Olympic hockey preview

Because almost no NHL players participate in World Championships, it’s typically very difficult to predict the outcome of the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament. We’ll give it a try from a historical perspective. Starting with a nation that will not win any medals, Germany is missing from the Olympics for the first time since 1948. Back then the country was not invited to compete on account of World War II, but this time they failed to qualify. The twelve nations that did make the cut are divided into three pools.

Group A features Russia, Slovakia, United States and Slovenia. The latter country is likely the weakest competitor in the pool. Slovenia qualified for the Olympics for the first time, although Yugoslavia competed from 1964 through 1976 and in 1984, when the Games were held in Sarajevo. The other three nations will be more closely matched. The home team has never won the Olympic title since the break-up of the Soviet Union, which won eight golds (if we include the 1992 Unified Team), but they medalled in 1998 (silver) and 2002 (bronze). The USA has won the title twice, although both times this was when the Olympics were held in the US (1960 Squaw Valley and of course 1980 Lake Placid). The American’s have a 1-1-1 record versus Russia at the Olympics, most importantly winning in the 2002 semi-finals. If we include the Soviet Union and the Unified Team, the Americans have a negative record of 3-1-9 against the hosts. Slovakia, however, is not to be forgotten. At the Olympics, it has a 2-0-1 record against Russia, winning their pool matches in 2006 and 2010. Versus the US, their record is 1-1-0, beating the Americans in the group stage in 2006, when the three nations were also drawn in the same group. The Slovakians won their pool then, but were knocked out by rivals Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.

In Group B, defending Olympic champion Canada is drawn against Finland, Norway and Austria. The Canadians, have won eight Olympic titles in all, the same as the USSR/Unified Team, and are looking to become the sole record holders. None of their group opponents have ever claimed Olympic gold, although the Finns have won five medals in the last seven Winter Olympics, winning two silvers and three bronzes. Finland is also the only group stage opponent with a neutral Olympic record against the Canadians (5-0-5). Both Austria and Norway have never won against Canada. Neither Austria nor Norway have been very successful in Olympic ice hockey. The Austrians had their best result in 1928, when they ranked 5th (ex aequo), and will make their first appearance since 2002. Norway has always ranked between 8th and 11th in its 10 appearances. The two nations have met 6 times in Olympic play, with Norway having the best record (3-1-2).

The third group, Group C, includes Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland and Latvia. Sweden, the 1994 and 2006 champion, has the best Olympic record in this group. They’ve won all encounters against Czech Republic and Latvia, and only lost only once to Switzerland (back in 1948) while recording 8 wins. It should be pointed out they were quite evenly matched with Czechoslovakia, having a 7-1-8 record. The Czech Republic won their only Olympic title in 1998, and earned a bronze in 2006. Before the split with Slovakia in 1993, Czechoslovakia was a consistent medallist, with 4 silvers and 4 bronzes. They played Latvia twice in Vancouver (winning both matches), and Switzerland once in Torino (losing 2-3). The Swiss have not enjoyed any Olympic successes for a long time. In 1928 and 1948, when the Games were held in St. Moritz with the great Bibi Torriani at the helm they won bronze medals. Their best recent performance was a 6th place in 2006. They never played Latvia before, which is competing in its fourth straight Olympics, and fifth time overall. The Baltic nation’s record is not too great. They’ve only ever won two Olympic matches, against Austria and Ukraine in 2002. In 2006 they did nearly upset the US with a 3-3 draw in the group stage.

Where does all this leave us for the medals? Six different countries divided the medals in the last two Olympics (Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Canada, US and Russia), but results from recent World Championships indicate that Switzerland and Slovakia should not be discounted for a medal either. The host nation typically does well if it is one of the major ice hockey nations, the US having won twice in three home Olympics (being losing finalist in the third) and Canada winning one gold in two home Games.  As a prediction has to include medallists, we’ll go for:

  1. Russia – because the home nation does well for major hockey nations
  2. Finland – because they’ve been the most consistent team at medalling for the past 7 Olympics
  3. Canada – because they’re the most successful hockey nation in the Olympics

On the women’s side, predictions are much easier – at least where it concerns the finalists. Since World Championships were first held in 1990, and with the event being Olympic since 1998, the US and Canada have faced each other in the final every time except for the 2006 Olympics, when Sweden upset the Americans in the semi-finals. Canada has had the upper hand at the Olympics, having won the last three golds. In World Championships, however, the US is more dominant in recent years, having won four out of the five last titles. Their head-to-head record at Olympics is 2-0-2, as the Americans won two games in 1998, and then lost the two finals in 2002 and 2010. Apart from these matches and the US loss to Sweden, neither team has ever lost or drawn an Olympic match. Your guess is as good as ours for the gold medallists; both the 2011 and 2012 Worlds were only decided after overtime. If the Canadians win it, it is likely that Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette, who are all on the preliminary Sochi team, will become the only ice hockey players to have won four golds, a record they currently share with five more Canadian women and six Soviet men. Wickenheiser and Hefford have also won a silver in 1998.

The competition for bronze, however, could be interesting. Finland, two-time bronze medallist, and Switzerland will join the two North American teams in Group A, which features the strongest four nations. The two lowest ranked out of this group will play the best nations of Group B for two semi-final spots. Group B features Russia, which was third in the last World Championships, Sweden, which have won Olympic silver and bronze, Germany and Japan. Based on Olympic results, Sweden has winning records against all nations, having only lost to Finland once. Finland is close, only trailing Sweden 1-0-2. Our final prediction:

  1. United States – because they’re due for a win
  2. Canada – because a women’s Olympic hockey final without Canada has never happened
  3. Switzerland – because the Olympic hockey tournament needs a little surprise


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