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Winter Olympics Men's Hockey: Five storylines to follow

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

The highly anticipated men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games opens Wednesday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, with the Czech Republic taking on Sweden. For Russians, this is the most important event of the whole Olympics and for hockey fans, it's 11 days of one of the best showcases the game has to offer.

Something always seems to happen at the Olympics that makes for an unforgettable moment in hockey's history. There's the Miracle on Ice in 1980, Forsberg in the shootout in 1994, Hasek's dominance in 1998, Belarus over Sweden and the Lucky Loony in 2002, Swiss upsetting Canada in 2006 and of course Crosby's golden goal in 2010. History will be made in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so says the ad, but for many, immortality is found at the Olympics.

With that in mind, here are a number of storylines that bring the most intrigue heading into the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament.

1. The enormous pressure on Russia.

There's no question that the biggest storyline heading into these Olympics is the amount of pressure on the shoulders of Team Russia, head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and star players like Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.

This Olympics cost a reported $51 billion and the common theme has been this: “If the men's hockey team wins gold, this Olympics will be declared a success.” That's coming from everywhere including former players, politicians and many a Russian analyst.

So how does a team deal with such pressure? That remains to be seen. The earliest test for Russia's golden hopes comes in the preliminary round when the hosts meet Team USA Saturday. You think the prelim game between the U.S. and Canada in 2010 in Vancouver had hype? Get ready for something on a nuclear level by comparison.

A win there for Russia will be a big confidence builder and will make believers out of their countrymen, which will only increase the pressure. A loss will bring the kind of disappointment and, perhaps worst of all, doubt. It really could set the tone for the rest of Russia's Olympic tournament.

Team Russia is all smiles now, but pressure in Sochi is enormous. (USATSI)
Team Russia is all smiles now, but pressure in Sochi is enormous. (USATSI)

There's so much riding on this team winning gold it seems and all they've heard about is how the legacy of the Sochi Olympics rests in them winning it all. How they deal with it for the duration of the tournament is going to be one of the most interesting things to keep an eye on.

2. Can Canada defend gold on European soil?

Canada's last two gold medals came on North American soil, in Salt Lake City in 2002 and in Vancouver in 2010. The other two Olympics held outside of North America since 1998, Canada hasn't won a thing. Their last overseas gold came in 1952 in Oslo, Norway. That also represented the last time Canada won back-to-back gold medals.

Will history matter? It's hard to say. The Canadians have the best team on paper, but they also have a very large target on their back. Anything less than gold would be considered a failure in Canada. So how do they overcome what history says about this tournament?

Mike Babcock obviously took this seriously as he hired former Oilers head coach and Swiss national Ralph Krueger as an advance scout to watch a lot of European hockey the last year. All of his recon work could be just the kind of ammunition a coach like Babcock needs to get this team over the foreign hump.

3. Is this the Americans' time?

One of the common themes among the U.S. players and staff over the last several months since the initial camp roster was announced was how close the Americans came to gold in 2010. “One goal short” is the most common phrase tossed around when the Americans speak of the game in which they fell to Canada 3-2 in the 2010 gold-medal game.

Coming that close to gold has to be a motivating factor for the 13 players returning from that 2010 team. Now they've also added some younger players to the mix that are making their mark on the NHL, but have already done so at the younger levels of international hockey.

The U.S. seeks its first gold medal since that miracle in 1980. Thirty-four years is a long time.

This may be the best roster the U.S. has assembled since 2002 when it took silver in Salt Lake City, so there's reason for optimism. USA Hockey has also been riding a wave of momentum internationally over the last decade, particularly at the World Junior and Under-18 levels, which many of the current Olympians were a part of.

This is a group that unlike its predecessors has had success internationally in the past, which is valuable experience. Now it's time to see if that will actually translate into Olympic gold. This U.S. team feels they're better than they were when they fell one goal short. Now they have to prove it.

4. Old, but familiar faces return.

One of the fun things about the Olympics is that it offers some players that we've either thought had retired or had long forgotten about come back into the fold and bring with them a wave of nostalgia. Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr are still doing that on a regular basis in the NHL and both will play prominent roles on Finland and the Czech Republic, respectively. However, there are some other names from the recent past that will be making their return to the North American hockey fan's consciousness.

The first is Petr Nedved, who at 42 years old has not played in the NHL since the 2006-07 season. He didn't even make the Czech roster for the 2010 Olympics, yet here he is in 2014. Nedved, who actually represented Canada in the 1994 Olympics after defecting from Czechoslovakia at a young age, will represent his native Czech Republic for the first time in the Olympics. He last played for the Czech national team at the 2012 IIHF World Championship. You may recall Nedved had a 99-point season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.

Another oldster making his way back to the Olympics is Latvian Sandis Ozolinsh who will appear in his third Olympics at 41 years old. Ozolinsh last suited up in an NHL game in 2007-08. He has been playing in the KHL, primarily with his hometown Dynamo Riga and was part of Latvia's squad during Olympic qualifying. It wasn't long ago that he was in an administrative role with the Latvian national team as he served as the team manager at the 2011 World Championship.

On top of some of the old guys (hockey old, at least), former NHLers like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, who left for the KHL, will be playing prominent roles on Team Russia.

5. Is this the last NHL Olympics for a while?

The harsh reality about the Winter Games in Sochi is that this could be the last time we see NHL players participate in the Olympics for the foreseeable future. It's going to be something that looms in the background throughout this tournament, but recent comments by Flyers owner Ed Snider and further commentary from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly leaves little doubt that owners are going to push hard to quash Olympic participation going forward.

The 2018 Winter Games will be in Peyongchang, South Korea, which means unfavorable TV times for games (just like Sochi) and logistical headaches. It's another high-risk, low-reward situation for the NHL and after five trips to the Olympics, the NHL may be just sick enough of taking on that risk for such little reward.

The NHL does not benefit a ton from NHL participation beyond more attention on the sport of hockey than the league can generate on its own. Unfortunately, those higher TV ratings and buzz about international hockey has had a marginal impact on the league in terms of its own TV ratings and attendance.

One could argue that the 2010 Olympics were the best yet for the NHL in terms of buzz generated, but it's hard to know just how much of an impact that had on the NHL's bottom line in general.

When the league decided to send its players to the Olympics for the first time in 1998, it really needed the publicity. But as the years go by, the league has gained more of a foothold in the American sports market place. Business is booming right now, so shutting down for 16 days in the middle of the season isn't as appetizing.

The players want to play, the fans love it. The owners don't. It's hard to blame them for what it does to their bottom line and the risk of injury to star players. It's still a business.

It would be a shame if this is the end, because it really is a lot of fun to see the world's best go head-to-head for 11 days of the highest-quality hockey we get to see in a given four-year span. It seems like we'll have to get used to the idea, though.

 
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