Men's Olympic hockey gold is anybody's game as Canada hits the ice

The absence of players from the National Hockey League has created an Olympic men's hockey tournament that is wide open, and Canada is one of the teams with designs on gold.

Defending champs and 7 other teams face challenge of not having their best players

(Photo illustration by Sophie Baron)

By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports

This edition of the Canadian Olympic men's hockey team does not have studs like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Drew Doughty.

But new Olympians Derek Roy, Rene Bourque, Chay Genoway and the rest are just as determined to keep Canada on top as the team plays its opener in Pyeongchang against Switzerland on Thursday at 7:10 a.m. ET (watch live on the CBC Olympics app).

"We're all so excited about this opportunity," said Genoway, a slick-skating offensive defencemen from Morden, Man. and a teammate of Toews at the University of North Dakota. "We want to win, we want to perform and do well.

"It's so much fun to put on the Canadian jersey."

This Canadian team is not the heavy favourite that the 2010 and 2014 editions were, but this bunch does feel the pressure to keep the golden trend going.

"I think anytime you put on the Canadian maple leaf you have pressure," said left wing Mason Raymond of Cochrane, Alta.

"Sure we know that the best players aren't going. But this group of 25 players couldn't be more proud to get this opportunity, be an Olympian and represent our country."

VIDEO | Linden Vey on coach Willie Desjardins

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Canada is in the mix along with other members of the big six in men's hockey — Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and the United States.

You also can't count out Switzerland or Slovakia, silver medallists at the 2013 and 2012 world championship, respectively. Both countries have a good chance to advance to the eight-team quarter-final round, and Slovakia upset the pre-tournament favourites from Russia in their opener on Wednesday.

Those two teams aside, here is a glance at the six main medal contenders with the help of Mike Pelino, a former New York Rangers assistant coach from Welland, Ont., who is in his third season on the coaching staff of the KHL's Metallurg Magnitogorsk:

Canada:

The double gold-medal defending team is in Group A with the Czech Republic, Switzerland and host South Korea … Canada has a veteran team, led by a pair of 37-year-olds in centre Chris Kelly and defencemen Chris Lee … Lee and his defence partner Mat Robinson are the only two Canadian players who don't have NHL experience … Even though Rene Bourque enjoyed a pair of 27-goal seasons in the NHL, the Canadians lack a pure goal-scorer, so they will need to score by committee and receive plenty of offence from the mobile defensive unit … Canada will need strong goaltending from either Ben Scrivens or Kevin Poulin.

Pelino says: "Canada will have to be disciplined, patient and a well-coached team ready to take advantage of an opponent's mistakes, while limiting their own miscues. They will have to rely on team speed, goaltending and special teams to compete for gold."


Czech Republic:

The Czechs are in Group A with Canada, Switzerland and South Korea … They won the first Olympic tournament with NHLers in 1998, thanks to the all-world goaltending of Dominik Hasek … But they haven't finished in the medals at the world championship since winning a bronze in 2012 … Czechs have 15 players from the KHL on the roster … Former NHLer Martin Erat, 36, will be the team captain and play in his fourth Olympics … Martin Necas, 19, the Carolina Hurricanes prospect who performed brilliantly at the world junior tournament in Buffalo last month, was not selected because of an injury.

Pelino says: "The Czech Republic has a well-rounded team that will rely on strong defensive play with the hope of winning low-scoring games. They have some big-game players who will need to be in top form in order to lead the Czechs into the medal round."


Finland:

The Finns are housed in Group C with Germany, Norway and Sweden … Sixteen of the 25 players are from the KHL … At 36, former NHL defenceman Lasse Kukkonen will participate in his fourth Olympics … Kukkonen, Sami Lepisto, Juuso Hietanen and Petri Kontiola were part of the team that won bronze in Sochi … World junior standouts Miro Heiskanen and Eeli Tolvanen, both 19, will be expected to play big roles … Heiskanen, a defenceman, was a first-round pick (third overall) of the Dallas Stars last June, while the Nashville Predators selected right winger Tolvanen 27 spots later.

Pelino says: "Finland will be the hardest-working team in the tournament. They have some high-level skill sprinkled throughout their roster that will allow them to match up well against any opponent."


Olympic Athletes from Russia:

The Russians (the OAR name is the designation provided by the IOC in the wake of the country's ban for doping) are in Group B with Slovakia, United States and Slovenia … They are searching for their first Olympic gold since 1992, when they were known as the Commonwealth of Independent States following the collapse of the Soviet Union … All 25 players come from three KHL teams: league-leading St. Petersburg SKA (15), CSKA Moscow (eight) and Pelino's Metallurg Magnitogorsk (two) ... Only Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Voynov played for Russia in Sochi four years ago … This will be the fifth Winter Games for Datsyuk and Kovalchuk, one shy of the record of Finns Raimo Helminen and Teemu Selanne.

Pelino says: "The Athletes from Russia are ahead of every other team when it comes to overall skill. They have depth in their line-up at all positions and are very dynamic offensively. They also are capable of being extremely effective defensively. The question is what happens when they face some adversity or when they are in a tight game."

VIDEO | Alexei Yashin on Team OAR: "This team is looking for gold."

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Sweden:

The Swedes will play in Group C with Finland, Germany and Norway … They have 10 players from the KHL and nine from the Swedish league … Teenage defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, 17, is the consensus No. 1 pick for the 2018 NHL draft … Sweden has five players from last spring's world championship team in Joel Lundqvist, Dennis Everberg, Carl Klingberg, Linus Omark and goalie Viktor Fasth, who backed up Lundqvist's twin brother Henrik in the gold-medal final 2-1 shootout win against Canada in world championship last June … Sweden will play Canada in a final exhibition tune-up on Feb. 12 in South Korea.

Pelino says: "Sweden will be a very quick team looking to create a lot of offence. They should score enough goals and if their goaltending comes up big they could be a real threat to win gold."


United States:

The Americans are in Group B with Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia, who upset the Americans in Wednesday's opener … They have 15 ex-NHLers, including captain and Stanley Cup winner Brian Gionta, the oldest player on the team at 39 … Forwards Marc Arcobello, Broc Little and Garrett Roe are among the top five scorers in Switzerland … Hershey left wing Chris Bourque leads the AHL in scoring this season with 12 goals and 45 points in 47 games and is the active career points leader … The 32-year-old Bourque attended the 1998 Nagano Olympics to watch his Hall of Fame father Raymond play for Canada.

Pelino says: "Team USA is the underdog when it comes to the big six, but they will embrace that role. They are quick, offensive-minded, will play with nothing to lose and will not be concerned about giving up goals as long as they score one more than the opponent."

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