, she is breaking down the barriers, proving that a female can play with the boys when it comes to hockey.

She suited up for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers a while back in practice, to fill in when there were a few trades going down and the Oilers were short a goalie. Now, she is a pro goalie in a men’s league, after making her debut the other night. Sure, she may have lost 4-3, but she made 27 saves, and from the accounts I have read, it was a successful start to her men’s pro career.

Szabados is not a gimmick. She can play. This is great for her, and great for young female hockey players, to realize that there are opportunities out there. Sure, these chances are still extremely rare, but it only takes a few to prove so many wrong.

Shannon Szabados, Nail YakupovThere is a great article on Puck Daddy today about Szabados and the influence she is having on young girls who love hockey. It is quick, and definitely well worth a read.

Shannon Szabados plays for men’s team, inspires future female goalies

 

Olympics: The Canada vs. USA classics

Olympics: The Canada vs. USA classics

Great week to be a Canadian hockey fan!

First off, there isn’t much to be said about that women’s gold medal hockey game that hasn’t been said already. An absolute classic. The women played their hearts out, and this needs to be considered one of the great rivalries in all of sports. They fought each other tooth and nail, and it was great to see Canada emerge as the gold medal winner for the fourth straight Olympics.

Yes, there were questionable things happen in that game. The penalties at the end and in overtime that went against the Americans were not of the entirely obvious variety (fancy way of saying one was a terribly weak makeup call and the other was going to get called no matter what, the fact they called it cross-checking on the breakaway was laughable).

women2That ending will go down in Canadian sports history. The goals, the post, the comeback. Amazing hockey.

It was great to hear the entire school erupt when the Canadians got their goals, and make their comeback. I know how excited our staffroom was to watch the overtime at lunch. Amazing.

For the men, there is little bigger than a Canada-US game. Sure, the traditional rival of ours is Russia, but the US is the new one, since Russian hockey seems to have fallen off a cliff in recent years. The US are the enemy, our biggest challenger. Canada’s 1-0 semi-final victory was no way the classic that the women’s duel was, but with that score, it was filled with tense moments, which is strange considering that Canada seemed to absolutely dominate this game.

bennDespite our lack of goal scoring and finish, how incredible has Team Canada been at possession during these Games? Watching, it seemed like the whole game was played in the American end. Which is perfect. Now, it would be nice if we finished a couple of those possessions with some goals!

An absolute classic week, and we get to look forward to the 5AM (mountain time) wakeup call to see if our men can secure the double hockey gold once again.

Go Canada Go!

Olympics: Scared of Switzerland

Olympics: Scared of Switzerland

I was listening to the post-game summary following the Canada-Finland game at the Olympics, and the hosts were discussing how neither Switzerland or Latvia (the two teams who play to decide who faces Canada in the quarter finals) pose a serious threat to the Canadians in the elimination round.

Well, I strongly disagree.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 5 - Latvia v SwitzerlandI am scared of the Swiss.

A team that plays that solid of team defense needs to be one that is able to strike fear into the Canadian team. All three games that Switzerland has played, have all ended up with scores of 1-0 (the won two of them). That means that they already have garnered two shutouts against Olympic competition. Granted, beating the Czechs this year isn’t the most difficult of tasks, but it still says something about how well this team can play together.

And they have the most important thing: a hot goalie, in Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks. He has been playing extremely well, and this should be considered a problem for Canada.

Plus, they are a massive underdog, with nothing to lose, going against a hockey juggernaught, a team with some of the highest expectations entering the tournament.

Strangely, the Swiss have been a team that have caused Canada fits over the years, which may be surprising to many. Whether it be in the World Championships or the Olympics, the Swiss always play the Canadians tough, and we struggle to get through their stalwart defensive system. The Canadians need shots, lots of them, and traffic in front of Hiller. They need to collapse on their net, and hope for some lucky bounces. It needs to be anarchy out there, and the Canadians need to use their big bodies in order to create havok.

I am confident that this team can win. They have the best players in the world, and their confidence should be boosted after a hard fought win against Finland. By no means are they scoring like they should be, but at least they know that they can play in a tight game, which is probably what they will end up with against the Swiss. As long as they remain confident in their team, and not get rattled by the tight D and make foolish mistakes, they should be fine.

But it doesn’t change the fact that Team Switzerland scares me in this tournament.

Olympics: Hockey so far…

With the men’s Olympic hockey tournament underway, here are a few thoughts I’ve had from the opening games. At this point, all teams have played at least two games and we really are already separating the good from the bad and the ugly, as happens every year. The prelims really are just a warmup for the teams we know are going to make it to the medal round anyway, as they try and fuse a team together and get some momentum before the elimination games really begin.

Olympic-rings

  • Great job by Slovenia, the tiny former Yugoslav nation with fewer than 200 registered male hockey players, on getting their first ever Olympic win, over the reeling Slovakian team.
  • Even though Finland hasn’t dominated, as a Canadian fan, I am scared of what Tuuka Raask could do in the medal round.
  • The US team has looked dominant, maybe the best team in the tourney so far.
  • 4 goals by TJ Oshie in the shootout against Russia? Incredible. That will be seen as a classic game in no time.
  • Tough blow for Sweden, who were the favorites in my mind. Losing Henrik Zetterberg really hurts. He is a beast, and probably their best player. They have good team depth, however, and should be able to make a run at a medal without him. That D combination of Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is terrifying.
  • The uniforms: as awful as they were when they were released, they actually look pretty decent on the ice. That goes for most of the teams. I really like the Finnish flag jerseys, the Czech whites, and the Canada reds. Still a huge thumbs down for the black Canadian alternates, and those Russian ones look like a big mess with the white eagle heads. And is Austria just wearing the Canadian jerseys from 2010 with a different logo? No points for creativity there.

Now, specifically on the Canadian team:

  • I want Carey Price as my goalie moving forward. Luongo played well and got a shutout, but that was against Austria. I just don’t trust him to rise up like I would Price.
  • Crosby has been quiet, which shouldn’t really be a concern. He didn’t do tons in Vancouver, either, before scoring that one little goal of his…
  • I am endlessly impressed with our defense. Weber and Doughty have been great in both ends of the rink. Everyone else has been solid as well. No glaring giveaways, and it looks like they are all playing well together. This bodes well as we move forward, since in these short tournaments, D and goaltending are paramount.
  • Why is Rick Nash on this team again? I love to hate him.
  • Hopefully Canada got a scare from its close opening game against Norway. European teams can really shut it down out there, and Canada has to be willing to get dirty in the corners and messy in front of the net to get some mucker goals in order to bear those teams. For example, Switzerland gives you no chances, so you need to capitalize on every sniff you may get.
  • I don’t know if I like playing two easy teams off the hop. I would rather have had the Finns as a second game, a truer test for the team. Then an easy one to close the round robin. This would have given them a bit of a break going into the medal round. Now, they will be playing tough and meaningful games for the rest of the tournament. No more simple ones.
  • Again, those black jerseys were terrible.

It is very exciting going forward, to see which nation will rise above the others. There are still so many contenders out there, and it really is too tough to call at this point. The US looks like the team to beat, but that could change in a moment, which really is the best part about the Olympic tourney.

Go Canada Go!