Olympic Preview Series: Introduction to Sochi 2014

Julian Finney

In the series kickoff, let's get to know the host city, Olympic venues, IIHF rules and how they're different from NHL rules, and the competition format of the Olympic hockey tournament.

Welcome to PensBurgh's Olympic preview series, every Sunday now through the Olympics.

Before we start learning all there is to know about hockey super-powers like Latvia and Slovenia, let's get to know the host city, Olympic venues, IIHF rules and how they're different from NHL rules, and the competition format of the Olympic hockey tournament.

Olympic hockey is my favorite thing in the world. It's given me moments of elation and moments of heartbreak, but it's always been wonderful. I can't wait.

HOCKEY AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES

Ice hockey at the Olympic Games dates back to 1920 for men and 1998 for women. Only six countries have ever won the men's gold: Canada (8), Soviet Union (8), United States (2), Sweden (2), Czech Republic (1) and Great Britain (1). Interestingly, Russia has never won the Olympic gold as an independent country. The last time Russian-born players dominated the Olympics was when the so-called Unified Team (consisting of players from former Soviet republics) won the gold in Albertville in 1992. This time they are the hosts and the hopes are obviously sky-high.

HOST CITY

When most people think of Russia, they probably picture snow, cold, more snow, more cold. But a winter Olympics held in a palm tree-lined resort town on the Black Sea famous for its beaches and bikini fests? In the largest country on Earth one can find some very unusual places, and Sochi is one of them. It's basically South Beach set at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, so it's also a high-end winter sports resort.

Sochi has a subtropical climate and winter temperatures can vary from low 30s to high 40s (and even low 50s) Fahrenheit. In case of unexpectedly warm weather, the organizers will be ready with sophisticated snow-making gear that can produce snow in 50-60 F weather. They also invested heavily in infrastructure and facilities that will be second to none. Mother Russia is flush these days, and it will be on full display.

OLYMPIC HOCKEY VENUES

The Sochi Games will be the most compact Olympics ever. All the venues are going to be concentrated in the coastal cluster and it will take mere minutes to get from A to B. Hockey will be played in two arenas, the spectacular Bolshoy Ice Dome (capacity 12,000), where most men's games will be played, and the smaller Shayba Arena (capacity 7,000), where some men's and all women's games will be played.

PARTICIPATING COUNTRIES

Qualification for the men's tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics was determined by the IIHF World Ranking following the 2012 World Hockey Championships. The top nine ranked teams received automatic Olympic berths (Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, Sweden, Canada, Slovakia, USA, Norway and Switzerland). The remaining three spots were up for grabs, and after three qualifying tournaments in February 2013, Austria, Latvia and Slovenia were seated at the main table and some mainstays of Olympic hockey, such as Germany, were left standing without a chair. I mostly regret Belarus not making it, because just think of the fun times we'd have watching Patrick Kane maintain foreign relations by laying waste to Sochi nightlife establishments with Alex Radulov and the Kostitsyn brothers.

IIHF RINK AND RULE DIFFERENCES

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rules govern the World Championship and Olympic competition. People refer to these as IIHF vs. NHL differences, but in essence these are differences between North American and European hockey, because all the hockey leagues in North America and not just the NHL apply the same rules, while IIHF rules are applied in all European leagues.

Most of the differences people are talking about are centered around the different rink sizing. There is no difference in length (both are 200 feet), but European rinks are wider than North American ones (98.5 feet vs. 85 feet). There are differences in the amount of zone space, as in European rinks the offensive zone is shorter, neutral zone is a little longer, and there is more space behind the net. As far as the rules are concerned, you can look up all of them in the IIHF rule book adopted through 2014, but I will summarize the key differences. Fighting is prohibited - game misconduct and match penalty it is. No playing without a helmet - if it comes off, the player must skate to the bench. Any player on the team may take a penalty shot - not just the one against whom the penalty was committed. In case of a tie, it's 10 minute sudden-death OT followed by a shootout - no exceptions. Goalies can play the puck anywhere behind the net, but they can't cover it behind the goal line.

European hockey puts a much heavier emphasis on speed, puck control, and finesse than it does on the strength and body-checking parts of the game. The bigger ice surface will put a premium on skating and passing ability. When the rosters are announced and you are wondering why the US and Canadian teams chose certain players over others who might be considered better NHL players overall, this is where you will often find your answers.

COMPETITION FORMAT

The IIHF has kept the Vancouver competition format. The 12 participating teams were drawn into three groups of four. USA and Russia, Canada and Finland, and Sweden and Czech Republic are fairly evenly divided between the three groups. Still, the USA is in the most difficult group, given Slovakia (Hossa, Chara & co.) and Slovenia (led by Anze Kopitar and having earned its first-ever Olympic berth) are also in it. These two teams will leave their hearts on the ice in every game they play, so don't say I didn't warn you.

GROUP A GROUP B GROUP C
RUSSIA FINLAND CZECH REPUBLIC
SLOVAKIA CANADA SWEDEN
USA NORWAY SWITZERLAND
SLOVENIA AUSTRIA LATVIA

The first part of the tournament will be group play, with each team playing the other three in its group, and at the conclusion of group phase all teams will be ranked based on points earned from 1-12. Top 4 ranked teams will receive a bye to the quarterfinals, while the remaining 8 teams will play 4 qualification games for the right to face the bye teams in the QF.

It's not the most straightforward system in the world. I'd like it better if the Olympic tournament were expanded to allow 16 teams, 4 groups, and direct pass to the QF for top two teams in each group, but it is what it is. There will be a lot of hockey played (30 games in total) to determine the best among 12 teams. The winner will have earned it, that's for sure.

SCHEDULE

The NHL will take a break from the 2013-14 regular season from February 9 through February 26. The men's Olympic tournament will take place from February 12-23. Here is the link to the full tournament schedule in local time. I also made the table below to show game times in EST (daylight savings time will end in a few weeks for most of us in North America as we fall back to standard time, so Sochi will be 9 hours ahead of us on the East coast).

DATE TIME GAME
Wednesday, Feb 12 12 noon EST Czech Republic vs. Sweden
Wednesday, Feb 12 12 noon EST Latvia vs. Switzerland
Thursday, Feb 13 3 am EST Finland vs. Austria
Thursday, Feb 13 7:30 am EST Russia vs. Slovenia
Thursday, Feb 13 7:30 am EST Slovakia vs. United States
Thursday, Feb 13 12 noon EST Canada vs. Norway
Friday, February 14 3 am EST Czech Republic vs. Latvia
Friday, February 14 7:30 am EST Sweden vs. Switzerland
Friday, February 14 12 noon EST Canada vs. Austria
Friday, February 14 12 noon EST Norway vs. Finland
Saturday, February 15 3 am EST Slovakia vs. Slovenia
Saturday, February 15 7:30 am EST Russia vs. United States
Saturday, February 15 12 noon EST Czech Republic vs. Switzerland
Saturday, February 15 12 noon EST Sweden vs. Latvia
Sunday, February 16 3 am EST Austria vs. Norway
Sunday, February 16 7:30 am EST Russia vs. Slovakia
Sunday, February 16 7:30 am EST Slovenia vs. United States
Sunday, February 16 12 noon EST Finland vs. Canada
Tuesday, February 18 3 am EST Qualification Playoff
Tuesday, February 18 7:30 am EST Qualification Playoff
Tuesday, February 18 12 noon EST Qualification Playoff
Tuesday, February 18 12 noon EST Qualification Playoff
Wednesday, February 19 3 am EST Quarterfinal
Wednesday, February 19 7:30 am EST Quarterfinal
Wednesday, February 19 12 noon EST Quarterfinal
Wednesday, February 19 12 noon EST Quarterfinal
Friday, February 21 7 am EST Semifinal
Friday, February 21 12 noon EST Semifinal
Saturday, February 22 10 am EST Bronze Medal Game
Sunday, February 23 7 am EST Gold Medal Game

Weird game times are my absolute favorite thing about the Olympics or any other major international sports event. I fully plan to take a week off and do nothing but alligate on the couch with a remote in hand. It's also a perfect excuse to have beer for breakfast.

WHAT'S NEXT IN THE OLYMPIC PREVIEW SERIES

For the remainder of this series, we will preview one participating team each Sunday. The previews will include some fun facts about the country and its Olympic hockey history, projected roster with players to watch, we'll meet the coaches, assess each team’s strengths and weaknesses, and of course we'll make some guesses about where they'll finish. I wish I could do something horrible yet memorable like Chris Berman putting on a turban and picking the Bills and the Niners to make the Super Bowl for all of the 90s, but I'll spare you the Swami horror.

The first one up will be Austria, followed by big bad C, and so forth. Here's the schedule: Austria (October 20); Canada (October 27); Czech Republic (November 3); Finland (November 10); Latvia (November 24); Russia (December 1); Norway (December 8); Slovakia (December 15); Slovenia (December 21); Sweden (December 22); Switzerland (December 28); USA (December 29).

Then February will roll around, the games will kick off, and you will all get to look very smart and say things like "Oh man, I really thought the Austrians should have picked Hundertpfund instead of Herburger!"

Off we go! Austria is up next. Get ready to yodel!

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