This weekend, Olympic hopefuls Germany, Latvia and Norway punched their ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia and the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
They are leaving the relative comfort of the small-pond qualifying tournament for more dangerous waters, where the "little fish" will join a pool already filled with the likes of defending champion Sweden, runner-up Finland, and a field of legitimate hopefuls that includes Belarus, Canada, Czech Republic, Latvia, Slovakia, Russia, and the USA.
Chum in the water? Not so fast.
One only need to look to recent history to see that these "small fish" can have a huge impact on which team claims medals -- and of what color -- at the conclusion of the Olympic hockey tournament.
In 2002, a 70-foot, long-bomb slapshot from Team Belarus forward Vladimir Kopat beat Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo with 2:24 remaining to knock the heavily favored Swedes (who boasted a 3-0 record to that point) out of the tournament. The upset meant Team Canada faced Belarus, not the Swedish team that had defeated them 5-2 earlier in the tournament, en route to its gold-medal victory.
In order to earn a berth in the 2010 tournament, Germany, Latvia and Norway each had to win its respective Olympic Qualifying tournament, which was a three-game round-robin format. Each of the qualifying teams went 3-0 in the games, which concluded with Sunday's action.
In Group E, in Hanover, Germany, the hosts defeated Japan 7-1 and then managed identical 2-1 defeats of both Austria and Slovenia. Former NHL skater John Tripp led the Germans offensively with three goals in the tournament.
Latvia cruised through the Group F qualifier in Riga by defeating Hungary 7-3 and the Ukraine 4-2 to assure passage to Vancouver. Then, the Latvians capped off their tournament with a 4-1 defeat of Italy.
Finally, in Oslo, Norway, the Group G host had the most difficult route of the three qualifiers, but still managed consecutive one-goal victories against Kazakhstan and France before finishing their tournament on a high note with a 5-3 defeat of Denmark.
Patrick Thoresen was the hero of the final game, and likely the tournament, scoring a hat trick against Denmark.
A former Philadelphia Flyer, and one of the world's most courageous shot-blockers
, Thoresen led Norway with six points in the three games, and he and his linemates combined for 15 points in total to lead Norway's Olympic hopes.
The three qualifiers join the top 9 teams, which were set after the 2008 World Championships in Canada last year, a tournament won by the Russians.
The final rankings are a composite sketch of each respective team's success in the 2005 World Championships, the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, and the 2006, 2007, and 2008 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships.
The three latest qualifiers were thrown into the three groups for the Olympic tournament format.
Team Norway joined Group A, which features the familiar foes of top-ranked Canada and the sixth-ranked United States, along with seventh-ranked Switzerland.
Team Latvia will compete in Group B, comprised of second-ranked Russia, fifth-ranked Czech Republic and eighth-ranked Slovakia. Team Russia will enter the tournament as group favorite, but the Czechs have a history of giant-killing and Team Slovakia is almost always a tough out, regardless of their ranking or opponent.
The final group, Group C will feature the two teams from the 2006 Winter Olympics gold-medal Game, Sweden and Finland, ranked third and fourth, respectively. Belarus and Germany round out the group.
After the Preliminary Round, in which each team will compete in round-robin competition, the teams will be ranked 1-12, based on group standings, number of points, goal differential, goals for and finally, world ranking.
The top four teams will earn a bye, while No. 5 will face No. 12, No 4. will face No. 11, and so on in the second round. The four winning teams in the second round advance to face the bye teams in the playoff round, in a single-elimination, eight-team sprint for the Gold.
The Olympic Winter Games begin Feb. 16, 2010. The gold medal will be awarded Feb. 28.
And the buildup begins now.
Author: Brad Holland | NHL.com Staff Writer