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Twelve nations take their shot at Olympic dream

by Bill Meltzer
With the exception of winning the Stanley Cup, there is no greater thrill a hockey player can experience than suiting up for his national team at the Olympics. Even if the player represents a secondary hockey country with no realistic shot at winning a medal, the honor of participating in the Olympics is something he'll never forget.

From Feb. 5-8, there will be three Olympic qualification tournaments taking place simultaneously around Europe. Twelve countries will compete for the right to play in the Vancouver games of 2010. The winner of each pool advances. The round-robin tourneys will take place in Hanover, Germany, Riga, Latvia, and Oslo, Norway. Following is an overview of each competition and a glimpse at the competing countries.

Hotly contested race in Germany

Of the three qualification tournaments, the one taking place in Germany arguably features the deepest pool of serious contenders for advancement. The field consists of Team Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Japan.

The hosting Germans are ranked 10th in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation and enter the tournament as the favorite to win. Team Germany competed in the 2006 Olympics in Turin and is capable of giving tough games to even many of the elite hockey nations that have earned automatic spots in Vancouver.  Germany has performed reasonably well at the last two World Championships.

Team Germany is able to field a roster full of native-born DEL players (the country's top domestic league, which features roughly 90 North American players with at least some NHL experience). Germany is a considerably weaker team when it does not have its own NHL players such as Dennis Seidenberg and Marco Sturm available. But the team will be buoyed by the return of national team fixture Alexander Barta, who had been sidelined nine months with a broken thighbone.

Austria, ranked 16th in the world by the IIHF, competed in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The country is often a bubble team in international competitions -- dominant at the Division I level, but rarely a threat to score any upsets at the elite level. With NHL star Thomas Vanek leading the way, Austria won the Division I Worlds in Innsbruck last spring.

Vanek won't be available for the Olympic qualifier in Hanover, but Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael Grabner (Manitoba Moose) received permission to compete. The Austrians will have four players from European elite leagues on its team: goaltender Bernd Brückler (Espoo Blues of Finland's SM-Liiga), goaltender Jurgen Penkler (Sweden's Rögle BK), defenseman Andre Lakos (Traktor Chelyabinsk of the CHL) and  Oliver Setzinger (SCL Tigers Langnau of Switzerland's Nationalliga A).

Slovenia, ranked 15th in the world, has never competed in the Olympics, unless you count appearances during the period in which the nation was part of Yugoslavia. Much like Austria, Slovenia often shuttles between the Division I and elite levels in international competition.

While the unavailable Anze Kopitar is the only Slovenian player who is a household name among hockey fans worldwide, the team can be a handful for opponents who underestimate them. Goaltender Robert Kristian plays in Sweden for former Elite League team Mora IK.

Japan, ranked 22nd in the world, hosted the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. As such, the national team received a spot in that tournament. Team Japan has little chance of emerging from the Hanover tournament with even a single victory, much less winning the competition. Internationally, Japan is strictly a Division I caliber hockey country.

Nevertheless, the Japanese scored a major upset by winning the pre-qualification tournament that took place in Poland in November. The Japanese will also benefit from the presence of former Los Angeles Kings goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji.

Hockey party in Riga

Latvian hockey fans are among the most rabid in the world. The Latvian national team receives a fanatical following, with fans traveling to support the team wherever it plays. There will be no doubt which squad the crowd is rooting for when the host nation takes the ice in Riga to take on a field comprised of Hungary, Italy and Ukraine.

Ranked 11th in the world, Latvia is used to playing at the elite level internationally. While many of the Latvian players competing for teams in North America will not be available for the tournament, the team will receive a boon with the presence of forwards Janis Sprukts and Martins Karsums. Veteran Herberts Vasiljevs, a former NHLer who currently plays in the DEL for Krefeld, will lead coach Olegs Znaroks' squad into battle.

The 14th ranked Italians were a game, but overmatched, squad at the Turin Olympics in 2006. Unfortunately, the Italian national team no longer has the services of players such as former goaltender Jason Muzzatti, who kept the squad semi-competitive. New national team coach Rick Cornacchia faces a tough test in Riga. The squad features veterans such as former Michigan Tech standout Jon Pittis, defenseman Armin Helfer (Switzerland's Kloten Flyers), national team fixture Michael Sousa and goalie Gunther Hell.

Ukraine is ranked 17th in the world. Best known for the players it contributed to the former Soviet dynasty, the Ukrainian national team is a fixture in international Division I competitions. Most of the players on the national team are used to playing together, with a large percentage playing for the Sokol Kiev club team. There are a handful of players who suit up in the Continental Hockey League. Former American Hockey League defenseman Sergei Klimentiev provides a dangerous presence on the point during power plays, unleashing rockets that can overpower goaltenders.

Twentieth-ranked Hungary was the feel good story of the 2008 international hockey season, capturing the Division I World Championships in Japan to advance to the elite level. However, the Hungarians are an underdog in this tournament and are likely to be relegated back to Division I after the 2009 IIHF World Championships in Switzerland. The team's best known player is former Calgary Flames backup goaltender Levente Szuper. The goalie is the only Hungarian to be an NHL game night roster, although he never played a minute for the Flames.

Nordic showdown in Oslo

Scandinavian nations Norway and Denmark have one of the most spirited hockey rivalries among the world's non-elite programs. Many observers expect the tournament to come down to a showdown between the two archrivals on the final day of the competition. However, the other two competitors -- Kazakhstan and France -- will attempt to render the final game meaningless.

The 12th-ranked Norwegians rebounded from a disastrous international season in 2007 with a tremendous showing last year. Norway surprised everybody by making it to the medal round and hanging close with Team Canada for most of their match in the quarterfinals. Norway last played in the Olympics when hosting the 1994 games in Lillehammer.

Most of the Norwegian national team fixtures, including former NHL defenseman Anders Myrvold, Modo Hockey power forward Per-Ake Skroder and goaltender Pal Grotnes (a hero at the World Championships) will be available for the competition. But the biggest boon to the team's chances is the presence of forward Patrick Thoresen.

No hockey country in the world has improved as much as Denmark over the last decade. Denmark has never played Olympic hockey, but the 13th- ranked country has show that it is capable of advancing past Division I to the elite level in all age categories, although further improvement is necessary. Denmark has emerged in recent years as a viable talent-producing hockey country. 

Unfortunately for Denmark, the squad will not have Phoenix Coyotes rookie Mikkel Boedker available for the qualifier in Oslo. But it will have St. Louis Blues prospect Lars Eller and CSKA Moscow's forward Kirill Starkov.

Ranked 18th in the world, Team France has gone backward internationally over the last decade, but competed in the Olympics as recently as the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Head coach David Henderson relies heavily on veterans Sebastien Bordeleau (SC Bern of Switzerland's Nationalliga A) and Laurent Meunier (HC Fribourg) to provide a semblance of scoring punch. Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet is unavailable due to his NHL commitments.

The 19th-ranked team from Kazakhstan has a history of pulling off upsets and found a way to qualify for the 2006 Olympics by winning a tourney in Austria. But the current Kazahk roster is arguably not as good as the previous version, as much of the roster core is either aging or too young to grab the reigns. The squad is also racked by injuries.

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