The last time Olympic hockey was played in Asia, it was all about debuts. The 1998 Nagano Games welcomed two new groups of athletes, as both NHLers and female players made their first Olympic appearances.
Twenty years after the competition in Japan, the women’s game has never been more robust. And while the best boys won’t be in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2018 event, there’s still plenty of fun and intrigue to be found on the men’s side.
The women’s action kicked off on Saturday, while the men got going on Feb. 14. Let’s get you primed for these tournaments.
(And quit lying to yourself; Sidney Crosby or not, you’re still going to watch.)
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
The women’s draw features eight teams, four each in Group A and B. Group A (Canada, U.S., Finland, Olympic Athletes from Russia) is deeper, so the top two finishers in that division receive byes to the semi-finals. The bottom two finishers in A face the best two from B (Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Korea) in the quarter-finals.
The men’s tournament has 12 teams in three groups of four. After three round-robin games the top four teams (each group winner plus the second-place team with the best record) move right into the quarters. Everybody else will play a qualification contest — No. 5 faces No. 12, No. 6 gets No. 11 and so on — with the winners of those games forming the other four squads in the quarter-finals.
Both the men and women will use a system that awards three points for a regulation win, two for an overtime/shootout victory, one for an extra-time loss and zero for a regulation defeat.
All round-robin games will feature a five-minute, three-on-three OT period before a shootout. All elimination games that are not the gold medal game will have a 10-minute, four-on-four overtime preceding a shootout. When gold is on the line, teams will play a 20-minute, four-on-four frame before it comes down to the agonizing, one-on-one contest.
Don’t forget, while international shootouts start with the same three participants per side as the NHL, if it extends beyond that any player can shoot as often as a coach wants. Remember T.J. Oshie in Sochi?
Coaches will be permitted to challenge for off-side before a goal and goalie interference on a scoring play.
Pyeongchang is 14 hours ahead of Canada’s Eastern Time Zone. The Canadian women play Olympic Athletes from Russia on Sunday at 7:10 a.m. EST, Finland on Feb. 13 at 2:40 a.m. and the United States at 10:10 p.m. on Feb. 14.
The men face Switzerland at 7:10 a.m. on Feb. 15, the Czech Republic on Feb. 16 at 10:10 p.m. and South Korea on Feb. 18 at 7:10 a.m.
The best players on the planet may be sticking with their NHL clubs this February, but the league is still well represented. Canada’s roster features over 5,000 games’ worth of NHL experience (though every single guy is making his Olympic debut). With 524 career big-league points, Derek Roy has the best offensive resume of anybody wearing the maple leaf.
The oldest man in the tournament is former Detroit Red Wing and OAR captain Pavel Datsyuk, who’ll be 39 years and 209 days old when the action begins. That puts Datsyuk just ahead of American captain Brian Gionta. The small speedster, who won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils and more recently wore the ‘C’ for the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres, will be 39 years and 27 days old on Feb. 14.
The OAR roster also boasts the first overall pick from the 2001 NHL draft, Ilya Kovalchuk. But — somewhat notably — it does not contain former Canadiens defenceman and current KHLer Andrei Markov.
At the other end of the age spectrum, 2000-born Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin is the youngest player in the tourney. And in case you haven’t heard, he’s also a lock to go first overall at the NHL Draft in June.
Karri Ramo, who played 111 games in the Calgary Flames crease from 2013-14 to 2015-16, is one of Finland’s goalies and former Edmonton Oilers puckstopper Viktor Fasth is on Sweden. So, too, is goalie Jhonas Enroth, whose NHL career included a mere six games with Toronto last season.
END OF AN ERA
For the first time ever, Canada’s women will have an Olympic entry that does not feature Hayley Wickenheiser. The retired centre was 19 when the Canadians were upset by Team USA at the ’98 Games and added four Olympic golds to go with that silver over the course of her career.
Caroline Ouellette, an Olympian since 2002 who wore the ‘C’ last time out, has also hung up her international blades.
Captain Canada this time out will be the Queen of Clutch herself, Marie-Philip Poulin. The 26-year-old, you may recall, scored both goals in Canada’s 2-0 win over the U.S. in the final at Vancouver 2010 (when she was still 18) and both the last-minute equalizer and overtime winner during Canada’s absolutely bananas 3-2 gold medal victory four years ago in Sochi, Russia. Fourteen players who won gold for Canada in 2014 are in South Korea looking for more.