Get Ready for Olympic Face-Off

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If you think the Winter Olympics is all snowflakes and cow bells then the Ice Hockey tournament will show you otherwise. Alex Meredith offers a beginners guide to the toughest teams in Turin.

You might not know it but the Winter Olympics is fast approaching with the opening ceremony taking place on 10 February. For British sports fans memories come flooding back of Rhona Martin and a miraculous curling gold 4 years ago, along with those grainy images of Torville and Dean in Sarajevo. In general however, the winter games never quite captures the British imagination like the bigger more glamorous summer spectacular. Nevertheless, one sport that regularly attracts large audiences is Ice Hockey, for which the tournament represents the blue riband event. Ice Hockey has grown in popularity in the UK and now attracts a regular and committed following, but the fast, furious and often violent nature of the action also makes it one of the few Winter Olympic events with a chance of drawing in the channel hoppers.

“Hockey” as it is simply known on the other side of the pond has a strong but quirky relationship with the Olympics. The sport actually made its debut in the summer games in Antwerp in 1920 making it one of only two sports to have appeared in the winter and summer games (the other being figure skating). Since switching to its more natural season some of the greatest Ice Hockey games in history have been played out on the Olympic rink. The “Heroes on Ice” semi-final in 1980 that saw the USA college amateurs’ side defeat of the mighty USSR at Lake Placid ranks amongst the most dramatic and significant sports events of the Cold War.

A repeat of that unlikely story was made a virtual impossibility in 1998 when the IOC relaxed the rules on professionalism and allowed NHL stars to join their country’s squads in Nagano. However, unlike the demolition job done by the US basketball “dream team” in Barcelona when they were allowed to select from the NBA, the unlikely gold medal winners in Japan were the Czech Republic. So upset were the professional prima donnas of the US squad when they were knocked out by the Czechs in the quarterfinals, that they trashed a room at the Olympic Village.

On the positive side the Olympic competition now showcases the best talent in the world, and gives NHL team mates a rare opportunity to face off against each other, with a gold medal and a place in history awaiting the victors. Canada are the current Olympic champions after they took the gold 4 years ago under the guidance of legendary hall-of-famer, executive director Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky has again taken the Canadian reigns in 2006 and the side from the “home of hockey” are favourites to add another gold to their record medal tally in the event (13, despite boycotting two games in the seventies). Trying to stop him and add to Russia’s 8 golds will be another former NHL star, the “Russian rocket” Pavel Bure who takes up a coaching position for the first time. Bure competed in Russia’s second place finish in 1998 (scoring 5 goals in the semifinal) and picked up a bronze in Salt Lake, playing every game despite fracturing his hand only 6 weeks before the competition. Bure guides an experienced squad including 19 NHL players, two of which, Darius Kasparaitis and Alekei Zhamnov, compete in their fourth Olympics.

On the European side two teams stand out as challengers to the traditional hockey superpowers. The Czech Republic are fancied by some to pull off a repeat of their 1998 coup despite being grouped with Canada in the preliminary group stages. Jaromir Jagr, their talismanic captain, who ran the show in Nagano with such success, leads the team again in 2006. Jagr, the NHL’s current leading scorer, will be a man to watch throughout the tournament as he appears to have hit form at precisely the right time for the Czechs.

The Scandinavian challenge will be brought by in the familiar crowned yellow jerseys of Sweden. Having been sent packing by lowly Belarus 4-3 in the quarterfinals in 2002, the Swedes will have a point to prove as they seek to erase that embarrassment. An all-star NHL front line of Peter Forsburg, Markus Naslund, Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin are certainly going to prove a handful for any defence with many pundits predicting the Swedes will top Group B leaving themselves an easier quarterfinal, though as 2002 proved that is not necessarily a ticket to the semis.

If you want to go for an outsider then host nation Italy are unlikely to provide anything more than shooting practice for the big guns. Not known for their prowess on the ice, the Italians do stand an outside chance of making it through to the knock-out stages thanks to their being placed in the weaker Group A. Once there, a passionate home support and an off day for one of the big boys and who knows? Perhaps we could see another Lake Placid after all.

Group A: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy
Group B: Sweden, Slovakia, USA, Russia, Latvia and Kazakhstan

In the preliminary round teams play opponents within their group for a total of five games each. The top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinal where they play a “cross-over” format. The quarterfinal winners advance to the semi-finals round, which determines the match-ups for the gold and bronze medal games.

First games: Wednesday 15 February
Gold Medal Game: Sunday 26 February