What would the Winter Olympics be without the participation of NHL players?
Hopefully we never have to find out.
As exciting as skiing, sliding and figure skating may be to some fans of the Winter Games, there's nothing like watching the world's best hockey players suit up against each other wearing their country's emblem on their chests rather than their league colors.
With the uncertainty of the NHL's participation in future Olympics, this tournament has an even brighter than usual spotlight shining on it. And the superstars are ready for it.
Players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Anze Kopitar, Henrik Zetterberg and the injured Steven Stamkos can be considered runners-up when it comes to star power this month.
Read on for a look at the biggest names fighting for gold in Sochi, Russia.
Superstar credentials: NHL All-Rookie Team (2006), NHL First All-Star Team (2012), Vezina Trophy (2012) NHL Second All-Star Team (2013), Three-time NHL All-Star Game selection (2009, 2011, 2012), Winter Olympic Gold Medal (2006, Turin).
What makes him special: He's unflappable under pressure, which is why he seems to rise to the occasion during international play while other goalies may falter. He anticipates the play extremely well and has incredible lateral movement to take away the bottom of the net in a hurry.
Sochi outlook: The Swedes are a popular pick to win their second gold medal in the last three Winter Games, and one of the biggest reasons for that is Lundqvist's star power. He could easily be the deciding factor in Sweden winning gold or silver rather than bronze or nothing.
Superstar credentials: Stanley Cup champion (1991, 1992); Art Ross Trophy (1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, '01); Lester B. Pearson Award ('99, '00, '06); Hart Trophy ('99); 12 All-Star Game appearances; Seven First-Team All-Star Selections; NHL All-Rookie Team (1991); Olympic Gold Medal (1998, Nagano); Olympic Bronze Medal (2006, Turin).
What makes him special: His vision of the ice is up there with legends like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He's got a long reach and incredible strength that makes it nearly impossible to take the puck away from him when he doesn't want you to have it.
Sochi outlook: Jaromir Jagr might be somewhat limited in terms of what he can accomplish with a Czech Republic team that includes some surprise selections, but you can bet he will be their best player in every game and find himself among the tournament's scoring leaders when it's all over.
Superstar credentials: Calder Memorial Trophy (1993); All-Rookie Team ('93); First-Team All-Star (1993, 1997); Five NHL All-Star Game appearances; Maurice 'Rocket' Richard Trophy (1999); Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (2006); Stanley Cup champion (2007). Olympic Bronze Medal (2010, 1998), Olympic Silver Medal (2006).
What makes him special: Speed has always been Teemu Selanne's greatest asset. And while his legs don't move as quickly as they used to, Selanne is smart enough to make up for it by picking his moments—and corners.
Sochi outlook: The Finns have some real veteran leadership, and Selanne is second to none in that regard. He'll be a leader and and offensive threat. He will dazzle and earn the respect of the hockey fans who tune in to his last Olympic appearance.
Superstar credentials: Winter Olympic Gold (2010, Vancouver) where he was named an all-star and the tournament's best forward; Two-time Stanley Cup champion (2010, 2013); Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP (2010); Frank J. Selke Trophy (2013).
What makes him special: Jonathan Toews has all the physical qualities you want in a hockey player–smooth skating, strength and puck-handling ability. But what makes him stand out is his determination on the ice. He has a tireless engine that made him stand out at the Vancouver Games in what has to be his most impressive year in the sport, winning Olympic gold and the Stanley Cup months apart.
Sochi outlook: He could again be the tournament's top forward. He may not score the most goals or points, but you will see him shutting down some of the best opponents the other countries throw at Team Canada.
Superstar credentials: Two-time Stanley Cup champion (2002, 2008); Four-time NHL All-Star Game selection; Four-time Lady Byng Memorial Trophy winner; Three-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner; Olympic Bronze Medal (2002, Salt Lake City).
What makes him special: There may be no better NHLer when it comes to skills with the puck. Pavel Datsyuk is pure magic offensively and can turn what little ice opponents give him into an opportunity to score on every shift.
Sochi outlook: The captain of the host Russians is going to dazzle you with his playmaking skills. If they're going to pull a Team Canada and win on home soil, Datsyuk is going to be a huge part of the process.
Superstar credentials: Stanley Cup champion (2011); Mark Messier Leadership Award (2011); James Norris Memorial Trophy (2009) and two-time finalist; Six-time NHL All-Star Game selection; Two-time NHL First Team All-Star (2004, 2009); Five-time winner of hardest shot competition; Record for hardest shot clocked at 108.8 mph.
What makes him special: Aside from the obvious advantages a 6'9" frame offer, the man with the condor-like wingspan brings an unmatched intensity level to the ice. That only adds to the benefits of Zdeno Chara's stature, including a deadly slap shot from the point and the ability to be as physical as any defender in the NHL.
Sochi outlook: Slovakia is an underdog which finished an impressive fourth in Vancouver four years ago. Don't discount them from challenging for a medal again, although it will take an MVP performance from Chara to get the best of Canada, Sweden, Russia or the U.S.
Superstar credentials: Calder Memorial Trophy (2007); Stanley Cup champion (2009); Conn-Smythe Trophy (2009); Hart Memorial Trophy (2012); Ted Lindsay Award (2012); Two-time NHL scoring leader (2009, 2012); Three-time NHL First All-Star Team (2008, 2009, 2012); Gold medal at the 2012 World Championships, where he was named MVP.
What makes him special: Has a blend of size, strength, speed and vision that places him among the elite offensive playmakers in the NHL. Many believe that if he had a little more determination, he'd be the best player in the league every season.
Sochi outlook: The Russians have some of the deadliest players in the Winter Olympic hockey tournament, and Malkin may be the best of the bunch in the offensive zone. He could team up with winger Alex Ovechkin to form the most dangerous line in the Games.
Superstar credentials: Calder Memorial Trophy (2008); Two-time Stanley Cup champion (2010, 2013); Conn Smythe Trophy (2013); First-team NHL All-Star (2010); Three-time All-Star Game selection; Winter Olympic silver medalist (2010, Vancouver).
What makes him special: His puck-handling skills might be second to only Russia's Pavel Datsyuk, but his explosive speed and elusiveness are unmatched in the league. He also has incredible vision, which allows him to anticipate where a player is going to be and dish out the perfect pass every time.
Sochi outlook: If his NHL success translates over to the Olympics, Kane could be one of the most dominant players in Sochi and help the Americans to a second straight medal—maybe even gold.
Superstar credentials: Stanley Cup champion (2009); All-Rookie Team (2006); Art Ross Trophy (2007); Hart Memorial Trophy (2007); Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award (2007, 2013); Mark Messier Leadership Award (2007, 2010); Maurice 'Rocket' Richard Trophy (2010); Olympic Gold Medal (2010); Most assists (63) and points (102) by a Pittsburgh Penguins rookie (2007); Youngest NHL player to score 100 points; Youngest to reach 200 points; Youngest to lead NHL playoff scoring.
What makes him special: As talented as Sidney Crosby is—and he may be the most skilled in the game—what makes him the best in the world is the work he puts into his craft. Nobody practices harder or with more intensity.
Sochi outlook: It'd be tough to top the end of his last Olympic tournament, when he scored the overtime winner in the gold medal game in Vancouver.
Superstar credentials: Calder Memorial Trophy (2006); Three-time Hart Trophy winner (2008, 2009, 2013); Art Ross Trophy (2008); Maurice 'Rocket' Richard Trophy (2008, 2009, 2013); Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award (2008, 2009, 2010); Four-time NHL All-Star Game selection (2007, 2008, 2009, 2011); Six-time NHL First-Team All-Star and two-time Second-Team member (once in the same year at different positions); Two-time gold medal winner at the World Hockey Championships.
What makes him special: His combination of aggressive play and a deadly shot make him a force in the offensive zone. He throws his body around with reckless abandon to create space, which he then uses to get into scoring position.
Sochi outlook: There's no question he will be the most-scrutinized NHLer at the Sochi Games, where a heavy burden has been placed on the Capitals captain to bring home the gold on home soil. It means so much to him, he just might accomplish it.