Like “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Luke, I’m your father,” and “you dirty rat,” the oft-told legend of the U.S. Men’s Ice Hockey team beating the Soviet Union for the gold medal in 1980 never occurred in real life.
Or at least it didn’t happen exactly that way. 38 years ago, the International Olympic Committee held its medal round as a round robin. Team USA faced Finland, not the USSR, in its final Lake Placid match and finished ahead of the Soviets by virtue of W/L record, not the iconic head-to-head victory.
Since then, the IOC has figured out that having an actual gold medal game (and a bronze medal game) is like, a good idea and stuff.
But who will play for the medals in PyeongChang? You won’t find anyone in the SNIPdaily NHL Top 100 playing in the tournament, thanks to Gary Bettman’s ban on NHL participation (that also includes most AHL players). Instead, the Russian Kontinental Hockey League and other European organizations will provide most of the talent.
The women’s tournament has no Gary Bettman to throw a wrench in things, but as usual, female shinny stars must compete for prime-time TV coverage against skiing, figure skating and one mini-docudrama after another.
Let’s lift the clouds and Zamboni the slush away. Here’s a preview of all 20 hockey teams at the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea, ranked in order of talent, experience, and their chances of bringing home the gold.
20. United Korean Team (women)
Sometimes, an exceptional job goes unrewarded, sneered at, or even ignored.
Just ask the Korean women’s ice hockey team.
In an unprecedented diplomatic gesture, President Moon of South Korea and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un of North Korea have agreed to combine women’s teams for the PyeongChang tournament. The only problem? Nobody asked the South Korean players or coaches first.
After a brief outburst of anger and confusion, the team settled on a plan – a bloated roster of 30-plus skaters will include a dozen members of the DPRK international squad, at least three of whom will dress out for each contest.
The athletes are practicing as one unit and are somehow getting along. They’re doing the best they can with what has been handed to them. But all anyone wants to talk about are the politics.
On the ice, the Koreans have their work cut out for them. Neither country is ranked among the top 20 women’s teams in the world. Goaltender So Jung Shin of the New York Riveters is a good player, but she and fellow goalie Do Hee Han will face so many shots-against that the games could turn into a farce.
Luckily, the hosts will play in the weaker “Group B” round robin and won’t see Team USA or Team Canada. That should lessen any embarrassment while Moon and Jong-un peer at the rink from on-high.
Let’s just hope somebody knows not to play Elton John during stoppages.
19. United Korea Team (men)
South Korea is ranked 21st in men’s hockey, but the men’s international ranks are much deeper. The squad has fared well in recent IIHF tournaments, whipping Poland and Hungary in 2017.
The best skaters on a Korean, Japanese or Chinese Olympic team are usually Asian-Canadians. Watch for veteran Michael Swift, a former New Jersey Devils prospect who scored 49 goals in the AHL before earning MVP honors in Asia League Ice Hockey.
18. Japan (women)
The Japanese women’s team was demolished 13-0 by Canada while hosting the Nagano Olympics in 1998. They’ve grown up a lot since then, qualifying for the elite division of the World Championships several times. But any chance to reach the women’s quarterfinals will be thanks to the IOC format.
Japan will play in Group B and get a lay-up over Korea, hoping to win one other game to put them into the final bracket. Look out for defender Akane Hosoyamada of the Calgary Inferno, whose strong right-handed slapshot should help Nippon contend.
17. Slovenia (men)
Can the Slovenes win one for Melania? Well…maybe just one.
Slovenia has built a quality international team over the last five to ten years, making several elite-division World Championship appearances. The problem is that their best (and most popular) athlete, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, can’t play in PyeongChang thanks to the NHL ban.
Kopitar sat out last year’s World Championships as well, causing the squad to lose all seven games and be relegated to Division 1. Expect similar woes at the Winter Olympics. Team USA could be the weakest opponent Slovenia meets in the round robin.
16. Germany (men)
The Germans have improved their standing to eighth in the World Rankings. But Marco Sturm’s team will suffer from missing a crucial sextet of North Americans.
Defenseman and co-captain Dennis Seidenberg will be missing along with four other NHL players, and talented young Frederik Tiffels is property of the Pittsburgh Penguins. That leaves Deutschland with a batch of 15-plus skaters from the German DEL, a slow-motion old timers’ league for NHL retirees and ham-and-egger Europeans.
15. Norway (men)
This is where it gets fun. There are 15 teams with a realistic shot at a medal, and Norway is perhaps the least-proven in the group. But the nation could still make noise at Gangneung Hockey Centre.
The Polar Bears reached a World Ranking of sixth as recently as 2011 and fought past a tough, seasoned French team to qualify for PyeongChang. February’s squad will benefit from a glut of Swedish Hockey League players like Mathis Olimb. Norway’s goaltending is skilled to world-class.
14. Switzerland (women)
Switzerland won a bronze medal in the 2012 Women’s World Championship but has fought just to stay in the elite division since then. Yet the Swiss can boast of a bronze medal from the Sochi Games in 2014 and will travel to the Korean Peninsula feeling salty and confident.
The Lady Eisgenossen are dotted with young talent groomed in North America. Livia Altmann is a Colgate University product, and forward Phoebe Stänz has been a star at Yale. The squad will likely have to win Group B to avoid facing powerful Finland in the quarterfinals.
13. Slovakia (men)
Where have you gone, Peter Bondra? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
The swift-skating former Washington Capitals star led Slovakia to World Championship and Olympic notoriety alongside a strong supporting cast in the 2000s. But youth-development was lacking, and the program devolved into just another also-ran in the IIHF.
A lack of North American pros means that a finesse-oriented group of euros can make a bigger splash, though, and former NHL head coach Craig Ramsey will be mentoring the Slovaks in PyeongChang.
12. United States (men)
USA Hockey has built a worthy nucleus of an Olympic team. 15 of the roster selections have NHL experience, and the top lines will feature excellent club players from Europe. Chris Bourque and team captain Brian Gionta are giving it one last shot on the world stage, and if available, Ryan Zapolski is an effective goaltender for Jokerit Helsinki of the KHL.
But the rest is a gigantic question mark. With American Hockey League talent largely unavailable due to the NHL’s strict ban, Yankee scouts have picked out five players from the Swiss league, two from German clubs and four NCAA student-athletes. A tough round robin draw pits the United States against Team Slovakia and the Russians.
11. Switzerland (men)
The Eisgenossen are consistently underrated.
Remember Sidney Crosby? He’s ranked No. 94 in the SNIPdaily Top 100 ahead of Chris Long and retired NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain. And if you haven’t noticed, he’s pretty good at ice hockey.
Sid the Kid can’t play in Korea, so what’s the point of that? Well, Team Switzerland – considered an also-ran by casual Olympic hockey fans – took a Crosby-led Team Canada to an elimination shoot-out at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Three years later, the Swiss won a silver medal at the World Championships.
The roster in PyeongChang will lean heavily on Swiss league stars such as former NHL defenseman Raphael Diaz. The play of veteran goaltender Jonas Hiller will be key in round robin games against Canada and the Czech Republic.
10. Canada (men)
Tenth out of twenty may seem paltry for two-time defending Olympic champions, but Canada will be all-but-unrecognizable on the rink in February.
The Maple Leaf was hit hardest when the NHL pulled the plug. Apart from Russian club talent, the Habs have only aging AHL veterans like forward Chris Kelly and defenseman Cody Goloubef to lead the way.
A goalie like Ben Scrivens of Salavat Yulaev Ufa (bless you!) could potentially have a strong tournament. But Canadians play in Europe when North America doesn’t want them anymore. You won’t see this version of Team Canada crash the net, forecheck or bury one-timers like the NHL rosters do. A silver or bronze medal would be a fantastic achievement.
9. Czech Republic (men)
Like the Swiss, the Czechs will benefit from the cohesion of home-grown club talent. Many of the skaters are used to playing together.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk sniper Jan Kovar could steal the show in South Korea, but the Czechs will be without goalie Petr Mrazek, trending up on SNIPdaily and the No. 1 most popular player on the Detroit Red Wings. Yes, all countries are without their NHL stars. But goaltending is a third of a hockey team, and the Czechs must hope Russian club netminders Pavel Francouz and Dominik Furch play their hearts out instead.
8. Sweden (women)
Tre-Kronor plays an exciting brand of “torpedo” hockey on the men’s side, but the women’s team is known for its grit and consistency. The female Swedes had an extremely disappointing 2017 World Championships, however, losing to Germany 3-1 and getting blanked by Finland. To add insult to injury, the Russians beat them in a shoot-out for fifth place.
Sweden brings a nice mix of youth and experience to the women’s competition, but goaltending is a question mark. Keeper Sara Grahn has Olympic experience, and young netminder Sarah Berglind will compete for ice time.
7. Olympic Athletes of Russia (women)
Russia is disguised at the Olympics every so often. In 1992, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to ex-USSR athletes competing as “Unified Team.” There’s a more combative vibe in 2018 following the IOC’s strong censure and ban of the use of “Team Russia” and the country’s flag in South Korea.
But the hockey teams will be fine, essentially the same talent wearing alternate jerseys. Russia has won bronze in two out of the last four Women’s World Championships and will auto-qualify for the quarterfinals in PyeongChang.
Team OAR will take the ice with 23 Russian club professionals, with Calgary Inferno skater (and long-time Team Russia workhorse) Iya Gavrilova getting skipped over. Look for Angelina Goncharenko, a massive defender who can thread the needle with transition passes.
6. Sweden (men)
Three crowns, lots of problems. The powerful Swedes have leaned heavily on NHL talent for recent World Championships and Olympic Games – not a bad idea at given the country’s massive talent pool of North American pros.
But what, exactly, does Tre-Knonor do now? There are plenty of world-class Swedish Hockey League athletes along with a handful of Russian and Swiss club player to choose from, but the adjustment to more of a home-grown lineup could still be a shock.
Swedish coaches prefer a system of two forwards, two rovers and one defenseman in a high-tempo attack. But when a 35-year-old Joel Lundqvist is your best skater, a boring neutral-zone trap might be the only way to keep opponents from lighting it up.
5. Finland (women)
Thank heaven for the Lady Lions. Women’s World Championship and Olympic hockey has been an All-West intramural contest at times, with dominant performances from Team Canada and Team USA killing every bracket. Finland signaled an end to that era by beating Canada 4-3 at the 2017 Worlds. The Maple Leaf also fell to the scrappy Finns 1-0 at the 2017 Nations Cup.
Former University of North Dakota skater Emma Nuutinen is a player to watch, having scored in the Sochi Olympics as a teenager. But the team doesn’t have four lines of talent comparable to the United States or Canada. What it does have is Noora Raty, arguably the greatest female goaltender in the world.
The colorful 28-year-old virtuoso plays for the Kunlun Red Star of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League but has spent a large chunk of her career stopping shots for the Suomi flag. Raty is an existential threat to stonewall either North American team in an elimination game.
4. Finland (men)
The bridesmaids of international hockey, the Finns have won silver or bronze in six of the last eight Olympic Games and finished runner-up in a pair of recent World Championships. The Lions have never won gold at the Winter Olympics, though, despite trying for almost a century.
Could that change in 2018? Unlike Sweden, Finland builds rosters from the home-front outward, relying far less on the NHL. That’s a big advantage given the circumstances in South Korea. Finnish coach Lauri Marjamäki knows how to control gaps, cut off an opponent’s transition game and flourish with a steady all-Euro lineup.
Skaters such as former NHL defenseman Mikko Lehtonen will lead the way in Korea. Mikko Koskinen of the KHL is a potential six or seven-game starter in goal, and Finland could easily go unbeaten against Sweden, Norway and Germany in Group C.
3. Canada (women)
The Canadian women recently whipped the United States in a December exhibition series. That’s a big deal, because while the Lady Habs are a threat to win gold in any tournament, Team USA has had their number in recent years.
Canada hasn’t won gold at the Women’s World Championships since 2012. But that hasn’t stopped them from winning every Olympic tournament of the new millennium. Team captain Marie-Philip Poulin scored golden goals at the Winter Olympic Games in 2010 and 2014, but there’s a lack of experience elsewhere. Coach Laura Schuler has chosen to go with nine new Olympians on the 2018 roster, touting the youngsters’ speed and enthusiasm.
All the skatin’ and smilin’ in the world won’t help hold off the Americans, though, unless the Maple Leaf has the goaltending. Goalie Shannon Szabados is a veteran who backstopped the victorious rosters in Vancouver and Sochi and will likely start every important game in Korea.
2. United States (women)
Team USA is touted for gold by pundits and bookies alike. But can we really count a team that hasn’t stood atop an Olympic podium since 1998 as the prohibitive favorites?
In fact, we’re ranking the United States ahead of the Habs thanks to a superior record against Finland. When facing Team Canada at the Winter Olympics, the Americans are just trying not to feel hexed. “We’ve looked at ourselves in the mirror and said, ‘What do we need to do to get better?’” captain Meghan Duggan told USA Today in January. “And we have done those things.”
Not to doubt a talented, passionate player like Duggan, but such quotes are hardly worth a cup of ice chips. If the squad loses to Canada again, team leaders will offer similar platitudes in 2022. There’s only one way to bite off the snake – by beating everyone in Korea.
Coach Robb Stauber likes goaltender Alex Rigsby, doesn’t mind if the Canadians have slightly more straight-line speed (speed-first rosters tend to lose at the Olympics) and has made the unorthodox move of including a player from the Swedish women’s league, 22-year-old defender Sidney Morin.
But as usual, the team’s stars must out-play Canada’s best. Popular Hilary Knight will get headlines no matter what, but watch for the dynamic duo of Kendall Coyne and Brianna Decker who combined for 24 points in 10 games at the 2017 Women’s World Championships.
- Olympic Athletes of Russia (men)
The Russian men comprise the one ice hockey team in PyeongChang that could conceivably romp to a gold medal.
It helps not to think of the Olympic Athletes of Russia as a “KHL” team. Several excellent former NHL players, including former Philadelphia forward Roman Lyubimov and former Chicago goaltender Lars Johansson, quietly left for home in 2017 with the express purpose of playing for Russia in South Korea.
What about the long-term KHL’ers on the roster? Surely they represent a weaker link? Nope. Those names include Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, two of the finest offensive talents on the planet.
A hot goalie could turn the Finns, Swedes or Canadians into a dangerous elimination-round opponent. Like Notre Dame vs Miami in college football, it’s wise to throw accepted wisdom out the window when Russia and Canada clash.
But barring a Lake Placid-style miracle, expect Putin’s puck-handlers to out-class 11 other teams and take the gold…setting up a grudge-match between the Russians and a vengeful Team Canada at the World Championships in May.