For Norway, qualifying for the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament was huge. The country known for pretty much all other winter sports, hasn't participated in the Olympic hockey tournament since 1994 when the country hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
To beat other IIHF World Championship teams France and Denmark in the qualifying tournament a year ago was a sign of the Nordic country’s improving hockey program, which should get another boost from this tournament.
With only one NHLer on the roster -- and even defenseman Ole Kristian Tollefsen is a marginal case having cleared waivers last week and now playing for the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins -- Norway starts the tournament behind the rest of the pack. But the core of the team has gone through several World Championships and has pushed the big nations to their heels. Maybe one of them will finally fall in Vancouver.
If nothing else, the players will get an unforgettable experience on Feb 16 when they take on Canada in the opening game of the tournament.
Even if Pal Grotnes hasn't been dazzling in the Norway GET-Ligan this season, coach Roy Johansen is likely to at least start the tournament with the 32-year-old veteran who played most of the games in the last two World Championships when Norway teased Canada, Finland and Slovakia.
This season, Grotnes has a 3.17 goals-against average in the Norwegian league. That’s 11th among 18 goalies in the league. But in a one-game tournament, one hot game will be enough to produce a Norwegian miracle, and Grotnes has shown in the past that he has the potential.
Should he stumble, Johansen will probably give the nod to 22-year-old Ruben Smith who’s fifth in the Norwegian league goalie statistics. The third goalie, Andre Lysenstoen, plays in the Finnish second-tier league, and the jump to the world stage may be too big.
Norway’s defense is built on two players from the Swedish Elitserien, a Finn-become-Norwegian from the Norwegian league, a veteran from the German DEL, and Tollefsen.
That’s why the team will have to be ready to make some sacrifices and defend with all five players to have a chance against the Canadian or American team in the opening group games. Miracles do happen, but Norway will have to keep their defensive game simple, and have faith in the fact that five players pulling together is more than five players not doing it.
Besides Tollefsen, 39-year-old Tommy Jakobsen - the only player returning from the 1994 team - will be looked to for leadership.
If the Norwegian defense had some Swedish influence, then the offense is purely Swedish, with nine players playing in the Swedish Elitserien. And then there’s former NHLer Patrick Thoresen, who these days plays for Salavat Yulayev Ufa, and plays well: two weeks ago he played in the KHL All-Star Game.
Even if Norway doesn’t boast with a roster packed with NHLers, there’s a lot of speed and skill coming at the opponents when Norway gets the puck. Per-Age Skroder won the Swedish Elitserien scoring title last season, and has this year scored 17 goals in 47 games, eighth in the league and one less than his teammate - both on Modo and Team Norway - Mats Zuccarello Aasen who also leads Modo in ice time this season.
With the power play being as important as it is, Team Norway has an opportunity to surprise. Give them a little space and they will jump on the chance.
Everything is relative, and the Norwegian stars may be from another galaxy, compared to the ones that the big nations have. But Patrick Thoresen is just as bright a star as any of them. Last season, he collected 63 points in 48 games in the Swiss National League A and has this season averaged a point a game in the Russian KHL. That says Thoresen is, at 26, just beginning to reach his potential and may return to the NHL where he's played 106 games with the Edmonton Oilers and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Striking it rich
Team Norway has to be just that, a team. If they move as a unit, defend as a unit, and use their scoring chances, especially on the power play, they can at least shake the other teams. Add to that a goalie who decided to play the games of his life in Vancouver, and a Zuccarello Aasen who will show the world why he plays over 22 minutes a game in Sweden, most of all forwards in the league, on a team that also has Markus Naslund and Peter Forsberg.