Every four years, the hockey world gets to experience a sporting spectacle unlike any other.
And that's no slight to the National Hockey League, the true pinnacle of the sport and the stage on which the world's best compete on a nightly basis. But the Olympic Winter Games always seem to come around at the right time - dare one call it an ideal time - for the game of hockey and help to propel the sport to greater heights.
Such was the case in 2010, when the United States and Canada met two times in the same two-week tournament and the second time happened to be the gold medal game. We all know how that game turned out, but setting the result aside, hockey saw a meteoric rise in interest and excitement that spelled over to the NHL's resumption a few days later.
Four years later, the game is in a similar position: on the rise, growing (again) and on the biggest platform of all at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. And when it comes to the men's hockey tournament, it's not a stretch to say this is a stronger, deeper and more unpredictable field of teams than what took the ice in Vancouver.
The Blue Jackets, like many NHL teams, will be well-represented in Sochi.
Russia, projected by many to be a gold medal contender, boasts four Blue Jackets on its 2014 Olympic roster: defensemen Fedor Tyutin (in his third Olympics) and Nikita Nikitin, center Artem Anisimov and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top goaltender, is in the mix to be Russia's No. 1 goalie along with Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche. The prevailing thought is that Bobrovsky and Varlamov will split Russia's first two preliminary round games before the coaching staff makes a definitive call moving forward.
On the back end, Tyutin and Nikitin bring valuable NHL experience to a group that also features talent from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Though media reports from Sochi speculated that they could play together to start the tournament, both Tyutin and Nikitin paired with other players in Russia's first two practices.
Anisimov has skated on a third line with Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis) and Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto) and the plan, for the time being, is to use that line in a checking role against opposing teams' top lines. It's a role Anisimov is familiar with, having played tough minutes down the stretch last season and into this season with the Blue Jackets. His face-off numbers have improved, as well.
The talk about home-ice pressure for the Russians has been uttered over and over again, and it's going to be a factor not unlike Canada faced in 2010. But when the tournament begins, part of the battle is blocking out the noise and the Canadians did that well four years ago - and how well the Russians do so will be watched closely this time around.
On paper, Russia has arguably one of the most skilled teams in the tournament. One major difference between Russia and Canada, for example, is depth; Canada has been using Matt Duchene and Martin St. Louis as extra forwards in practice this week, which is a luxury few teams can boast.
Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards tells a great story about being asked to join Dan Bylsma's staff for the Sochi Games. He was driving back to Columbus from Buffalo, where he had picked one of his two sons up from (fittingly) a USA Hockey camp.
The first call missed Richards, and then he and Bylsma - two good friends from their days in the Pittsburgh Penguins' minor-league system - proceeded to play phone tag before finally touching base.
"We talked about some things," Richards recalls. "And then the conversation started to go where I'd hoped it would go."
Richards needed no time to accept the job, and joined a coaching staff full of people he's either worked with or has a great deal of respect for. Peter Laviolette, a Stanley Cup champion and veteran NHL coach, is also an assistant coach as is Tony Granato, a current Penguins assistant and former NHL coach himself.
Together, they're in charge of American Olympic team eager to build on a surprising 2010 run to the gold medal game and prove that USA Hockey is truly on the rise. No one expected the U.S. to challenge Canada for gold in 2010, but thanks to that memorable finish, expectations have escalated around the program.
Team USA is skilled and balanced at forward, very skilled and mobile on defense (could be a key on the Olympic-sized ice surface) and possesses strong goaltending. Ryan Miller was the best player in the 2010 tournament and a big reason why the U.S. advanced to the gold medal game, and right alongside him is a Conn Smythe winner in Jonathan Quick.
So, basically, here's the outlook: Canada is the heavy favorite, the Americans are determined and the Russians are in a good position with home ice advantage and a talented team. Oh, and a word to the wise: don't sleep on the Swedes or Finns.