CON­TENDERS EV­ERY­WHERE

Canada? The U.S.? The OAR? It’s any­one’s guess who’ll cap­ture this tour­na­ment of great un­knowns, Steve Sim­mons writes.

Edmonton Journal - - WINTER OLYMPICS -

To choke or not to choke? That is the Rus­sian ques­tion as the Olympic hockey tour­na­ment be­gins.

Call them what you want, Russians, Olympic Ath­letes from Rus­sia (OAR), the nar­ra­tive doesn’t re­ally change: Can this team, this coun­try, fi­nally gets its act to­gether and win Olympic hockey gold?

It’s only been 26 years be­tween gold medals, and that 1992 Uni­fied Team wasn’t ex­actly known as Rus­sian, ei­ther. This time, the po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances may be dif­fer­ent but the victory in the end could be sim­i­lar.

Can this coun­try, known for dis­ap­point­ing ev­ery four years, find a way to leave the past be­hind?

“For me, the Russians are what Canada was in the last Olympic tour­na­ment,” said hockey com­men­ta­tor Ray Fer­raro, here cover­ing the Games. “They had the most tal­ent, they were the best team and they did it in the end. Here, the Russians have the best team with the most ex­pe­ri­ence, the most fire­power and ter­rific goal­tend­ing.”

And then he pauses. Be­cause he’s talk­ing about the Olympics and Rus­sian hockey, even if the team is with­out its em­blems and that fab­u­lous an­them. Which is all part of the fas­ci­na­tion of this Olympic hockey tour­na­ment: This is the tour­na­ment of great un­knowns.

The teams haven’t been seen be­fore. This is so new, the his­tory of most coun­tries is ba­si­cally in­signif­i­cant. The best play­ers are in the NHL. There is al­most no way of truly seed­ing which coun­try is favoured to win which medal.

“I think it’s al­ways the same teams to worry about,” said Mikhail Grig­orenko, a for­mer first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres. “It’s go­ing to be Canada, U.S., Swe­den, Fin­land and the Czechs. You can’t take any of those teams lightly.”

Then there’s Ger­many, Switzer­land and Slo­vakia to worry about. That’s nine teams and three medals to go around. The math doesn’t add up.

“I think we’re re­ally mo­ti­vated not hav­ing our coun­try on our jersey,” Grig­orenko said. “We play for our coun­try no mat­ter what they call us. Ob­vi­ously, we’d like to have Rus­sian signs and flags and all that, but the de­ci­sion was we have to play like this.”

As favourite at home in Sochi, that was a huge dis­ap­point­ment. As con­tender in Van­cou­ver, they were blasted by Canada. In the five tour­na­ments with NHL play­ers, Rus­sia, with all its in­di­vid­ual tal­ent, hasn’t played for gold.

The Slo­vaks proved the point out of the gate with a 3-2 win over OAR in Wed­nes­day’s opener for both teams.

That frailty is be­ing counted upon by the odd col­lec­tion of play­ers cho­sen to play for Canada and the U.S. Both teams be­lieve they have speed and goal­tend­ing and are sys­tem­at­i­cally sound enough to con­tend, but both con­cede they will have trou­ble scor­ing.

Team USA is ex­cited about young­sters Ryan Donato, Jor­dan Green­way and Troy Terry. “They will all be in the NHL soon,” NBC com­men­ta­tor Pierre McGuire said. “They have a lot of tal­ent.”

Canada has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence. Swe­den has Ras­mus Dahlin, con­sen­sus first pick in this June’s NHL draft, on de­fence. The al­ways solid Finns have de­fence­man Miro Heiska­nen and for­ward Eeli Tolva­nen: both were first-round NHL picks in 2017, Heiska­nen third over­all.

“This is a lit­tle bit like a world ju­nior tour­na­ment in a way,” Fer­raro said. “You al­ways won­der, how will the young guys play against older, more ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers? You have that with Swe­den and Fin­land here, and even with some of the Amer­i­can for­wards. These are great young tal­ents, but is this the venue for them to show it?

“The way I look at it is, after Rus­sia, it’s a crap­shoot. This may be the least pre­dictable event in the en­tire Olympics. The Swedes will be good. I think Canada will be good. The U.S. will be better than a lot of peo­ple think; they ’re very fast. And the Finns, they never go away.”

Fer­raro of­fers one more con­tender: “The Swiss are pretty good and ex­pe­ri­enced. If they get any kind of goal­tend­ing, I think they’ll be dif­fi­cult to beat.”

It’s bad that the NHL guys are not here. I think ev­ery­body wants them here. The Olympics, all the best play­ers should play here be­cause it’s a big event. … It is what it is. … There are five, six teams at the same level that have a lot of young kids who will be future NHLers.

ILYA KO­VALCHUK, ATH­LETE FROM RUS­SIA

After Rus­sia, it’s a crap­shoot. This may be the least pre­dictable event in the en­tire Olympics.

KIR­ILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Slo­vakia’s To­mas Sy­rovy, left, ends up in a dan­ger­ous po­si­tion next to Rus­sian Ar­tyom Zub in men’s hockey Wed­nes­day at the Gangneung Hockey Cen­tre in Gangneung. Slo­vakia up­set the Olympic Ath­letes from Rus­sia 3-2.

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