Olympic Preview: Hockey tournament loaded with NHL players

By MIKE RABUN, UPI Sports Writer  |  Jan. 26, 2014 at 7:30 AM
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There is a business that operates in the United States and Canada which, by all accounts, has a total revenue for each 12 months of $3 billion to $4 billion.

Every four years this business shuts down and sends scores and scores of its employees off on a sort of winter hiatus for nearly three weeks where they do the same thing they were doing back home.

They perform their task with all the intensity they usually display and perhaps more.

And once they are through, as long as they do not have a separated shoulder or a cracked rib or a sprained knee, they return to their regular jobs.

Welcome to Olympic hockey.

When the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament begins Feb. 12, there will be 150 participants who are under contract to one of the 30 teams in the National Hockey League.

They will, of course, be wearing different uniforms than usual.

Instead of being dressed like all his New Jersey teammates, Damien Brunner will be representing Switzerland. Anze Kopitar will be taking time off from the Los Angeles Kings to play for Slovenia.

Mats Zuccarello will find himself on the Norwegian roster rather than that of the New York Rangers.

The entire United States and Canadian teams in Sochi will come from the NHL. All but one of the players originally announced as members of the Swedish Olympic club play pro hockey in North America.

There will be 17 from the NHL playing for the Czech Republic, 16 for Finland, 15 for Russia and 14 for Slovakia.

Of the 12 teams that will be competing for the gold medal, only four of them (Austria, Latvia, Norway and Slovenia) will not have an NHL goaltender.

This will be the fifth Olympics in which the NHL has sent its players off to compete against each other for their homelands and on the previous four occasions the top prize has been won by the Czech Republic, Canada (twice) and Sweden.

Canada's two victories in that span have come in gold medal showdowns against the United States with the most recent ending in dramatic fashion when Sidney Crosby produced an overtime goal.

The Canadians will be favored again.

As the clock ticked under a month before the opening ceremonies, there were 12 players in the NHL who had scored 21 or more goals this season. Of those, nine were scheduled to play in the Olympics and four of those nine were on the Canadian roster.

A hot goaltender can take a team a long way in a short tournament and Finland's Tuukka Rask could be that goaltender. With four weeks to go before the start of the Games, Rask had the best save percentage among the NHL goaltenders who will be playing in the Olympics and also had the most shutouts (5).

Rask draws an NHL paycheck from the Boston Bruins. In Sochi, he will be playing for Finland.

The tournament is structured so that each of the six teams given the best chance to win a medal will play a preliminary game against one of the other favored clubs -- the Czech Republic versus Sweden Feb. 12, the United States versus Russia Feb. 15 and Canada versus Finland Feb. 16.

All six are expected to make the quarterfinals and it is there that the passion will intensify.

The gold medal will ultimately be decided Feb. 23 during what will be the early hours of the morning in North America. And then those who have been on what amounts to one of the oddest sporting vacations to be found anywhere can go back to their regular jobs.

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