by Phil Coffey - www.nhl.com
While most NHL fans have February 15 targeted on their calendars to check out how NHL stars will excel for Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States, that date actually comes along a week after the 2002 Olympic Ice Hockey Tournament gets under way. The preliminary round of action began today in Salt Lake City.
The Olympic Tournament is actually divided into three parts, a preliminary round, a final round and the medal round.
Eight nations will participate in each segment. The Preliminary Round is important to the participating countries – Slovakia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia and France – as the top-two finishers will advance to the Final Round to meet up with the NHL-packed rosters of the “Big Six.”
These “Big Six” nations begin play in the final round based on an agreement between the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association and the International Ice Hockey Federation. That agreement was signed in 2000.
Final Round competition will determine the Medal Round matchups. Rangers prospect Peter Smrek
(right) is representing his native Slovakia in the Games.
For teams in the preliminary round, the road to Salt Lake City actually started back in 1999, at the 1999 IIHF World Championships where Switzerland and Slovakia earned two of the eight available Olympic berths.
To fill the remaining six preliminary round spots, four tournaments took place across Europe during February 2000 involving 16 teams that were divided into four groups of four.
The group winners – France, Denmark, Germany and Ukraine – then advanced to a final qualification tournament where they joined four other nations – Latvia, Austria, Belarus and Norway – who had earned entries to this stage based on their performances at the 1999 IIHF World Championships.
The final qualifier took place in Norway and Austria in February, 2001, with two groups of four countries contesting the six available berths for Salt Lake City.
Germany won the first group at a tournament in Oslo to earn its way into the Olympic draw. Belarus and Ukraine also secured spots by finishing second and third, respectively.
At the other tournament, in Klagenfurt, Latvia won Group B, with France and Austria finishing second and third, respectively. They also qualified for Salt Lake City.
Two nations that weren’t at Nagano in 1998 – Switzerland and Ukraine – will compete at the 2002 Games. Japan and Kazakhstan are on the sidelines this time after earning berths four years ago.