Following Belarus’ failure to finish in the top four at the 2015 World Championships, Slovakia scooped up the ninth and final automatic qualification spot for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea, joining defending champions Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia, the United States, Czechia, Switzerland and the host nation Korea.
Per the IIHF mandate, the top eight ranked nations (plus the host) in the IIHF World Ranking following the World Championships would gain automatic entry, with the final three spots to be determined in a series of progressing qualification tournaments throughout 2015-16. While Sweden and Finland were already mathematically qualified before the tournament, the other “big four” nations, along with Switzerland and Slovakia, rounded out the group. Korea, a controversial choice due to its relative lack of hockey success, will have a lot of experience to gain fast in order to compete in front of their home crowd in three years’ time.
Belarus, short of Slovakia by 95 points, will now have to scoop up one of the three Qualification spots, from a field that also includes 2014 qualifiers Germany, Latvia and Slovenia. While it remains to be seen which teams advance through Preliminary and Pre-Qualification, it seems likeliest one of the Final Qualification teams (ranked 9-17) will have the best chance, but the question then becomes which emerge as the victors. Potential NHL participation will have a huge impact on whether some nations have a solid chance, as the addition of stars like Mats Zuccarello-Aasen (Norway), Anže Kopitar (Slovenia) or Frederik Andersen (Denmark) have the potential to change their team’s fortunes singlehandedly.
It remains to be seen not just how the Qualification Tournaments, but the Olympic tournament in Korea, comes together, with rumours of the NHL pulling out in favour of the 2016 World Cup Of Hockey, and the financial liability of the KHL, putting into question who will pull on their nations’ sweaters in Pyeongchang. Will the world have the pleasure of the sixth straight Olympics with full professional participation, or will we return to an era of amateur Olympic hockey that dominated the sport for decades? We hope the former, but we shall see soon enough!