The winter Olympics brings with it a chance for the sporting public to open its mind, and the events on show are often the polar opposite of those which tend to populate the back pages. One of the most accessible, however, is ice hockey, and the men’s competition is once again shaping up to be compelling viewing.
It is often recognised for thunderous body-checks and in-game fighting, but such a focus devalues it as a sport. Nowhere is its appeal clearer than in international competition: without salary cap restraints and a talent pool diluted across many teams, the top nations are packed with talent. Larger rinks brings more space to work, and the skill of such players is emphasised.
At time of writing, the preliminary round has concluded, and the USA are in pole position entering the knock-out stages. Their hardworking squad is typified by goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was critical in their shootout win over Russia, while Phil Kessel adds some attacking spark. The hosts, by contrast, are faltering; nevertheless, if their attack is able to find form they cannot be written off.
The Scandinavian nations have struggled with key injuries; Finland, despite valiant effort to take Canada to a shootout, have been decimated in attack and are unlikely to have enough to compete, but an attack led by defenceman Erik Karlsson and the presence of Henrik Lundqist in net will make Sweden a formidable opponent.
Canada will look to their recovery from a slow start in 2010 for inspiration. Although they have not lost a game, the likes of Sidney Crosby are yet to fire in attack, and the other contenders will be hoping that it stays that way; if they perform, it is difficult to imagine anyone else keeping up with them.