By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Three of international ice hockey's greatest rivalries take center stage for a hat-trick of grudge matches in what is being billed as Olympic Super Sunday at Canada Hockey Place.
There will be six gold medals on offer elsewhere but for hockey-mad Canadians the Games spotlight will be focused on where the world's six top-ranked teams close out the preliminary round with rematches of the last three Olympic finals.
The hockey feast begins early with Russia facing off against the Czech Republic in a rematch of the 1998 Nagano final before turning the ice over to North American neighbors Canada and the United States, who played for gold in 2002 at Salt Lake City.
By design or coincidence, Olympic schedulers have delivered a rare treat for hockey fans that would be the soccer equivalent of Brazil playing Argentina, Spain meeting Italy and England taking on Germany on the same pitch on the same day.
While the rivalries are all forged in the past the outcome of Sunday's games will have much to say about the future, with the top four teams after the preliminary round advancing directly to the quarter-finals. The remaining eight teams will play off for a spot in the last eight.
Adding extra spice to all three contests are deep rooted rivalries that cut across a number of sports.
For the Czechs, every victory over Russia on Olympic ice is a little payback for the day in 1968 when Soviet tanks rumbled in Prague and occupied their country.
"Against Russia it is always a huge game," Czech defenseman Pavel Kubina said. "It's each game against the Russians that I remember when I was young. When we beat Russia in Nagano that is my biggest memory."
Nordic neighbors Finland and Sweden would rather eat glass and wash it down with gasoline than lose a hockey game to each other.
"After the Finns won they partied in the biggest square in Stockholm and that twisted the knife into the gut of every Swede," Szymon Szemberg, a Swedish hockey historian and International Ice Hockey Federation media chief, told Reuters.
"Even when Finland was just getting good at ice hockey their attitude was we must beat the Swedes and then we will see what happens with the rest."
While the greatest hockey moments for Canada and the United States have come against the Soviet Union the Cold War rivalry with Russia has lost much of its heat and been replaced by a red-hot feud between the North American neighbors.
Canadians have grown used to living in the shadow of their big neighbors to the south but when it comes to hockey it has always been the Great White North's time to shine.
While there have been no seismic shifts in the hockey world power base every tremor is felt in the sport's spiritual home.
"This is going to be an unbelievable," said U.S. coach Ron Wilson. "I'm anticipating one of the best atmospheres I've been in since the '96 World Cup. Every TV in Canada is going to be watching it and a good many in the United States.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)