Two steps away from Olympics

Next round in Qualification for PyeongChang 2018

10.02.2016
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The Hungarian players practise before the Olympic Qualification tournament on home ice in Budapest. Photo: Laszlo Mudra / HIHF

The Olympic Qualification for the 2018 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament in PyeongChang enters its next stage on Thursday with three tournament of the Preliminary Round 2 that will be held in Italy, Hungary and Japan.

This stage includes teams seeded 18th to 29th. One of the teams is currently in the top division (Hungary), nine play at Division I level and two in Division II. The seeding was done according to the 2015 IIHF Men’s World Ranking.

The three events will be held until Sunday in cities that know hockey.

Group G is staged in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Host Italy, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Serbia will battle for the tournament win where the Soviets won their first Olympic gold in 1956.

Italy is the odds-on favourite and known for commuting between the top division and Division I for many years although after starting a rejuvenation process and focusing on home-grown talent, the team finished only in fifth place at the Division I Group A. Now the squadra azzurra will battle against nations it hasn’t played in recent years and aims at qualifying for the next round and travel to Norway in early September.

Italy has played at the Olympics nine times, most recently when it was set as the host nation in Turin 2006, while Olympic experiences are more distant for the other teams. Great Britain last time participated in 1948 but won Olympic gold in 1936. The Netherlands made it to the Olympics just once, in 1980, while Serbia has never qualified since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Group H will be hosted by Hungary in its magnificent capital of Budapest. After the recent promotion to the top division where the Magyars will face some of the best hockey nations during the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Russia, fans get the chance to see their team play on home ice in the country’s biggest indoor sports venue. The Laszlo Papp Sportarena is already sold out for all Hungarian games.

Despite the euphoria this groups won’t be a walk-through for the three-time Olympic participant (1928, ’36, ’64). Hungary will face Poland, Lithuania and Estonia in the quest for a ticket to the next round. Last spring Hungary edged out Poland 2-1 on the opponent’s ice in Krakow in front of 12,632 fans in a battle for promotion to the top division. The two teams will meet on Sunday while Lithuania and Estonia are eager to play party-spoilers.

This week’s Olympic Qualification spectacle begins some time zones further east with Group J in Sapporo, Japan, the city on the northern island of Hokkaido that hosted the 1972 Olympics. The Japanese men’s national team participated at Olympics eight times, most recently on home ice in Nagano 1998, and aims at being back when the Olympic flame comes next door to Korea in 2018.

To do so the home team needs to come atop against European competition from Ukraine, Croatia and Romania. Ukraine is the strongest opponent on paper. Only one place divides the two countries in the World Ranking. Last year Japan beat the Ukrainians 3-1 to keep its berth in the Division I Group A and sent its opponent down to Group B. Ukraine played at the Olympics in 2002 but hasn’t qualified for a top-level event since 2007. Romania played at the Olympics four times, most recently in 1980, while Croatia’s Olympic experience is limited to the Yugoslav era.

The winner of each tournament advances to the Final Olympic Qualification that will be played 1-4 September 2016 in three groups. The three tournament winners in September will be qualified for the Olympics alongside the top-eight nations – Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, USA, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Slovakia – and host Korea.

In September Belarus will host Group D in Minsk with Slovakia, Denmark and a qualifier as the other participants. Latvia’s biggest indoor venue Arena Riga will be the stage for Group E that also includes Germany, Austria and a qualifier. And Norway will host Group F at a venue to be named soon with France, Kazakhstan and a qualifier as other participants.

How big are the chances that one of the teams playing in the earlier round this week will manage to go all the way to PyeongChang 2018? On paper maybe not so high, one may think. However, the games have to be played on the ice first and there are recent examples the players this week may look at.

Think of Slovenia for instance. A clear underdog in the Final Olympic Qualification, the Slovenes beat host Denmark, Belarus and Ukraine to make it to the Olympics for the first time as an independent nation and on top of that surprised in Sochi 2014 by reaching the quarter-finals.

And some years earlier the Slovak women’s national team went through two rounds of qualification and beat higher-seeded teams like Germany, Kazakhstan or France to qualify for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

On Thursday 12 teams will enter the ice with the dream of writing their own miracle story. Come Sunday, we will know the three teams who advance to the final stage. The three tournament winners will be seeded into the Final Olympic Qualification groups according to their ranking. The highest-seeded winner will play in Group F in Norway, the winner with the second-best seeding will be in Group E in Latvia and the winner that is ranked the lowest in the World Ranking will play in Group D in Belarus.

That means only for Italy as the top-ranked team in this stage it is clear that the team would play in Group F in Norway if it won the tournament. For all other teams the allocation will be known once all winners are determined on Sunday.

The qualification for the 2018 Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament will be played during the 2016/2017 season. The top-five teams of the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Ranking, which will be known after the upcoming Women’s World Championship, as well as host Korea will be qualified for the Olympics while two more teams will be determined in the Olympic Qualification.

MARTIN MERK

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