For the second straight Olympics, the men’s hockey tournament will not feature NHL superstars (although this time due to COVID-19), making the Olympic tournament not necessarily a true “best on best,” but still a showcase of some of the world’s top talent looking to capture Gold and Olympic glory in Beijing.
The favourites for the second straight Games will be the Russian Olympic Committee (once again playing under the Olympic flag due to a CAS ruling), again featuring a heavyweight roster of KHL superstars, with over a dozen returnees from their 2018 Gold Medal roster. While they will not have the firepower of now-retired stars Ilya Kovalchuk or Pavel Datsyuk, or now-NHL stars Kirill Kaprizov or Igor Shestyorkin, they still have KHL stars like Vadim Shipachyov, Andrei Kuzmenko and Nikita Gusev leading the charge. They will highlight Group B, against their perennial rivals from Czechia, looking to improve on their fourth place 2018 finish with a KHL-heavy roster as well; Switzerland, looking to make a splash with a roster of NLA players; and Olympic final qualifier Denmark, making their Olympic debut.
Group A will be made of tournament heavyweights Canada and the United States, surprising 2018 Silver medallists Germany, and hosts China, and with the absence of NHLers again in Beijing, this could potentially be a three-horse race for top of the group. Canada and the United States will be leaning on collegiate and junior players, along with older journeymen players in Europe, with Canada looking to improve on their 2018 Bronze medal. Germany will try to strike lightning twice, but will be missing 2018 coach Marco Sturm, captain Marcel Goc and star defender Christian Ehrhoff. Rounding out the group will be hosts China, made up of a mix of native Chinese and naturalized North American players from the KHL’s Red Star Kunlun on the roster, who will frankly just be looking to avoid embarrassment on home ice and have the score run up too high.
Group C will have returning contenders and cross-border rivals Finland and Sweden in the same group once again, along with two of the three final qualifiers for the Games, Slovakia and Latvia. Tre Kronor (who has the tournament’s only eligible new Triple Gold Club members, Marcus Krüger and Joakim Nordström) and the Leijonat both bring in rosters made up of ex-NHLers and young stars from across the KHL, SHL and Liiga, and their final group round matchup will likely determine the winner of Group C. Slovakia, bringing a number of top prospects to Beijing, will look to upend the presumed 1-2 finish of the Scandinavian countries, and Latvia, playing largely with a KHL roster of Dinamo Rīga stars, will try to make an impact in the Group and Qualification rounds.
From the perspective of the IHLC, a few interesting facts related to this year’s Olympics:
– Finland enters the Olympics as incumbent IHLC champions for the fourth straight time (2010-22), and fifth overall (1976)
– in the last three Olympics, Finland won their first two games before losing their third and final group match; if this pattern follows, Finland should drop their group finale to Sweden, as they did in 2010 and 2018
– Finland will open the tournament against Slovakia on 10 February, who they are 1-0-1 all-time against for the IHLC, and last played in 2002
– Russia is looking to become back-to-back Olympic champions for the first time since a “three-peat” 20 years ago (1984–92); they also previously won four straight Gold medals (1964-76)
– interestingly, Russia has reached the Gold Medal Game in all three previous Winter Olympics held in Asia, winning Gold at Sapporo 1972 and PyeongChang 2018, and Silver at Nagano 1998
– this marks the first Winter Olympic Games held in China, and mark the first men’s IHLC matches ever in the country
– of the returning roster for the Russian Olympic Committee, there are six players returning from PyeongChang 2018
While the tournament will still unfortunately be lacking the world’s best-on-best for the first time since Sochi 2014, the 2018 tournament provided no shortage of drama, and there is no doubt that barring any major COVID disruptions, this tournament should do the same once again, right up to the Gold Medal Game.