When the Winter Olympics roll around every four years, all eyes are usually on ice hockey. Hockey, after all, is a team sport and nations around the globe identify with both their men’s and women’s teams. That will again be the case as the Olympic hockey tournament in the XXIII Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea hits full stride this week. This is all regardless of the fact that for the first time in two decades the NHL will not be allowing its players to represent their countries in the Olympics.
Still, the hockey tournament remains attractive. Those who can recall 1980’s “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid understand the allure of Olympic hockey and its potential lasting impact. That emotional win for the U.S. team against the Russians, and the ensuing gold medal, was a big shot in the arm for the sport of hockey in the United States. NHL farm systems saw an influx of talent and youth hockey leagues sprang up across the country. It is true that sports leagues in general were enjoying the same growth, but credit the “Miracle” with at least some of hockey’s popularity growth the 1980s.
The “Miracle” hasn’t been forgotten as the ice hockey tournament remains one of the most popular Olympic events. That’s why the men’s gold medal game is played on the final day of competition.
Who will play in that final game is being highly speculated this time around. The Canadians are the two-time defending Olympic champions and will be led by former NHL players like Derek Roy and Rene Bourque. The U.S. team, whose only gold medals were in 1960 and 1980, has a mosaic of young players and seasoned veterans. Among them is former NHL journeyman Brian Gionta. University of Wisconsin Badgers coach Tony Granato is coaching Team USA.
Many are betting on the Russians – or the Olympic Athletes from Russia, as they’re to be called, thanks to a the Russian Olympic ban on many athletes for doping – to win a gold medal. The KHL, Russia’s top professional hockey league, will send players to the Olympics and while KHL players will be on many rosters, Russia will have the most talent. Still, the consensus coming into this tournament is that any team from any country could rise to the occasion and win the gold medal.
As for the women’s tournament, Team Canada is once again the one to beat, with the U.S. right on their heels. In what has become one of the best Olympic rivalries of this era, the Canadians look poised to impose their will on their opponents, including the U.S., whom they easily out-skated 3-1 in a pre-Olympic tune-up back in December.