Twenty hopefuls for Sochi

With one year to go, Final Olympic Qualification kicks off

06.02.2013
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The Bolshoi Ice Dome (and the nearby Shaiba Arena) in Sochi are waiting for 12 men’s and eight women’s teams in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in April will be the first test. Photo: Vladimir Pesnya / RIA Novosti

ZURICH – When the five tournaments of the Final Olympic Qualification begin on Thursday, it will be exactly one year until the opening ceremony in Sochi. In all, twenty teams will battle it out for the remaining spots in the men’s and women’s ice hockey tournaments of the 2014 Olympics.

On Sunday hockey fans will know which three teams will complete the 12-team Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament and which two will join the eight-team women’s tournament in Sochi, the Russian resort city at the Black Sea that is being made ready to host the biggest winter sports event next year.

On the men’s side the top-nine teams according to the 2012 IIHF Men’s World Ranking are already set. Host Russia, Slovakia and USA will play in Group A; Finland, defending Olympic champion Canada and Norway in Group B; and the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland in Group C. Each four-team group will be completed with a qualifier.

For the women’s ice hockey tournament Group A will consist of the top-four ranked teams: Canada, USA, Finland and Switzerland. Group B includes the lower-ranked nations of the eight-team event with Sweden, Russia and two qualifiers.

The five final qualification events are held on the soil of the top-seeded teams of each qualification group. These are the nations who barely missed the direct qualification and will have the pressure of being the favourites on home ice.

Due to the seeding, Germany hosts two tournaments: one for the men in Bietigheim-Bissingen and one for women in Weiden. Riga, Latvia, and Vojens, Denmark, will be the other two venues on the men’s side and the Slovak city of Poprad will host the other women’s group.

IIHF.com will provide a live ticker, stories and photos from all five tournaments. A daily video with highlights and interviews will be published overnight on the IIHF YouTube Channel. The rosters will be published on IIHF.com on Wednesday night.

Let’s have a look at the five groups.

Men’s Group D in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany

Click here for the schedule and rosters

Germany (10th in the Men’s World Ranking) – the top nation behind the nine qualified countries for the men’s tournament – hosts this tournament in the newly opened EgeTrans Arena in Bietigheim-Bissingen near Stuttgart. It will almost be a Germanic group with Austria (15th), Italy (16th) which features many German speakers from the South Tyrol region, and the Netherlands (24th).

For Germany it will be the first important tournament for new head coach Pat Cortina, who doubles up with his tasks at EHC Red Bull Munich. The pressure is high. Since 1928 Germany has only missed one Olympic ice hockey tournament, in 1948 due to the aftermath of World War II.

The Canadian can build on a core of experienced players such as goalkeeper Dennis Endras, the hero in Germany’s fourth-place finish at the 2010 IIHF World Championship on home ice. Forwards Alexander Barta, Philip Gogulla and Michael Wolf each bring in experience from more than 100 international games. The defence, however, looks less experienced especially after Frank Hördler’s injury.

Apart from Barta and Marcel Müller, who both play in the Swedish Elitserien, all players were picked from teams of the German top league DEL.

After missing the last two Olympics, Manny Viveiros’ Austrian team is ready to challenge Germany’s Olympic ambitions after earning promotion last year to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki. His team is built on an experienced defence while a new generation of players is growing into the offence and in the net.

Most players join from the Austria-based EBEL while goalkeeper Bernhard Starkbaum and forward Michael Raffl show their talent in Sweden, and the brothers Martin and Stefan Ulmer in Switzerland.

Same as Austria, Italy is known as a nation going up and down between the Top Division and Division I. Recently, Thomas Pokel was hired as the new man in charge of the Squadra Azzurra. On the roster, fans can expect a mix of Italian players from the Alpine area with household names such as Armin Helfer, Alexander Egger or Marco Insam as well as some North American trained players like goalie Daniel Bellissimo, Matthew De Marchi, Patrick Iannone or Giulio Scandella.

While Italy played in all three Olympics in the ‘90s, the Azzurri have only played in one Olympic tournament since – as hosts in Turin 2006.

The Netherlands enter the tournament as the lowest-seeded team in the men’s tournaments this week. The Oranje were the only non top-seeded men’s team in the Olympic Pre-Qualification that made it to the next round thanks to a last-minute effort in a dramatic game against Hungary.

Coach Barry Smith won’t need many motivational tricks since this will be the highest level the team has played at for a while. A qualification for Sochi would be a huge upset, but not a first. The Netherlands made it to the 1980 Olympics where they had one win (5-3 vs. Poland) and a tie (3-3 vs. Japan).

The team is based on players from the Dutch league also because Michael Brandasu (Stavanger, Norway) and Nardo Nagtzaam (Hurst Mercy University) suffered injuries. However, it includes most of the players from the last round including Marco Postma and Raphael Joly, who had ten and eight points respectively in three games in the Pre-Qualification, and Marcel Kars, who returns after scoring five goals in the last tournament.

Germany’s games will be broadcast by Sport1 and Austrian games by ORT Sport+. NOS will provide news highlights in the Netherlands.

Men’s Group E in Riga, Latvia

Click here for the schedule and rosters

What would the Olympics be without the small, but hockey-crazy Baltic nation of Latvia? Although the national team has never done better than a ninth-place finish in Salt Lake City in 2002, it has played at the Olympics three times in a row in addition to the 1936 Olympics in the pre-Soviet era. The way to Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010 went via Riga both times, the former event taking place at the old Sports Palace and four years ago in the state-of-the-art Arena Riga that will host the four teams this week. Latvia’s (11th) opponents en route to Sochi will be France (14th), Kazakhstan (17th) and Great Britain (21st).

Ted Nolan’s Latvian team is highlighted by the return of former NHL player Sandis Ozolins after a seven-year hiatus from the national team. With 22 players from Dinamo Riga on the long list, the team will be dominated by athletes from the country’s KHL team in addition to players from other clubs in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League including Ozolins, Oskars Bartulis, Martins Cipulis, Laris Darzins, Arturs Kulda, Edgars Masalskis, Aleksandrs Nizivijs, Georgijs Pujacs and Janis Sprukts; and players from other top leagues such as in Finland, Germany and Switzerland.

France might have the best chances to spoil the maroon-white party at Arena Riga. Les Bleus have stepped up their game in the last few years under head coach Dave Henderson. In the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the French left Switzerland, Belarus and this week’s opponent Kazakhstan behind for a ninth-place finish – their best placing in 17 years.

Can France build on the momentum? Former Stanley Cup winner Cristobal Huet recovered in time from an injury to help his country in the net. Internationally experienced defencemen such as Baptiste Amar and Kévin Hecquefeuille will play a vital role in the nation’s Olympic ambitions. The offensive department also gets experience with players from stronger leagues such as Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in Sweden, Charles Bertrand in Finland or Laurent Meunier in Germany.

France made it to five straight Olympics until Salt Lake City 2002 but hasn’t appeared on the Olympic hockey stage since.

Kazakhstan, recently demoted to Division I, aims for its fourth participation in Olympic ice hockey after 1998 and 2006 with the men’s team and 2002 with the women’s team.

New head coach Vladimir Krikunov selected almost all players from the KHL including 18 from the league’s Kazakh team, Barys Astana. This experience as a team can be an advantage for an upset in Riga and a 4-1 win over Austria in a pre-event match in Vienna has helped to boost their confidence. Most players are veterans of numerous World Championships and know what to expect.

However, one “rookie” stands out. Canadian-born Kevin Dallman will play his first international tournament for Kazakhstan. The offensive-minded defenceman captained Barys Astana for the last four years but moved to SKA St. Petersburg last summer.

Great Britain is the dark horse of the tournament and hasn’t been that close to the Olympic ticket for a while causing a little hockey euphoria in the country. Hundreds of fans will travel to Riga for the country’s biggest tournament in many years and the British national team’s games will be broadcast live on TV in the country, which hasn’t happened for a long time.

The British are the most decorated country over all tournaments having won one gold and one bronze medal in Olympic ice hockey. These medals are remarkable, but lie far away in the past, in 1936 and 1924 respectively. Since 1948 Great Britain hasn’t played Olympic ice hockey.

Can Tony Hand’s team change it? It will be a tough task especially after the injury of goalkeeper Stephen Murphy, who has been stellar for his team in the recent World Championship Division I tournaments. But the British will battle hard for it.

Games will be broadcast by Latvian Television, Sport+ in France, ESPN UK and BBC Radio in Great Britain and in Kazakhstan.

Men’s Group F in Vojens, Denmark

Click here for the schedule and rosters

The hockey-crazed city of Vojens in the south of the country will play host as Denmark (12th) aims to make it to the Olympics for the first time in ice hockey history, playing in the tournament with Belarus (13th), Slovenia (18th) and Ukraine (20th).

Despite the remarkable progress in Danish hockey – the red-and-white team was promoted to the Top Division in 2002, has never left the top level since and reached the quarter-finals in 2010 – the country has yet to make it to an Olympic ice hockey tournament.

The chances have never been bigger. While Denmark missed the qualification against Norway on the opponent’s ice four years ago, the Danes are the top-seeded host one year before Sochi.

Coach Per Bäckman had one important “win” before the tournament. The Anaheim Ducks released goalkeeper Frederik Andersen for the Olympic Qualification. Andersen has been a pillar for the national team. As number three in the organization behind Jonas Hiller from Switzerland and Viktor Fasth from Sweden, he was playing for the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals most recently.

Most offensive players also come home from abroad for this tournament. Eleven players from the long list play for Swedish clubs, four in Germany and two in Finland. But Bäckman’s team does not only include well-known returnees from the World Championships, he has also built on fresh talent. With Rasmus Nielsen, Patrick Bjorkstrand, Lasse Lassen and Nicklas Jensen four players will have their first major tournament with the men’s national team.

Belarus will likely be the closest opponent. The Denmark-Belarus game on Sunday evening might be the closest match-up according to the World Ranking where the two countries have had a neck-to-neck race in recent years.

New Belarusian head coach Andrei Skabelka enters the tournament on a high note after blanking France 4-0 before more than 14,000 spectators on home ice in Minsk in a pre-event match.

Of the 25 players that were on the roster, nine players join from Belarusian KHL team Dynamo Minsk and eight more players from Russian KHL clubs. In addition, defenceman Dmitri Korobov from the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch was called to the national team.

The probably biggest name, however, is missing. Coach Skabelka released Andrei Kostitsyn after the veteran of 447 NHL games had missed practices. Kostitsyn left the NHL in summer for Russian KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk and will not be available to pull Belarus out of the recent drought.

The placing in the last two World Championships – 14th – doesn’t reflect the country’s ambitions with many new rinks and teams to increase the level of play. A qualification to the 2014 Olympics in the country’s neighbourhood would send a strong signal one year before the World Championship in Minsk. It would be the fourth time after 1998, 2002 and 2010. In 2002, Belarus upset Sweden in the quarter-finals to reach fourth place in Salt Lake City – still the biggest success in Belarusian hockey history.

Slovenia comes to Vojens as a team that has been going up and down between the top two tiers of play. But in Denmark they hope to continue the upward trend after winning the Division I on home ice in Ljubljana last spring that earned them the promotion to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki.

The last time Slovenes played at an Olympic ice hockey tournament dates back to the Yugoslav era with four straight participations from 1964 to 1976, and the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. Now the team of Matjaz Kopitar, the father of NHL star Anze Kopitar, aims the first Olympic hockey participation of Slovenia as an independent country.

The roster includes long-time veterans like Tomaz Razingar and the Rodman brothers but also the upcoming mid-20s like the offensive trio of Ziga Jeglic, Robert Sabolic and Rok Ticar. The two youngest players are upcoming goalkeeper Luka Gracnar from Salzburg and Anze Kopitar’s younger brother, Gasper, who plays in Sweden.

Ukraine enters the stage after winning the Pre-Qualification event on home ice in Kyiv. The country suffered the relegation to the Division I Group B, but new initiatives like KHL club Donbass Donetsk and the building of new ice rinks shall bring Ukraine back to the top level in the future. For now the pressure is on veteran players like Igor Karpenko, Olexander Pobyedonostsev, Vitali Lyutkevich, Oleg Shafarenko or Oleg Timchenko while two players from the November squad returned to the NHL: Ruslan Fedotenko and Olexei Ponikarovsky.

Ukraine played one time in the Olympics, in Salt Lake City 2002.

The Denmark games will be broadcast live on TV3 Sport 1 (Viasat), games in Belarus will be shown on the state television, in Slovenia on Sportklub and in Ukraine on Telekanal Hockey.

Women’s Group C in Poprad, Slovenia

Click here for the schedule and rosters

Slovakia (7th) will host one of the two Final Olympic Qualification tournaments for women’s teams in the spa town of Poprad with Norway (10th), Japan (11th) and Denmark (19th) as the other participants.

Slovakia surprisingly made it to the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament for the first time in Vancouver 2010 after winning two rounds in the Olympic Qualification. The team played at the top level also in the Women’s World Championships in 2011 and 2012, but was relegated last spring. Slovakia relied on strong goaltending in the last years but only few new prospects came up from the youth where Slovakia is ranked 14th with the U18 women’s team.

For Norway it’s a different story. The country was in the top division in the early ‘90s but hasn’t come back since 1997 and has never played in an Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament. In the last five years the Norwegians moved up in the Women’s World Ranking and barely missed the promotion to the Top Division with Division I silver medals in the last two years.

The Japanese women’s national team participated in the Olympics only when the country played host in Nagano 1998, but that’s no reason to underestimate the Asians. The country was among the top-8 nations until the 2009 IIHF Women’s World Championship but hasn’t returned to the top level since.

Denmark is the biggest underdog and will play in Poprad with little pressure. Having had to start in the first of the three stages in the Olympic Qualification, the Danish women won two tournaments, which is already a good success. The team also returned to the Division I Group A after four years in the third tier of the Women’s World Championship. Any win will be a nice surprise while another tournament win would be one of the hugest upsets in women’s hockey. Same as the men, also the women’s national team has never played in the Olympics.

Women’s Group D in Weiden, Germany

Click here for the schedule and rosters

After three mediocre years for German women’s hockey, the national team made it back to the top nations two years ago and managed to stay there. This brought the team back to a position in the ranking in order to become host in Weiden in der Oberpfalz. Germany (8th) will face Kazakhstan (9th), the Czech Republic (12th) and China (13th).

The German women played in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics but lost the qualification to Vancouver 2010 against the surprising Slovaks. After three years away from the top level, the Germans made it back and finished in 7th place in last year’s Women’s World Championship in the U.S.

The host nation can count on one of the best talent pools in Europe. Germany has played in the Top Division of the U18 Women’s World Championship since the competition was introduced in 2008 and managed to reach the semi-finals twice.

In the next Women’s World Championship they will be joined by the Czech Republic, which earned promotion to the Top Division for the first time ever. The Czechs have never made it to the Olympics in women’s ice hockey, but same as Germany they have good talent coming up from the U18 women’s national team that has played in the Top Division in every tournament since the premiere in 2008 when the Czechs even won the bronze medals.

For the two Asian teams in the tournament it’s a different story since the trend in the rankings goes into another direction. Both China and Kazakhstan used to play among the top-eight nations and went down to the second, and from there even to the third tier (Division I Group B) in the last few years. At the same time the results from the U18 women’s national teams haven’t sent promising signals for a fast change.

China stopped the downward spiral in the last ten months by reaching second place in the Division I Group B last year and by winning the Olympic Pre-Qualification on home ice in Shanghai in November. In Weiden, the Chinese women’s national team will have to step up even more in order to make it all the way to Sochi. It would be the fourth Olympic participation after 1998, 2002 and 2010 for the Chinese, whose hockey players mostly come from Harbin and Qiqihar in the northeast of the country.

Also Kazakhstan went down two tiers within just two years after finishing in last place in the Division I Group A in 2012. The Kazakhs were in the Top Division for two straight Women’s World Championships in 2009 and 2011 and they qualified for the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in Salt Lake City 2002. But in Weiden they are the second-seeded team. Will the Central Asians manage to turn around their fortune?

MARTIN MERK


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