NHL players here - let Games begin

By Steve Keating

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The Vancouver Winter Olympics opening ceremony was on February 12 but for most Canadians the Games will officially begin on Tuesday with the start of men's ice hockey competition.

After the National Hockey League shut down for the Olympic break on Sunday, the world's top players began to flood into Vancouver for what many are already calling the greatest hockey tournament of all-time.

With Canada having claimed an elusive first home gold medal on Sunday, the arrival of Sidney Crosby and his team mates is sure to grab the spotlight.

Hockey Canada executive director Steve Yzerman arrived in Vancouver before his squad and immediately moved to deflect the immense pressure on his team by tipping Russia to win the gold medal.

But Team USA manager Brian Burke was not buying that and neither were 33 million hockey-mad Canadians who believe their team is the one to beat.

"Stevie (Yzerman) is a real smart guy and he's trying to take some pressure off Team Canada," Burke told reporters. "I don't know who's taking bets on this tournament but there's a book somewhere and the money is going to be on Canada.

"I might mention that it (pressure) is glacial, unremitting and unrelenting. I cannot imagine how they are going to function in this environment but they'll find a way.

"The pressure started to build on Canada the day Vancouver got the bid."


Most teams will have little time to prepare for the Olympic pressure cooker, getting just one practice on Monday before preliminary round play begins.

Russia are the International Ice Hockey Federation's top-ranked team and there will be more than a few people betting a Loonie (Canadian one dollar coin) they will be leaving with the gold medal.

Led by the NHL's top sniper Alexander Ovechkin, the free-wheeling Russians have claimed the last two world championships to rekindle memories of the Soviet Union's Big Red Machine.

With Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk no other team will come close to matching Russia's explosive firepower which strikes fear into opposing defenses and netminders.

"I expect fast, fearless, aggressive hockey," said Russian netminder Ilya Bryzgalov. "Every person here knows their role.

"We just have to play the game. That's all we do."

Sweden have 13 players from the team who won gold in Turin and should also have little trouble scoring with a line-up that includes Henrik Zetterberg and Vancouver Canucks duo Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who should benefit from playing on their home ice.

Also back in the Swedish line-up is double gold medalist Peter Forsberg, the man who scored the shootout winner against Canada at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games.

"If you look at Canada and Russia, they have unbelievable rosters but it's going to be harder than people think," said Forsberg.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)