To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that most NHL fans know everything about international hockey.
Sure, we know the names we recognize from limited SportsCenter coverage or the ones that play for our favorite team, but can we really claim to know all there is to know about countries like Latvia or Norway?
Because of my general ignorance about international hockey, I have put together this guide to 2010 Olympic Hockey for those who find themselves in the same boat I do. Included are key players, a quick summary about the best players not known to NHL fans, players for each country who have past NHL connections, and the player from each team that I have judged to have the best name. Enjoy the hockey; it's the best we'll see for another four years!
Key Players—Mikhail Grabovski, Sergei Kostitsyn, Andrei Kostitsyn, Ruslan Salei
It’s been 8 years since the legendary upset of Sweden in Salt Lake, but Belarus has been steadily improving on the international stage. The Brothers Kostitsyn will provide the primary scoring punch, while Ruslan Salei will anchor the blue line.
Remember that not too long ago, Mikhail Grabovski had a bit of a disagreement with the Kostitsyn brothers, so team chemistry may be an issue. Not much is expected out of Belarus this year, but they definitely have the potential to provide another major upset in Group C.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Sergei Demagin
Once signed by Hartford of the American Hockey League, Demagin is playing extremely well in Russia this year, notching 26 points, including 16 goals, for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik in the Kontinental League.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Konstantin Koltsov
He played in the Pittsburgh Penguins system from 2002 to 2006 until he went back to Russia to play for Salavat Yulayev Ufa, where he has been playing since.
Best Name—Viktor Kostyuchenok
Despite only scoring two goals in his professional career, his bread-and-butter is his defense, but his standout feature is definitely that last name.
Key Players–Sidney Crosby, Martin Brodeur, Jarome Iginla, Chris Pronger
Home ice advantage would be described as a major understatement when talking about what Team Canada will experience in GM Place. However, with these fans come almost unrealistic expectations for team performance.
Arguments can be made that Canada is the most well-rounded team in the tournament, but gold medals are not awarded on paper. After massive disappointment in Torino, look for Canada to seriously challenge for the gold.
Best Player You’ve (Barely) Heard Of—Drew Doughty
Playing on the west coast has definitely diminished his reputation as a great two-way defenseman. He can quarterback a power play as well as play responsibly in his own end. Look for him to be paired with someone like Dan Boyle who plays a similar game.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Patrice Bergeron
Often injured, Bergeron has previously shown flashes of brilliance when playing with Sidney Crosby in the World Juniors. If things start to go south for Canada, look for the two to be reunited.
Best Name—Ryan Getzlaf
His brother plays professional football in Canada, and his ankle looked fine in his last pre-tournament game, in which he scored twice and added two assists.
Key Players—Tomas Vokoun, Martin Havlat, Tomas Kaberle, Jaromir Jagr
From a hockey fan’s perspective, it would seem that the Czech Republic’s glory days are behind them. From a gold medal in Nagano to barely avoiding relegation at this year’s World Juniors, the Czech program seems to be in decline. This is not helped by playing in the stacked Group B, along with Russia, Slovakia, and Latvia.
The star power on this team is definitely there; Jaromir Jagr returns along with NHL stars Havlat, Kaberle, Vokoun and Elias. They will be a tough match for any of the top teams, but they need their stars to carry them to the medal round.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Roman Cervenka
He has steadily improved every year he has played professionally, and scored 71 points in 48 games this past season in the Czech Republic. He was never drafted, despite playing 22 games in the Czech Elite League as a 17-year-old.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Josef Vasicek
He starred in the Ontario Hockey League before he broke into the NHL in 2000. He played with Carolina, Nashville andthe New York Islanders until the formation of the KHL, which drew him to Russia in 2008
Best Name—Martin Erat
He scored 58 points for the Nashville Predators in two different seasons, but his last name sounds like the next computer virus we should be watching out for.
Key Players—Miikka Kiprusoff, Olli Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen, Mikko Koivu
Once again, everyone seems to be writing off Finland’s chances before the tournament even begins. They claim that the star players like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu are too old to be effective anymore. Similar reports surfaced last Olympics in Torino, when Miikka Kiprusoff declared himself to be too hurt to play.
Finland still managed to win the silver, riding the back of Antero Niittymaki to the final. The same will probably occur this time around as new Finnish stars begin to emerge. Watch out for Mikko Koivu, one of the most underestimated players in the NHL
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Jarkko Immonen
He was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2002 and was consequently traded to the New York Rangers in 2004. He played in 20 NHL games before going back home to Finland. He has scored 37 points in 53 games in Russia this year and may flourish on this version of Team Finland.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Ville Peltonen
His first NHL stint came in 1995 with San Jose, and he played for Nashville and Florida in his traveled career. He has been a mainstay on the Finnish team for years, playing in 18 different international tournaments.
Best Name—Antero Niittymaki
It is unfortunate that Antero is stuck in the logjam that is Finnish goaltending, especially since he guided the team to silver last time around. Regardless, he leads the league in unnecessarily repeated letters.
Key Players—Marco Sturm, Christian Ehrhoff, Thomas Greiss, Jochen Hecht
Germany is used to being underestimated on the international stage. Despite having one of the better professional leagues in Europe, many of the players that play there come from other countries. Somehow, they still manage to produce high quality NHL players, such as Marco Sturm and Christian Ehrhoff.
If Germany plans on making it through to the medal round, they need goalie Thomas Greiss to step up big. Greiss, a member of the great San Jose Shark goaltending program, has never really lived up to the potential that he has shown. What better time to show he has skills than at the Olympics.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Sven Felski
Despite being the favorite for Best Name, Felski was easily the choice here, since he has become the Mike Modano of the German League. He has played with Eisbaren Berlin since 1992 and has made six different German All-Star Games, including a streak of five consecutive through 2009.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Jason Holland
He seemingly alternated between the NHL and the AHL for eight years before leaving to play in Italy during the NHL lockout. He never returned to North America, instead signing with Ingolstadt of the DEL.
Best Name—Korbinian Holzer
A 2006 draft pick by Toronto, he sports what is debatably the best first name from any team. At 6’3”, his frame backs up his name.
Key Players—Karlis Skrastins, Janis Sprukts, Kaspars Daugavins, Edgars Masalskis
Most hockey fans from the 1990s remember the Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe. Famous for wearing the same pads over the course of his career, he actually played brilliantly for Latvia whenever international tournaments rolled around. Since Irbe’s retirement, Latvia has had a significant struggle competing among the best countries in the world.
If there is a star on the horizon for Latvia, it would probably be winger Kaspars Daugavins, who is a part of the Ottawa Senators system. He has played for the Latvian national team since he was 17-years-old and shows a great deal of potential even at the NHL level.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of —Kaspars Daugavins
As stated above, Daugavins is the great hope of the Latvian team. He once scored 40 goals in one season in juniors and has already scored 32 points in 48 games for Ottawa’s farm team in Binghampton. He has the international experience and could become a great player for years to come.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Martins Karsums
The Latvian roster is slim on players with NHL experience, but Karsums recently left the Tampa Bay Lightning to go play for Riga Dynamo of the KHL. In some cases, the call of home sometimes trumps the call of sandy beaches and generally warm weather.
Best Name—Girts Ankipans
He has scored 23 points this year for Riga, but I’m hoping that Girts is a name that runs in the family…or something like that.
Key Players—Patrick Thoresen, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Pal Grotnes, Tommy Jakobsen
Norway is usually touch-and-go when it comes to qualifying for the Olympics in hockey, so not much is expected out of this team. However, Patrick Thoresen has been tearing up the Kontinental Hockey League this year, notching more than a point a game for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Aside from Thoresen, there does not appear to be much in the way of secondary scoring, which will probably be Norway’s downfall at these Games.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Mathis Olimb
Despite being 5’9” and weighing 165 pounds, Olimb has managed to pass his way to 24 assists in 48 games for Vastra Frolunda in Sweden. He is also only 23-years-old and has a very bright future ahead of him.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Marius Holtet
Another team that has limited NHL experience, Holtet was once a top prospect for the Dallas Stars, drafted 42nd overall in 2002. However, he never lived up to his potential, scoring only 16 goals in three seasons.
Best Name—Tore Vikingstad
Any reference to the Vikings of yesteryear is a win in my books. Having that reference play for Norway solidifies my choice as best name in the tournament, let alone Team Norway.
Key Players—Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Nabokov, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk
The early favorite for these Olympics, Russia definitely has the firepower to outscore any other team in the tournament. Names like Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Fedorov and Datsyuk are enough to strike fear into any goalie from any country.
What will determine whether or not Russia takes home the gold this year is the goaltending. Evgeni Nabokov has proved his worth during many NHL regular seasons, but he has never advanced very far in the playoffs. If Nabokov can prove himself to be a clutch goaltender, Russia will no doubt dominate in this tournament.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Sergei Zinovjev
He has averaged about a point a game in the KHL since 2005-06, which is quite an accomplishment in the usually lower scoring Russian league. He once had a 10-game stint with the Boston Bruins and only managed one assist, but look for him to be a significant part of Russia’s medal chances.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Aleksey Morozov
It seems like forever since Morozov graced a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey. In reality, it has only been since the lockout. Six straight 20-goal seasons in Russia later and guess who carries in the flag during the Opening Ceremonies? Expect some big games from Morozov when paired with one of the many top Russian centers.
Best Name—Semyon Varlamov
He’s changed his name nearly as often as Prince, but I think I like this version of it the best. Hopefully, he is in prime condition, so he can spell Nabokov as often as Russia needs him to.
Key Players—Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Zdeno Chara, Jaroslav Halak
What has long been an issue with Team Slovakia might be solved by a hot player at the right time. Goaltending has never really been a strong point of the Slovakian team, and they have often been carried by goalscorers Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa and larger-than-life defender Zdeno Chara.
This year, to Slovakia’s benefit, Jaroslav Halak has proved he can be an excellent goaltender at times for the Montreal Canadiens. If Halak can continue his hot streak into the Olympics, Slovakia can definitely contend for a medal, let alone advance to the medal round.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Martin Cibak
He played two full seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but his greatest successes have come since leaving the NHL in 2006. Known for scrappy play, Cibak had scored 17 goals this past season in the KHL to go along with 91 penalty minutes. Look for him to do what he does best: make opponents’ lives miserable
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Zigmund Palffy
Yes, he is still apparently alive. I’m not sure hologram technology has gotten to the point where one could carry in a country’s flag at the Opening Ceremonies, so I’m assuming he must still have some skill. He is 13 years removed from scoring 48 goals for the New York Islanders, but scored 52 goals in 53 games in the Slovak League this year. Beastly.
Best Name—Branko Radivojevic
Apparently he has a nasty side that we never saw in the NHL. He amassed 109 penalty minutes in 53 games in Russia this year. I’d learn to stick up for that name too.
Key Players—Henrik Lundqvist, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Sedin
The defending Olympic champions have taken a back seat in pre-Olympic speculation, which may come as a bit of a surprise since they haven’t really lost any of the key components from last time around. Henrik Lundqvist is still a world-class goalie that can take over a game almost at will.
Combine that with great team defense and competent scoring and Sweden will likely sneak into the hunt for Gold. The players that have guided Sweden to hockey supremacy are getting older, which doesn’t bode well for the future of Swedish hockey. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, that will not affect their chances for Olympic Gold.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Samuel Pahlsson
Yes, I know. He has played in the NHL since 2000. Only once has he scored more than 10 goals in a season. So how does he manage to stay in the NHL? He is, by far, the best defensive forward in the League. The fact he has only been nominated once as the best defensive forward is a travesty. He played an integral part in shutting down the opposition’s superstars during Sweden’s gold medal run in Torino. Look for the same this year.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Mattias Weinhandl
Despite being injured often, Weinhandl was a surprisingly effective player for both the New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild. The most productive point in his career came when he played on a line with both Sedins in Sweden when they were all 19-years-old. Look for that as a possible line combination this year.
Best Name—Douglas Murray
On a team with many colorful names, Douglas Murray has by far the least colorful. I thought for sure he was Canadian, but I guess I was wrong.
Key Players—Jonas Hiller, Mark Streit, Martin Pluss, Andres Ambuhl
If you have watched any of Team Switzerland’s games over the last 10 years, you will notice the strict attention to defense that this team will take. If you haven’t seen them play recently and you thought the New Jersey Devils played boring hockey, wait until you see the Swiss. This team will be no different than teams of years past, as the trap will be a focal point of their strategy.
Combine the trap with a hot goalie and Switzerland is an upset waiting to happen. Switzerland’s power-play will also be surprisingly effective, since it is being quarterbacked by Mark Streit, one of the best in the business. Switzerland will be a lot to handle for Canada on February 18th.
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of—Ivo Ruthemann
Another player who was considered too small for North American hockey, Ruthemann has played in the German DEL his entire career. Along with great regular season performances, he has developed a niche as a clutch playoff player, averaging nearly a point per game in his career during the playoffs. In other news, I highly recommend you YouTube his puck stacking abilities. True skill.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Hnat Domenichelli
Born in Canada, Hnat has been around long enough that he was drafted by the Hartford Whalers. Yes, the Hartford Whalers. He once scored 15 goals for Atlanta, but otherwise never scored more than 10 goals in a season in his seven-year NHL career. In the Swiss league, however, he has never scored fewer that 18. Hopefully, for Switzerland’s sake, their version of Hnat comes to play.
Best Name—Severin Blindenbacher
Drafted in the 9th round by Phoenix in 2001, Blindenbacher played the majority of his career in Switzerland before playing in Sweden this past year. The epicness of his name, however, transcends all countries.
Key Players—Ryan Miller, Brian Rafalski, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise
Although not as talented as American teams in the past, this version will win games based on grit and competitiveness. General manager Brian Burke definitely has his fingerprints all over this team. Gone are the old guard of Modano, Tkachuk, and Guerin, and in are the new guard of Kane, Parise, and Kessel.
Expect this to be the most physical team in the tournament, since scoring may be hard to come by at times. Ryan Miller will have to be the hero for this team to medal, but backups Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick are both more than capable of stepping in if Miller isn’t on his game. It is safe to expect the Americans to be in medal contention.
Best Player You’ve (Barely) Heard Of—Joe Pavelski
Playing in San Jose has not helped Pavelski’s visibility, but he has quietly developed into a very solid second line player. He can kill penalties like nobody’s business, but so can half of Team USA. San Jose certainly likes what they see and apparently so does Team USA.
The Player You’ve Forgotten About—Jamie Langenbrunner
The veteran captain of the New Jersey Devils is very easily overlooked when considering the success of the franchise, but he has been one of the cornerstones of the franchise since he joined in 2002. The clutch playoff performer has won Stanley Cups on two occasions: once with Dallas and once with New Jersey. He is probably the ideal leader for a young American team.
Best Name—Jack Johnson
I wonder if this Jack Johnson knows how to play the guitar. I hope he can’t so the world is spared of another “musician” that just tries to steal all of our girlfriends.