The Puck Drops on Men's Olympic Hockey

4 Sport BostonCorrespondent IFebruary 16, 2010

I love the Winter Olympics. I really do. One of my earliest sporting memories is watching the “Battle of the Brians” between Brian Boitano and Bryan Orser in figure skating at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Four years later, I made my parents bring me to the Boston Garden to watch the 1992 U.S. hockey team play against the Bruins. In 1998, I may have been one of the only people awake at 2 a.m. watching the hockey coverage. In 2002, my dedication to watching every game of the hockey tournament was borderline OCD.

As you can tell, most of my Winter Olympic fanaticism surrounds the men’s ice hockey tournament. Besides a brief infatuation with sparkly costumes and triple axels, the hockey portion of the Olympics is what keeps my eyes glued to the screen. Never mind the fact that the addition of the NHL players in ’98 makes this arguably the most star-studded event in either the Summer or Winter Games, I was like this way back when Team USA was filled with the best college players the Bay State had to offer. Following basketball’s lead and bringing together the absolute best in the world at what they do has only upped the fascination.

Think about it. There are 12 teams in the men’s hockey tournament in Vancouver – each with NHL talent on its roster. Sure, some teams like Norway and Latvia are not powerhouses like Canada and Russia, but they feature legitimate world-class players. Unlike the basketball competition at the Summer Games where there is really the United States and then two or three teams behind them competing for silver and bronze, the hockey tournament is wide open. Any of the top six seeds in the tournament could win the gold medal. All six of those teams are filled with either NHL players or the best pros in Europe. Teams like Slovakia (with Bruins Zdeno Chara and Miroslav Satan) and Germany (with Marco Sturm) could win a game and sneak into the medal round where it becomes a series of one-game eliminations.

The pressure in those quarterfinal games will be most heavily laid at the feet of Team Canada. The top seed in the tournament based on the pre-rankings, the Canadians will be looking to win gold on their home ice for the first time. Luckily for them, Alex Bilodeau broke the entire country’s drought with gold in moguls. Now, the Canadian hockey players just have to worry about not letting down the entire country with a lowly silver medal. Seriously, if Team Canada doesn’t win gold, the entire country will be crying in their Molson at Tim Horton’s. Sidney Crosby will be as revered in the Great White North as Bill Buckner used to be at Fenway.

If those crazy Canucks don’t win gold, there are two teams most likely to break Canada’s heart – Russia and Sweden. The Swedes are the defending champions, with 2006 standout goalie Henrik Lundqvist back between the pipes. Russia only has the biggest collection of firepower this side of Red Dawn in Alex Ovechkin, Geno Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.

All three of those teams are expected to finish pool play at the top and occupy the first three seeds in the quarterfinals. After that, Finland, the Czech Republic and the U.S. should all find themselves in the quarterfinals. The fun part will be figuring out which surprise teams will slide into the final two spots.

You know what else is also great about the men’s hockey games? They are like those first two days of March Madness. Today’s U.S. game is at 3 p.m. They play again on Thursday at 3 p.m. Pretty much every day between now and Feb. 28 has a game at that time. So, fire up an old spreadsheet on your monitor and tune your innerwebs to the game for a little “afternoon delight” puck style. Not sure who you are watching or which squad to cheer for when the Yanks aren’t playing? That’s what your resident hockey guru is here for. Get to know your Olympic hockey squads…