VANCOUVER -- The 2010 Winter Olympics has the ingredients to be the best international hockey tournament ever.
"We have the best environment possible in our 100 years," said Rene Fasel, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, the organizing body for the tournament. "If it will be the best tournament, I don't know. But it is our most important tournament for sure."
The players and teams involved in playing the 30 games of this tournament will determine if it is the best of the four Olympics that have involved NHL players since the experiment started in Nagano in 1998. But, it is impossible to imagine it not being the case.
Why? Because the best players in the world have all congregated in this city to wage a pitched battle for gold. It should be unforgettable theater.
Russia, the No. 1 team in the world, is led by Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the most exciting and recognizable player in the hockey universe. Canada, the host, is led by the ruthlessly efficient Sidney Crosby, who is the face of hockey in North America. Sweden, the reigning Olympic champion, has the legendary Peter Forsberg taking another shot at gold as well as goalie "King" Henrik Lundqvist.
But there are others that will also bask in the spotlight.
Finland's Teemu Selanne is hoping to go out on a high note this time around after settling for silver in Turin four years ago. The Czech Republic has Jaromir Jagr, two years removed from his last North American action, looking for one last magical chapter to his legendary career. The Americans, meanwhile, are paced by young guns Zach Parise and Patrick Kane.
Then, there are the country-vs.-country battles. In the three Olympic tournaments featuring NHL player there have been three different gold medalists. The Czechs won the inaugural tournament, followed by the Canadians in 2002 and the Swedes four years ago. Now, Russia believes it is in line for a title, but the Canadians hope to stand in their way.
Finally, there is the city of Vancouver itself, which will be an undeniable star in this tournament.
This is the first time since NHL play began that the tournament will be conducted in an NHL city. Nagano, Salt Lake City and Turin all displayed a passion for watching the game's elite go toe-to-toe in a best-on-best format -- but nothing will compare to how Canada will embrace the coming spectacle.
"It will be unbelievable," Bob Nicholson, head of Hockey Canada, the host organization, said on Sunday. "The TV numbers alone will be huge. But this city will be crazy about the tournament and it will be an amazing atmosphere to play in."
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly is already in town and can't wait to see the city hit a new level of hockey fever come Tuesday at noon when Team USA plays Switzerland in the tournament opener.
"Obviously, it is going to be an amazing tournament," Daly said Sunday. "Best on best always lends itself to an amazing tournament. The fact that we're playing it in Vancouver, Canada -- the home of hockey and (it's) Canada's game -- makes it special.
"The passion for hockey in this country and this area is unparalleled and can never be duplicated. You mix that with the best players playing in a short, single-elimination tournament and it really creates a high level of enthusiasm and excitement."
There is no denying that this beautiful city, nestled against the Pacific Ocean and home to the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, will be a star of the Olympic hockey tournament. The women's tourney has already started, and the atmosphere at Saturday's night's game between Canada and Slovakia was electric, to the say the least.
It will be even more magical when the men from the host country take the ice at Canada Hockey Place.
American defenseman Jack Johnson, who now plays for the Los Angeles Kings, lived through an international tournament in this city, playing for Team USA in the 2006 World Junior Championships here.
Johnson was a villain in that tournament after a run-in with a Canadian player during their contentious match, but he is happy to be back.
"If you are going to play hockey anywhere, and especially of this magnitude, and you are going to play Canada, there's no better place to do it then in Canada," Johnson said. "This is a great hockey city, a great hockey atmosphere. I got to experience it in the World Juniors, but that's not even remotely close to what it's going to be like in the Olympic Games. I wouldn't want to play a tournament of this magnitude anywhere else."