(SportsNetwork.com) - It was touch and go there for a while, but the men's ice hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics will feature the participation of National Hockey League players.
This year's Sochi Games marks the fifth time since the 1998 Nagano Olympics that the NHL will halt its regular season to allow its players to represent their countries in a quest for gold.
Once again, Team Canada figures to be the team to beat in both the men's and women's tournaments. The Canadian men won the tournament four years ago in Vancouver to become the first nation to claim two gold medals since the format was altered to allow the inclusion of NHLers.
The Canadian women, meanwhile, have won three consecutive golds after the United States won the inaugural women's tournament at the Nagano Games.
Both the men's and women's tourneys were staged on an NHL-sized rink (200 X 85 feet) four years ago in Vancouver, but the 2014 Sochi Games will mark a return to the wider international surface of 200 X 98.5 ft. The smaller rinks were said to be an advantage for the North American countries heading into 2010 and that theory proved true, as Canada and the U.S. played for gold in both tournaments.
Overall, ice hockey in the Olympic Games dates back to 1920, when the tournament was part of the Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. The Winter Games then began in 1924 at Chamonix, France.
Twelve countries will compete in this year's men's tournament: Canada, United States, Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Austria.
Eight nations will compete on the women's side with Canada and the U.S. leading the pack in what expects to be a two-country race for gold. Russia, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, German and Japan also will play in Sochi.
TOP CONTENDERS AND CURRENT CHAMPIONS
With a stacked roster led by Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, the Canadians are once again heavy favorites to win the gold in Sochi. It's common knowledge the Canadians have by far the most talent in the men's tournament, but having the best squad on paper may not be enough this time around.
The problem with picking Canada to win in Sochi is that history tells us the country struggles at Olympic Games staged outside North America. While the Canadian men won hockey gold the last two times the Winter Games were in North America (2010 Vancouver, 2002 Salt Lake City) the country failed to secure a medal of any kind at the 2006 Turin Games and the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
In fact, the last time Canada claimed gold outside of North America was way back in 1952, when Team Canada beat the Americans in Oslo, Norway.
Team USA faces a similar problem, as the Americans won their only two gold medals in men's hockey on U.S. soil. The last time, of course, was during the legendary "Miracle on Ice" team's run at the 1980 Lake Placid Games. That gold-medal winning performance came 20 years after the U.S. shocked Canada at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California.
On paper, however, the U.S. may have the second-best team in Sochi, with NHL stars like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Ryan Suter leading the way. The Americans also boast a deep goaltending corps with Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller, the MVP of the tournament at the 2010 Vancouver Games, returning and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings expected to battle for playing time.
Quick, the Conn Smythe winner for the Kings during their 2012 Stanley Cup championship run, seems to have the inside track over Miller for the starting U.S. job, while Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard expects to provide insurance.
Canada's netminders are nothing to sneeze at either, as Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens lead a group that also includes Phoenix netminder Mike Smith.
Luongo was the man for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics and he outdueled Miller in the Gold Medal Game, which the Canadians won by a 3-2 score on an overtime winner from Crosby.
Right there with the U.S. as contenders to the throne are host nation Russia as well as Sweden and Finland. Of that group, the Swedes are the most recent gold medallists, having won the tournament eight years ago in Turin, Italy.
Russia won silver and bronze, respectively, at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics, and the hosts are a trendy pick to win gold at Sochi. The problem is the country has never won gold while competing under the Russian flag. The Soviet Union, of course, was a dominant force in Olympic hockey for decades, winning seven golds from 1956-88 before the Unified Team, which contained six of the 15 former Soviet republics, won the tourney at the 1992 Albertville Games.
Led by Washington Capitals superstar winger Alex Ovechkin and fellow forward Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings, the Russians boast a ton of offensive firepower, but they still lack depth, especially on defense. To win gold in Sochi, Team Russia is probably going to need the home-ice advantage to carry them most of the way.
Sweden and Finland seem like better bets than Russia to dethrone the Canadians in Sochi. The Finns have never won hockey gold at the Olympics, but they have reached the podium at four of the last five Winter Games. Team Finland followed up a silver-medal finish behind the rival Swedes in Turin by claiming bronze behind Canada and U.S. at the Vancouver Games.
Team Sweden, meanwhile, will be eager to put its 2010 Olympic performance in the rearview mirror. The country bowed out in the quarterfinals against Slovakia four years ago, leaving the Swedes without a medal in this event for the third time in four Olympics.
The next group of contenders figures to be Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with the former nation hoping top defenseman Zdeno Chara can help the NOC (National Olympic Committee) win its first-ever medal in men's hockey.
Both Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which won gold at the 1998 Nagano Games and a bronze in 2006, figure to face depth issues similar to the ones Russia is contending with. However, the Slovakians seems to have a better situation in net, where St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak has a chance to get hot and lead the team to the podium. However, Czech goaltender Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets does not inspire the same level of confidence.
Teams Switzerland and Austria are the best of the remaining countries, but neither nation figures to have much of a chance at medaling. Latvia, Slovenia and Norway are expected to bring up the rear.
WOMEN'S ICE HOCKEY
While no less than seven teams have a legitimate chance to win gold on the men's side, as stated above, the women's bracket is as close to a two-horse race as you're going to see.
Since the first IIHF women's world championships was held in 1990, there have been 19 tournaments (world championships and Olympics combined) and only once did the top-two finishers include a country other than Canada and the U.S. That one time, however, was at an Olympic Games, as Sweden finished second to Canada at the 2006 Turin Olympics while the U.S. was forced to settle for bronze.
Although the American women have won four of the last five world championships, including two of the three staged following the Vancouver Games, there is no doubt the Olympic tournament belongs to the three-time defending gold medalist Canadians.
Still, Team USA's success at the world championships gives hope that the American women can break through with their first Olympic gold since taking the inaugural tourney 16 years ago in Nagano, Japan.
The American women are led by Amanda Kessel, the younger sister of U.S. men's team member Phil Kessel. Kessel, 22, is playing in her first Olympic Games, but she was part of the U.S. squad that claimed gold at the 2013 world championships in Ottawa. Kessel scored the game-winning goal in a 3-2 victory over Canada at the worlds.
Kessel also led the University of Minnesota to a perfect 41-0-0 season and an NCAA championship in 2013 and also won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation's top player. She led the NCAA with a whopping 101 points (46 goals, 55 assists) in 37 games last season.
Kessel had two goals and six assists for the U.S. at the most recent worlds, while Brianna Decker, who claimed the Kazmaier Award for Wisconsin in 2012, notched six goals to lead the Americans.
This edition of the U.S. team is a youthful one with no players left as holdovers from the 1998 gold medal year. Forward Julie Chu is the only member of the 2014 squad to have played at either the 2002 or 2006 Winter Games, and she is the only player on the team born before 1985.
While the U.S. roster has an average age of just over 23 years old, the Canadians are nearly three years older than that. The most recognizable member of Team Canada is still Hayley Wickenheiser, who, at 35 years old, will be competing in her fifth, and possibly final, Winter Games. This will be the sixth Olympics overall for Wickenheiser, who also represented Canada in softball at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
Wickenheiser, winner of three golds and a silver with Team Canada, is widely considered to be the greatest women's hockey player of all-time. Fellow forwards Jayna Hefford and Carolina Ouellette join Wickenheiser as holdovers from Canada's last three gold medal-winning teams.
Canada's top goaltender Shannon Szabados is back after shutting out the Americans in a 2-0 win four years ago at the Vancouver Games. Jessie Vetter, who started the gold-medal games at the 2010 Olympics and at last year's world championships, expects to be the top goaltender for the U.S.
The U.S. beat Canada in four of the seven games of a pre-Olympic exhibition series, with the Americans winning the final four tilts. A couple of those tune-up contests featured brawls, so there is obviously no love lost between the two countries when it comes to women's hockey. Kessel didn't play in any of the seven exhibition games due to a lower-body injury, but she will be ready to go for Sochi.
The Canadians also enter Sochi with a new head coach after Dan Church resigned from the post on Dec. 12 in a shocking turn of events. Church has been replaced by Kevin Dineen, who began the 2013-14 NHL season as head coach of the Florida Panthers before getting fired in early November.
The U.S. and Canada will face each other in a preliminary round game on Feb. 12 and it's almost a foregone conclusion that the teams will meet later in Sochi in the gold-medal battle on Feb. 20.
Finland and Switzerland are the next-best countries and they figure to battle for bronze along with Team Sweden. The U.S. will play its first game on Feb. 8 against Finland and Canada will open the same day versus Switzerland.