- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - The ice surface is bigger, the pay non-existent and what used to mean bragging rights around the world in the days of dueling superpowers counts for less now that everyone wound up on the same side of capitalism. The trade-off is that you might see one, and as many four, hockey games better-played than anything in an entire season of National Hockey League contests. Here’s a look at the upcoming Olympic men’s hockey tournament.

1. HOME COOKING

Both of the United States’ wins were earned on home ice, in 1960 and 1980, as was Canada’s eighth and most recent. Nobody else has turned the trick. Russia has never played host to a Winter Games and hasn’t been part of a gold-medal winner since the Unified Team in 1994 (and the Soviet Union dynasty before that). But nothing short of a title here is going to fly with generations reared on tales of the “Big Red Machine,” especially since goalkeeping legend Vladimir Tretiak, serving as the Russian federation boss, is around to stir those memories.

2. CANADA TAKES A BACKSEAT TO NO ONE


Arguments over where the game originated continue until today. But there’s no question who owns the modern version. The Canadians won the first Olympic tournament in Chamonix, France - scoring 122 goals and allowing just three along the way - and have added seven since. The Soviet Union won seven, including a stretch of four straight (five if you count the Unified Team), followed by the United States and Sweden with two each.

3. THE BIG SHEET

The return to the European-sized rink - 200 feet long by 100 feet wide - will give hosts Russia and the nine other European teams a better chance of taking down Canada and the United States. The extra 15 feet on each side - a combined 3,000 square feet larger than the NHL version - minimizes brawn by making it harder to check opponents and gives speedsters like the Russian duo of Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk and Swedes Erik Karlsson and Carl Hagelin more room to maneuver.

4. CROSBY VS. OVECHKIN, or MAGIC VS. BIRD, PART 2

Canadian Sidney Crosby and Russian Alex Ovechkin were part of the same rookie class, two of the most-touted youngsters ever to arrive in the NHL. Hockey has been portraying their rivalry as the game’s version of Magic vs. Bird ever since, but so far it’s been all one-sided. Crosby has a Stanley Cup and scored the game-winner against the United States in overtime to lock up gold at Vancouver; he’s also the game highest earner.

5. A FINN AND PRAYER

Age might be just a number, but Finland’s team could be mistaken for hockey’s version of a retirement home. Finland’s Teemu Selanne tops the “grizzled veterans” list here at 43, but the Czech Republic’s Jaromir Jagr, who turns 42 during the tournament, is close behind. Throw in countrymen Sami Salo (39) and Kimmo Timonen (38) and the Finns win the trifecta. Runner-up goes to the Czech Republic, with Patrik Elias and Lubo Visnovsky (37) and an honorable mention each for Sweden’s Daniel Alfredsson and Latvia’s Sandis Ozolinsh (both 41).

6. YOU LOOK FAMILIAR, TOO.

By paying top dollar and scouring the globe for talent, the NHL has its hooks in nearly every top-flight player that will make the dozen national rosters. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues both have a league-high 10 skaters at the Olympics, representing five and six different nations, respectively. “There’s a good chance,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said matter-of-factly, “that somebody’s going to come back with a gold medal.”

7. CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS?

Hockey players have been known to drop their gloves faster than a dirty diaper at the hint of a fight breaking out. There will be no shortage of violence here, but fisticuffs will be in short supply. That’s largely because the Olympic rules, unlike the NHL‘s, require any player mixing it up to receive a 5-minute major AND a game- or match-misconduct penalty.

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