Olympic Men's Hockey 2018: Complete Guide to Pyeongchang Winter Games
Men's ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will have a different dynamic than at any other point in the past two decades.
If you are tuning in to see NHL stars such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, P.K. Subban and Henrik Lundqvist, you will be sorely disappointed. As we will discuss shortly, the NHL will not be represented in the 2018 Olympics.
But if you are tuning in for national pride and stories of players given either their first or final chance at greatness, you are in luck. More than half of the 300 players selected to rosters could make for a sensational Cinderella story. The tournament's MVP may well be someone you have never heard of or someone whose name you haven't heard in about a decade.
Will the lack of star power keep people from tuning in?
Probably not. Heaven knows some of us gleefully watched way too many hours of unknown athletes partaking in archery, canoeing and handball during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And as one of the only Winter Olympic events that doesn't involve triple axels or sliding down a mountain at death-defying speeds, it's one of the easiest to follow regardless of the players.
That said, who is and who isn't playing is one of the biggest talking points to address before the men's tournament begins Wednesday. We will also discuss the tournament's format, some key differences in rink dimensions and game play from what you may be used to in the NHL and a little bit of recent history. Then, to tie it together, we will throw a few darts and make predictions on medalists and the all-tournament team.
This century, Olympic gold medals in men's hockey have primarily taken up residence in Canada.
Sweden, Finland and the United States have had good runs as well, medaling at least twice each in the past four Olympics. Here's the full list of recent medals, listed in gold, silver, bronze format:
- 2002 (Salt Lake City): Canada, United States, Russia
- 2006 (Turin, Italy): Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic
- 2010 (Vancouver, BC): Canada, United States, Finland
- 2014 (Sochi, Russia): Canada, Sweden, Finland
As you can see, it has been back-to-back golds and three in four tries for Canada.
The thrilling final between Canada and the United States came in 2010. The U.S.'s Zach Parise scored the game-tying goal with 24 seconds remaining in regulation, forcing an overtime period in which Sidney Crosby won it for the Canadians.
Their most recent showing in Sochi was decidedly less dramatic. Carey Price and Roberto Luongo combined to concede just three goals in six games while the offense scored 17. Canada did have one game in group play reach overtime, but it won all six contests.
Finland has the longest medal streak, though, with a silver and a pair of bronzes in the past three Olympics.
Don't be surprised if both are back on the medal stand this year, as Canada and Finland are among the four favorites for gold.
Tournament Format and Schedule
The tournament has two separate stages: the preliminary round (group play) and the playoff round (bracket).
If you're familiar with the World Cup format, it's similar to that. However, instead of just two teams from each group reaching the playoff round, all 12 nations will have a shot at winning gold regardless of what happens in group play.
The first five days (three games per team) are just for seeding the bracket. The top team from each group and the highest-scoring runner-up* will receive a bye into the quarterfinals, so at least there's some incentive for winning those early games. However, in 2010, Canada went 1-1-1 in group play, had to play an extra game before the quarterfinals and still won gold, so anything i's possible.
*A regulation win is worth three points, overtime/shootout win is worth two points and an overtime/shootout loss is worth one point. If there is a tie in points for any of the seeds, the tiebreakers are, in order, goal differential, goals scored and 2017 IIHF World Ranking.
- Group A: Canada, Czech Republic, Switzerland, South Korea
- Group B: Olympic Athletes from Russia, United States, Slovakia, Slovenia
- Group C: Sweden, Finland, Germany, Norway
The Schedule / TV Options
You can peruse the full schedule here, but here's the summarized version:
- Group Play: Feb. 14-18
- Qualification Playoffs (the round before the quarterfinals): Feb. 20
- Quarterfinals: Feb. 21
- Semifinals: Feb. 23
- Bronze-Medal Game: Feb. 24 (7:10 a.m. ET)
- Gold Medal Game: Feb. 25 (11:10 p.m. ET)
According to the preliminary TV schedule NBC put out in November, the gold-medal game will air on NBC Sports, and much of the televised action up until then will be on USA. But if you don't feel like scouring your TV guide, you should be able to stream every bit of Olympic hockey your heart desires on NBCOlympics.com.
Wait, Why Did It Say 'Olympic Athletes from Russia' in Group B?
One of the biggest 2018 Winter Olympics storylines is Russia is banned from competing because of a doping scandal.
However, it's not so much a ban as it is an unusual way to be recognized.
All "clean" Russian athletes (as deemed by an IOC panel) will be required to compete under the title of Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR). They will need to wear neutral colors, and the Russian flag will not be recognized at the Games. Should one of those athletes/teams win gold, the Russian anthem will not be played (but how cool would it be if they played some O.A.R. songs instead?).
The irony is the Olympic Athletes from Russia are in better position to win than the rest of the world in men's hockey. While the other nations are unable to use their NHL players (more on that shortly), the stars from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) will be free to represent their home countries—or the Olympic Athletes from their home country, as it were.
Why Are There No NHL Players?
Once upon a time, Olympic hockey rosters were made up of amateur athletes. For the past two decades, though, Olympic hockey was basically an NHL All-Star tournament. Heck, the 2014 Olympic MVP, Teemu Selanne, played more than 20 years in the NHL.
So what happened? Why don't we get to watch John Tavares, Phil Kessel, Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the professionals battle it out in Pyeongchang?
There were a number of contributing factors, but the most important sticking point seemed to be money.
In previous years, the International Olympic Committee shelled out millions on travel, lodging and insurance in case the hockey players suffered injury, but the IOC decided it was done giving that special treatment to the men's hockey players.
Though the IIHF reportedly agreed in March to pay those costs to keep the NHL players in the Olympics, the NHL's leadership still opted to forego the 2018 Games. In a nutshell, they didn't want to work a three-week break into the middle of the season to accommodate the schedule, particularly for something that does little to help grow the league.
"The ultimate impact it had on the game worldwide was negligible," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in December 2016, per NHL.com's Nicholas J. Cotsonika.
And that was that. No NHL players in the Olympics. Even AHL players on two-way contracts are forbidden to participate in case they need to be called up during that time.
The good news is not knowing anything about the participants has never stopped people from watching the Olympics and rooting for their home country. The bad news is most NHL fans will just continue watching the NHL during this time rather than paying any mind to Olympic hockey.
Differences Between Olympic Hockey and the NHL
Along with Russia's team not officially representing Russia and the NHL not participating, there are generic changes to keep in mind. If your primary experience with hockey is the NHL, you will likely notice some key differences in rules and dimensions when watching the Olympics.
NHL rinks are 200 feet by 85 feet, but Olympic/international rinks are 200 feet by 100 feet, which equates to about 17.6 percent more surface area. In addition, the lines are in different spots on the ice. In the NHL, the goals are 11 feet from the end boards, but it's 13 feet in the Olympics. Also, the space between the blue lines is 58 feet, compared to just 50 feet in the NHL.
To the untrained eye, it might not seem like much. Offsides still works the same way, it's still five-on-five and they are still shooting at a goal with the same dimensions. But it could have an effect on the game, even though most of the players are used to international rinks.
In the NHL, fighting is practically encouraged. Both players involved incur a five-minute penalty, but play continues at even strength and the combatants are allowed to return. But you shouldn't see any fighting in the Olympics because players get ejected from the game and are required to sit out the following contest. You had better have a darn good reason for dropping gloves and hurting your team like that.
There are two key differences pertaining to the netminders. First, they are allowed to handle the puck anywhere behind the net, as opposed to just the trapezoid in the NHL. Why you would want to venture that far away from the goal is unknown, but it's an option. More importantly, offensive players are not allowed in the crease at all. In the NHL, you will often see players attempt to screen the goalie by getting close to him without making a play on the puck. That won't fly in the Olympics.
Shootouts and Penalty Shots
In the case of a penalty shot, any player is allowed to take the attempt. In the NHL, the player who was fouled is the one required to shoot.
And where the NHL will go to a shootout after five minutes of sudden-death overtime in the regular season and will never go to a shootout in the playoffs, in the Olympics, it's a 10-minute overtime followed by a shootout if no one scores a golden goal.
Also, after the first three attempts in the shootout, if the teams are still tied, any player can then shoot as often as he wants. So if you have one player who is almost automatic on shootouts, you can use him over and over again.
So Who Is Playing?
Just by eliminating the active NHL rosters from the pool of candidates, 713 of the best players in the world are ineligible for participation in the Olympics. Factor in the injured guys and the AHL players on two-way contracts, and it must be more than 1,000.
That leaves free agents, players from the international leagues, players without two-way contracts from the minor leagues and college students.
Even if you've been a diehard NHL fan for decades, you may have only heard of 50 percent of the players on the rosters for Canada and the United States—and more like 5 percent from the other 10 competing nations.
First and foremost on that list is Brian Gionta. A staple in the NHL for 15 years, Gionta logged more than 1,000 games during stints with the New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres, dating back to 2001. Back in the 2006 Olympics, he scored four goals for the United States. Whether he will be the best player on the roster at 39 remains to be seen, but he's certainly the most recognizable.
Gionta probably wouldn't have gotten a whiff of an invite if NHL players were allowed to compete, but that just makes him one of 25 players with a fantastic story about an unexpected opportunity.
Canada and Sweden, in particular, are loaded with former NHL players. If you are looking to reminisce about previous seasons of hockey in North America, those are the teams you will want to watch. And the good news is you should have plenty of chances to do so, as they are among the favorites for gold.
Group A Breakdown
Teams: Canada, Czech Republic, South Korea, Switzerland
Canada: 8 points
Czech Republic: 7 points
Switzerland: 3 points
South Korea: 0 points
If Canada wants to win this group, it should be easily. But Canada hasn't always seemed motivated to win the early games that don't much matter.
In 2002, Candada had one win, one loss and one tie in group play before winning gold. Similar story in 2010, with one regulation win, one overtime win and one loss prior to winning the elimination portion of the tournament. And in 2006, when it was two groups of six teams, Canada went 3-2 and was shut out in both losses (and a third time in the quarterfinals).
Should Canada decide to take it easy for the first few days while figuring out its NHL-less rotations, the Czech Republic would likely win the group. One player from its roster you may recognize is Martin Erat. He spent a decade with the Nashville Predators before a couple cups of coffee with the Washington Nationals and Arizona Coyotes, scoring 545 points in his 881-game NHL career.
Don't expect South Korea to put up much of a fight for the free pass to the quarterfinals, though. Per OddsShark, the host nation has 250-1 odds of winning gold—tied with Slovenia for the worst odds.
Group B Breakdown
Teams: Olympic Athletes from Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, United States
Olympic Athletes from Russia: 9 points
United States: 6 points
Slovakia: 3 points
Slovenia: 0 points
Slovakia and Slovenia have a much better chance of stealing a win without NHL players. Still, not much is expected from either European nation in this tournament. Between the two, the most noteworthy player is Slovakia's Ladislav Nagy, who had an eight-year run in the NHL. However, his last game in the league came in 2008, so who knows what the 38-year-old will bring to Pyeongchang.
This should be a two-horse race between the United States and the Olympic Athletes from Russia. And if it's anything like recent Games, it's going to be an entertaining race.
The U.S. and Russia were in the same group in 2002, 2006 and 2014, and the goal margin in those three meetings in the preliminary rounds is nil. They tied in '02, Russia won 5-4 in a back-and-forth affair in '06 and USA won 3-2 in a shootout four years ago. They also met in the 2002 semifinals, and the U.S. won 3-2.
In other words, you don't need to go back to the Miracle on Ice to find some good matches in this series.
If you are wondering, the U.S. and OAR will square off at 7:10 a.m. ET Saturday.
Iced coffee, anyone?
Group C Breakdown
Teams: Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden
Sweden: 8 points
Finland: 7 points
Germany: 2 points
Norway: 1 point
Similar to Group B, Group C will likely be decided by the outcome of the final game between the favorites.
And Sweden has had Finland's number in the Olympics.
In 2014, the two Scandinavian nations met in the semifinals, with Sweden advancing to the gold-medal match by a 2-1 margin. Speaking of gold, they battled each other for it in 2006. The Swedes won 3-2. And in the Games in between, Finland shared a group with Sweden in 2010 and was smashed 3-0 in the preliminary round. At least Finland had the last laugh, earning a bronze medal while Sweden was knocked out in the quarterfinals.
For argument's sake, give us Sweden over Finland in overtime in group play this year.
While most of the contenders struggled to put together suitable rosters, Sweden is loaded. There are nine players on the roster with at least 70 games of NHL experience. This includes Viktor Stalberg, who was part of the 2013 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The 32-year-old spent the previous eight seasons in the NHL, logging 548 games between the regular season and the playoffs. But he joined EV Zug of the National League in Switzerland last summer, making him eligible to play in this tournament.
Predicting the MVP and All-Tournament Team
Normally, projecting an all-tournament team is straightforward: Just pick NHL All-Stars from the teams most likely to reach the semifinals. But you may not be right because there's no telling who will score the most points in the span of six games.
Case in point, Canadian defensemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber each had twice as many points as Sidney Crosby in 2014, even though everyone had Crosby projected as one of the all-tournament forwards.
But in a field this wide open and loaded with players who either have yet to reach the NHL or are no longer in the league because they are in the denouement of their careers, trying to pick an all-tournament team is like darts. Except you are blindfolded, the board is moving and the darts are bent.
Nevertheless, here is last year's all-tournament team and a prediction for this year's.
MVP and All-Tournament Team at the 2014 Olympics
MVP: Teemu Selanne, Finland
G: Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden
D: Erik Karlsson, Sweden
D: Drew Doughty, Canada
F: Phil Kessel, United States
F: Mikael Granlund, Finland
F: Teemu Selanne, Finland
Predicted MVP and All-Tournament Team at the 2018 Olympics
MVP: Viktor Stalberg, Sweden
G: Ben Scrivens, Canada
D: Erik Gustafsson, Sweden
D: Vyacheslav Voynov, Olympic Athletes from Russia
F: Viktor Stalberg, Sweden
F: Brian Gionta, United States
F: Ilya Kovalchuk, Olympic Athletes from Russia
So how will this tournament actually play out?
Here's an unnecessarily specific projection.
No. 5 United States over No. 12 South Korea
No. 6 Czech Republic over No. 11 Slovenia
No. 10 Norway over No. 7 Slovakia
No. 8 Switzerland over No. 9 Germany
No. 1 Olympic Athletes from Russia over No. 8 Switzerland
No. 2 Canada over No. 10 Norway
No. 3 Sweden over No. 6 Czech Republic
No. 4 Finland over No. 5 United States
No. 1 Olympic Athletes from Russia over No. 4 Finland
No. 2 Canada over No. 3 Sweden
No. 3 Sweden over No. 4 Finland
No. 2 Canada over No. 1 Olympic Athletes from Russia