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Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 Olympic Hockey Preview - Czech Republic

The Czech Republic National Hockey Team is currently ranked 4th in the IIHF World Rankings.

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Based on their status as one of the top nine ranked countries, the Czech Republic was automatically entered in the 2014 Olympic tournament, allowing them avoid the qualification process for teams outside the top nine.

The Czech Republic have participated in the Olympic ice hockey tournament five times since 1994 after the division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Their best result was a gold medal in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, the first Olympics with full NHL participation, thanks to the outstanding play of goaltender Dominik Hasek. In 2006, the Czechs won their second medal, a bronze in Torino, Italy.

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Hasek stole the show in Nagano

Since becoming an independent nation, the Czech Republic have been regular participants in the World Championships, with a number of championship titles to their credit. Since their first independent appearance in 1993, the Czechs have won bronze five times, silver once and gold on six separate occasions, with the last being in 2010 in Germany.

The Czechs have also participated in the World Cup of Hockey twice, reaching the semi-finals in 2004.

The Czech Republic enters the 2010 Olympics with 17 NHLers on it's roster, beginning at the back end with Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets in goal. A strong defensive group should provide not only plenty of support for Pavelec, but generate some offense from the back, with experience and skill from the likes of Tomas Kaberle and NHLers Zbynek MichalekMichal Rozival, Lasislav Smid and Marek Zidlicky.

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Tomas Kaberle

The offense will be suspect, as 41 year old Jaromir Jagr is the highest scoring Czech in the NHL at 24th overall, while Patrik Elias (37) and Petr Nedved (42) do nothing bring down the average age of the team.

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Jaromir Jagr

David Krejci ranks 29th, the only other player in the NHL's top 30. Other notable names are team captain Tomas Plekanec, Ales Hemsky, Jakub Voracek, Michael Frolik and Martin Hanzal. While experienced to be certain, the Czechs appear to lack firepower up front, with no player having reached 20 goals in the NHL this season and Jagr comes into the games with 17 as of February 5, barely enough to eke into the top 50 overall in a tie for 48th. Aside from the 17 NHL players, there are five from the KHL and two from the Czech Extraliga.

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Tomas Plekanec

With the format for this year's Olympics calling for the top four teams after the Preliminary Round to receive byes into the quarterfinals, the key for the Czech Republic will be defeating both Latvia and Switzerland while taking at least a point out of their opening game against Sweden. If the Czechs can achieve this, they have a shot at one of the byes into the Quarterfinals, but they will not only need to find their offensive game quickly, but keep the Swiss and Swedes from exposing the shortcomings in their goaltending.

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Today's featured jersey is a 1998 Czech Republic National Team Dominik Hasek jersey as worn when the Czech Republic captured the Olympic gold medal in Nagano, Japan. This bold style of jersey was first worn in the 1998 Olympics and is associated with a golden era of Czech hockey, having been worn not only for the Olympic gold in 1998, but also for three consecutive World Championship gold medals in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

The Olympics in 1998 were the first with the full participation of NHL players, as the league suspended it's regular season schedule for the occasion, but the Czechs had the fewest NHL players on it's roster among the top six nations with 11, got off to a good start by shutting out Finland 3-0 in their first game before demolishing Kazakhstan 8-2. They lost to Russia 2-1 in group play, but then bounced back with an easy 4-1 win to eliminate the Americans.

The semi-finals saw them matched up against Canada, a hard fought game that ended with a memorable shootout, as Hasek stonewalled all five Canadian shooters to advance to the gold medal game and a rematch against Russia.

Defenseman Petr Svoboda scored the only goal of the contest at 8:08 of the third period as Hasek shut out the Russians to conclude the tournament with an amazing 6 goals allowed in 6 games against the top professionals from Finland, the United States, Canada and Russia - twice - to finish with a goals against average of 0.97.

After the medal ceremony, Hasek said, "When I saw the flag go up, I saw my whole career flash before my eyes from the first time my parents took me to a hockey game until now."

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Here is a look at the jerseys that the Czech Republic will be wearing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The home white jersey would be better with some arm and waist stripes, it's a good looking enough jersey as it is. The road jersey, on the other hand, is a risky affair, done in the colors of a Czech Republic flag hung vertically. The effect is, when seen from the right side a jersey which appears to be a home white, Time will tell if the half white, half red with blue shoulders will cause any confusion when worn against other teams wearing their home whites, Switzerland in particular.

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First up in today's video section, the full 1998 shootout between the Czech Republic and Canada, where Hasek stopped all five Canadians as the pressure climbed with each round of shooters. Be advised that it's 11 minutes long and the shootout doesn't actually start until the 4:00 mark.

This next video tracks the Czechs throughout the 1998 Olympic tournament as they advance to reach the finals and then capture the gold medal, complete with deafening screams of Gooooooooooooooooooaaaal!

Last up today, a nice video we are really happy to share that complies the championships won by Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic in the World Championships and Olympics, dating back to 1947 with some great rare footage and some classic old sweaters.

Dasherboard: We wanted to call your attention to the the latest edition of the excellent IIHF newsletter IceTimes, which is naturally their Olympic preview issue, and is available online as a pdf file and is recommended reading.

Friday, February 7, 2014

2014 Olympic Hockey Preview - Canada

The Canada National Hockey Team is currently ranked 5th in the IIHF World Rankings.

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Based on their status as one of the top nine ranked countries, Canada was automatically entered in the 2014 Olympic tournament, allowing them avoid the qualification process for teams outside the top nine.

Canada has participated in the Olympics in ice hockey 20 times since 1920, with their best results being gold medals eight times, most recently at the last Olympics held on home ice in Vancouver in 2010. Canada won the first Olympic gold in 1920 and proceeded to dominate the early events, winning gold in 1924, 1928, 1932, 1948 and 1952. After a 50 year gap, the returned to their winning ways in 2002 and again in 2010. They have also won silver on four occasions, 1936, 1960, 1992 and 1994. A pair of bronze medals rounds out their tally, having been won in 1956 and 1968. Canada withdrew from Olympic competition in a dispute over the rules for amateur players and did not compete in the Olympics in 1972 and 1976.

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The Winnipeg Falcons represented Canada in 1920,
bringing the nation it's first gold medal in Olympic hockey

Canada are regular participants in the World Championships, having first participated in 1920, where they won the gold medal, the first of 11 they would win up through 1939 out of 13 possible. Following World War II, the Canadians would pick up where they left off with eight more golds between 1948 and 1961. Each of the 26 times they would participate in the World Championships from 1920 to 1962 they would capture a medal of some sort, with 19 gold, four silver and a bronze.

Three consecutive fourth place finishes from 1963 to 1965 would end the streak as the Canadian program would enter a doldrums. From 1963 to 1993, which included their withdrawl from international hockey from 1970 to 1976, Canada would earn seven bronze and three silver medals, as well as 11 placings outside the medals and no golds.

1994 to 1997 would see a return to the top, with gold in 1994 and 1997, silver in 1996 and bronze in 1995. A five year medal absence from 1998 to 2002 would be forgotten with back to back golds in 2003 and 2004 and silver in 2005. A fourth place in 2006 was followed by another gold in 2007, the 18th gold in their history, and silver in 2008 and 2009. Since that time, they have not played for a medal, managing no better than 5th place for the last three consecutive years following a disappointing 7th in 2010, their lowest finish since 1992.

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Canada's last World Championship gold came in 2007

As one of the hockey world's top teams, Canada have also hosted the six team Canada Cup five times, winning four, and the eight team World Cup of Hockey twice, winning the championship in 2002.

Canada enters the 2014 Olympics with all 25 players on it's roster from the NHL. It's popular to say that Canada is strong enough and deep enough that they could field two teams in the Olympics.

Much of the success Canada can attain will depend on the goaltending of Roberto Luongo.   of Vancouver, the gold medal winning goaltender for Canada in 2010, and his partner Carey Price of Montreal. The defense is solid but much younger than in 2010 and lacking in the dominant names of the past.

The Canadian forwards are a stellar collection of talent that should carry this team far into the playoffs, highlighted by captain Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Shar, John Tavares. and perhaps Steven Stamkos, should he recover from his recent injury in time. About the only thing that looks to be capable of sidelining the Canadians is pressure from the home media and fans, as the talent is beyond reproach and as deep as any team in the tournament.

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Jonathan Toews thrilled the home fans with
a goal during the gold medal final in 2010

With the format for this year's Olympics calling for the top four teams after the Preliminary Round to receive byes into the quarterfinals, the key for Canada will be defeating Finland in their game on February 16th to earn an extra day of rest with a bye into the Quarterfinals by winning Group B. Canada must also avoid a repeat of their upset 2-0 loss to Switzerland in 2006, but we do not see that happening with the likes of Norway and Austria this time out.

Canada will likely earn one of the four byes and draw one of the lower ranked teams remaining in the Quarterfinals. The challenge for Canada looks as if it will really begin with the semi-finals and dealing with the increasing pressure as the tournament progresses and expectations rise, but with several players on the team having captured Stanley Cups and loads of veteran leadership (six members of the Canadian roster are captains of their NHL teams), expect the Canadians to deal with the pressure and reach the semifinals at the very least, which will have them playing for a medal in Sochi.

Today's featured jersey is a 1977 Canada National Team Phil Esposito jersey as worn during the 1977 World Championships, which was Canada's return to the world stage, as Canada had withdrawn from international participation in 1970 over a dispute over the rules governing amateur players, a surprising decision in light of Canada having been scheduled to host the World Championships for the first time.

At the core of the dispute was the fact the Eastern Bloc countries, mainly the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, were able to have their older, full time NHL-caliber players classified as amateurs due to technically being considered non-professionals under their communist system, which most often listed their profession as that of a solider, whose military assignment was to play hockey.

As a result of the dispute, Canada declined to host the 1970 World Championships as scheduled, nor participate in the World Championships from 1970 through 1976. Canada also declined to compete at the Olympic hockey tournament in both 1972 and 1976 until an agreement was finally reached to allow professional players to compete in IIHF competitions and the annual World Championships were moved to later into the spring, which allowed NHL players no longer involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs an opportunity to compete for their country.

When Canada did return to the World Championships in 1977, it was with one of the most garish jerseys in their history, a garish four color maple leaf crest, which looks not unlike an explosion in progress! Another unusual aspect of their jerseys was the use of contrasting nameplates of white with red letters.

Still, the change in IIHF policy wasn't as if Canada was handed a gift, as it would take the Canadians 17 years to win their next World Championship in 1994 and until 2002 to win an Olympic gold medal for the first time in 50 years.

Given the chance to include professionals for the first time in 1977, they sent over a roster which included the likes of NHLers Ron Ellis, Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Pierre Larouche, Al MacAdam, Wilf Paiement, Jean Pronovost, Dallas Smith, Carol Vadnais and Eric Vail. Even with the professional roster additions, Canada went 6-3-1, losing to Sweden 4-2 and the Soviet Union 11-1 in the First Round and 8-1 to the Soviets in the Final Round to place fourth and out of the medals in their first time returning to the World Championships after spending the previous seven years on the sidelines.

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Here is a look at the jerseys that Canada will be wearing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Canada, generally one of the more tradition based when it comes to jersey designs has let Nike spread it's creative wings more than one would expect with it's asymmetrical arm striping design. Had they balanced the left arms out with matching striping on the right, these would be a very safe, but attractive look rather than the unbalanced and somewhat awkward look they will wear in Sochi.

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Our video selection today is the gold medal game from the 2002 Olympics when Canada defeated the United States to win their first Olympic gold medal in 50 years.

Dasherboard: Don't miss our second post today, a preview of the women's Olympic hockey tournament.

2014 Olympic Women's Hockey Preview

While the men's portion does not begin until Wednesday the 12th, the Women's Olympic Hockey Tournament begins tomorrow.

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The top five teams in the 2012 IIHF World Rankings all received automatic berths into the 2014 Olympics, with those nations being Canada, the United States, Finland, Switzerland and Sweden. The host nation Russia, then ranked 6th, was also given an automatic place as the host nation.

Like the men, a series of Preliminary, Pre-Qualification and Final Qualification tournaments were held, with Japan (currently ranked 10th) and Germany (currently 6th) joining the top six.

Different from the men, the women's tournament sees the top four nations placed in Group A, those being Canada, the United States, Switzerland and Finland, who will all advance to the Final Round single elimination playoffs.

Group B is made up of Sweden, Russia, Japan and Germany, the lower four teams in the competition. The format calls for the top two teams in Group B to advance to the Quarterfinals against the third and fourth place teams in Group A, while the top two teams in Group A receive byes directly into the Semifinals, a change in format made to increase the competitiveness of all games and cut down on some of the lopsided blowouts of the past.

Once again, look for the Canadians to face off against the Americans for the gold medal, as they have three of the four times since women's hockey was added to the Games and in all 15 of the Women's World Championships. To date, Canada has won the last three Olympic gold medals after the United States won the first in 1998 and 10 of 15 World Championships have gone to Canada, although the USA has taken four of the last five.

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Canada, celebrating gold in 2010, has had the measure
of the United States at the last three Olympics

Sweden is the only country to have broken the Canadian-American monopoly on the gold and sliver medals, having knocked the Americans out of the tournament in 2006 before losing to Canada in the gold medal game 4-1. They are currently ranked 4th, with 2010 bronze medalists Finland and their world class goaltender Nora Räty posing the biggest threat to the North Americans following her 38-0-0 record and .96 goals against average playing for the University of Minnesota last year, which culminated in the Gophers second consecutive national championship.

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Olympic veteran Räty led Finland to the bronze medal in 2010

After Canada won the first three exhibition games in October and early November, the Americans won the last four in December and seem to have the upper hand going in to Sochi. Two of those games in particular highlighted the intensity of their rivalry, as large brawls broke out among all the players on the ice.

The Preliminary Round women's games will take place February 8-13, with the playoffs on the 16th and 17th and the medal games on February 20th.

Today's featured jersey is a 1997-98 Canada National Team Danielle Goyette jersey.  This attractive "waving flag" jersey was a high water mark for international jerseys and was used during 1996 and 1997. The Canadian women's team wore a rose patch on theirs in memory of Rose Cherry, the late wife of Canadian hockey broadcasting icon Don Cherry, who passed away in 1997.

Goyette won eight World Championship and two Olympic gold medals during her career. She led all players in scoring during the 2002 Olympics and is Canada's all-time leading scorer at the World Championships, finishing her international career with 218 points in 171 games. She was chosen as Canada's flag bearer at the 2006 Olympic Games and in 2013 Goyette was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame.

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photo courtesy of Classic Auctions

Today's video section begins with highlights of the last Olympic gold medal game between the United States and Canada in 2010.

For an example of the intensity of the US vs. Canada rivalry in women's hockey, look no further than the second of two brawls the teams engaged in during their pre-Olympic exhibition schedule.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

2014 Olympic Hockey Preview - United States

The United States National Hockey Team is currently ranked 6th in the IIHF World Rankings. Like several other countries, their ranking is hampered by their annual performance during the World Championships each spring, as a number of their best players are historically unavailable either due to competing annually in the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs, or passing on the opportunity to compete in the World Championships in order to give injuries they have been playing with a chance to properly heal.

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Based on their status as one of the top nine ranked countries, the United States were automatically entered in the 2014 Olympic tournament, allowing them avoid the qualification process for teams outside the top nine.

The United States have participated in the Olympics in ice hockey 21 times since 1920, with their best results being a pair of gold medals in 1960 and 1980, both times as hosts of the Olympics. Most recently, they were silver medalists in Vancouver and have historically done well during Olympics held in North America, having medaled four of the last five times the Games were held in the US or Canada dating back to 1960. Other medals won by the United States are silver medals in 1920, 1924, 1932, 1952, 1956, 1972 and 2002 as well as their only bronze, which came in 1936.

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The 1960 USA gold medal team celebrates

The United States are regular participants in the World Championships, having first participated in 1931, where they won a silver medal, the first of four silvers they would win up through 1950. Their highest finish at the World Championships came in 1933 when they won the gold medal. The 1960 Olympics also counted as the World Championship back then, giving the USA a total of two golds. The American's bronze medals came in 1949, 1962, 1996 and 2004.

Considered one of the hockey world's top six teams, the United States have also participated in the six team Canada Cup five times, with a best finish of second in 1991, and the eight team World Cup of Hockey twice, winning the championship in 1996.

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The 1996 United States National Team poses with the World Cup

The United States enters the 2014 Olympics with all 25 players on it's roster from the NHL. It has also completed it's youth movement, which began after the 2004 World Cup with all of it's players now born after the last gold medal was won in 1980 and three born in the 1990's. In comparison, in 2006 16 of the US squad were born in the 1970's with two more born in the 1960's! 

Both Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller (the oldest member of the team at 33) return in goal for the Americans, as well as nine of their 14 forwards, but the defensive corps has had an almost complete turnover, with just Brooks Orpik and Ryan Suter back from 2010.

Up front, newcomers T. J. Oshie, Max Pacioretty, Derek Stepan, James van Riemsdyk and Blake Wheeler join returnees David Backes, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan, Patrick KaneRyan Kesler, Phil Kessel, captain Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski and Paul Stastny.

While the US went into the 2010 Olympics without a single forward who had ever scored a goal in the Olympics, four years later they enter the Games with a healthy dose of experience and leadership on offense.

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Zach Parise (9) and Ryan Suter (20) will lead the Americans in Sochi

With the format for this year's Olympics calling for the top four teams after the Preliminary Round to receive byes into the quarterfinals, the key for the United States will be defeating Slovakia in regulation time in their opening game on February 13th and taking points out of their game against Russia two days later, as each of the other three clubs should be able to take the full three points from Slovenia with ease. With four byes into the Quarterfinals up for grabs, securing one of those should be within reach for the Americans as long as they take care of business against Slovakia to open the tournament.

The United States, like so many other teams, will go as far as their goaltending can carry them. Quick is having a good season in Los Angeles and can be a difference maker, while Miller has the experience of leading the US to the gold medal game in Vancouver. The defense is anchored by Suter, who will likely enjoy seeing less ice time in Sochi than he is required to play by the Minnesota Wild.

Kane and Kessel lead Americans in NHL scoring and they must find the net in order for the Americans to advance through the playoff round and contend for a medal, but are far from the only ones who can be counted on, with Pavelski, Wheeler, van Riemsdyk and Oshie all with 40 points or more.

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Today's featured jersey is a 1996 United States National Team Pat Lafontaine jersey as worn during the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. While this jersey had a short life span of just  two years, it was worn during one of the United States finest moments, victory over Canada at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey. With it's very short life span, unusual styling and championship pedigree, it's one of the most sought after jerseys by collectors.

The white ones were sold at retail, both with and without names, but the blue ones were apparently created only for the team itself, making them a Holy Grail for many. The white ones were sold customized as #2 Brian Leetch, #35 Mike Richter and #27 Jeremy Roenick, yet Roenick never played in the World Cup! This was due to him not having an NHL contract at the time, and therefore no insurance coverage should he suffer a major injury, which forced him to sit out the tournament, making jerseys customized with his name and #27 "close but not quite" in terms of accuracy.

Also of note, none of the white ones sold at retail had the 1996 World Cup of Hockey 3" diameter logo patch on the upper left arm and the Leetch jerseys did not come with the captain's "C".  While any decent customizer can add a proper "C" to a jersey still needing one, the supply of the now 18 year old tournament logo patches dried up several years ago and are now virtually impossible to find anymore, only adding to the desirability of a properly patched and fully customized example.

This particular jersey started out as a retail blank version, which meant it came with only a sublimated USA crest, as opposed to the embroidered crest patches which adorned the customized examples, which were number sized (48, 52, etc.). Obtaining a blank version, which were letter sized (L, XL, etc.), did give us the choice of which player to add to the back of our jersey. We then purchased an embroidered crest to add to ours to raise it up to the level of the customized retail versions and then added the World Cup logo patch for even more added authenticity.

Lafontaine played for the United States on six occasions, the first being in the 1984 Olympics. He also appeared in the 1988 and 1992 Canada Cup tournaments, the 1989 World Championships, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and concluded his international career with the 1998 Olympics, the first one which featured the pros of the NHL.

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Here is a look at the jerseys that the United States will be wearing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. While some teams in Sochi are being outfitted with some pretty wild and experimental designs, the United States has been given an overall very sharp pair of jerseys for 2014. The shield design is loosely based on their 1932 jerseys, which were worn as throwback styles at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and again at the 2005 World Juniors.

We're not exactly thrilled with the use of the nearly invisible stars on the shoulders, wishing they would have been either white, or not there at all. From a collector standpoint, we wonder how this heat sealed treatment of subtle designs will wear over time, as many of our early CCM jerseys with heat sealed designs, such as stars on the  shoulders and chest of NHL All-Star Game jerseys have begun to loosen and peel off over time. 

We're even less excited about the appliqué faux laces, as simply using real ones would look a hundred times nicer and a lot less "cheap". We're also surprised to see Nike sticking with the same font for the names and numbers as used for quite some time now, as this is a decidedly retro looking style paired with modern looking lettering.

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First up today are highlights from the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, won by the United States, their last major international championship at the senior level.

Here is Billy Christian's game winning goal versus the Soviet Union in the 1960 Olympics on the next to last day of the tournament, a game played outdoors.

Finally, the trailer from the movie "Forgotten Miracle" about the gold medal winning 1960 USA Olympic Hockey Team.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

2014 Olympic Hockey Preview - Switzerland

The Switzerland National Hockey Team is currently ranked 7th in the IIHF World Rankings, equaling their highest ranking in their history, and is not a team to be overlooked, having defeated both the Czech Republic 3-2 and Canada 2-0 in the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. Based on their status as one of the top nine ranked countries, Switzerland was automatically entered in the 2014 Olympic tournament, allowing them avoid the qualification process for teams outside the top nine.

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The Swiss have participated in the Olympics in ice hockey 15 times since 1920, with their best results being a pair of bronze medals in 1928 and 1948. Most recently, they placed 8th in the last Olympics in 2010.

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The Swiss are regular participants in the World Championships, having first participated in 1930, where they won a bronze medal, the first of four bronzes they would win throughout the 1930's. Their highest finish at the World Championships came in 1935 when, as hosts of the championships they placed second to capture the silver medal. The Swiss also had a period of competitiveness following World War II, winning bronze medals in 1950, 1951 and 1953, again as the host country.

Beginning in 1961, the Swiss would play in Pool B for the majority of next three decades. Twice they would drop down to Pool C, only to return to Pool B at the first chance in 1969 and 1974. When the World Championships expanded to 16 teams in 1998, Switzerland was promoted to the Top Division, and finished a magnificent fourth in a tournament where they defeated Russia 4-2. More recently, Switzerland has finished 7th, 8th or 9th every year since 2001 through 2009. In 2010 they rose to 5th which included winning Group B, highlighted by a 4-1 win over Canada.

After slipping to 9th in 2011 and 11th in 2012, they reversed course in a stellar run to an improbable silver medal in 2013 in Sweden. They won Group S with consecutive wins over Sweden, Canada, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Denmark, Norway and Belarus to go undefeated in group play. They then ousted the Czechs and the United States to reach the gold medal final before their gold medal dream was spoiled by the host Swedes.

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Switzerland celebrates their shootout win over Canada
at the 2013 World Championships

Switzerland enters the 2014 Olympics with eight NHLers on it's roster, up from three in 2010, including Jonas Hiller of Anaheim, Mark Streit of Philadelphia, Raphael Diaz of Montreal, Roman Josi of Nashville, Yannick Weber of Vancouver, Damien Brunner of New Jersey and Nino Niederreiter of Minnesota. The remainder of the Swiss roster draws heavily from the Swiss National League A, with 14 players from the home league and one from the American Hockey League.

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Jonas Hiller

With the format for this year's Olympics calling for the top four teams after the Preliminary Round to receive byes into the quarterfinals, the key for Switzerland will be winning their opening game as expected against Latvia on February 12th and then taking at least a point out of their game against Sweden two days later. If they can manage that, then defeating the Czech Republic on February 15th, especially in regulation for the full 3 points, could give the Swiss a shot at one of the byes directly into the quarterfinals. While that is a best case scenario, the reigning World Championship silver medalists have shown they are capable giant killers and should at least expect to be one of the higher ranked teams in the Qualification Playoffs, drawing the likes of Austria or Latvia and then reaching the Quarterfinals is a very realistic goal.

The goaltending of Hiller, supported by four NHL defensemen, should allow the Swiss to remain competitive against any team in the tournament. Additionally, they have a capable offense and should play an entertaining brand of hockey, rather than looking to eek out 2-1 wins like some overmatched European sides often adopt as their best hope for a win.

Today's featured jersey is a 2010 Switzerland National Team Mark Streit jersey as worn during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. This jersey reprises the classic vintage red jersey worn by Switzerland once in the 2008 World Championships as part of the IIHF Centennial Celebrations, which in turn were based on the jerseys originally worn by Switzerland in 1928 when they won the bronze medal, their best Olympic result in their history.

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Here is a look at the jerseys that Switzerland will be wearing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. These jerseys The white jersey in particular is very sharp, with it's bold red band across the chest adorned by the traditional white cross. While there is something striking about the simplicity of the white jerseys, the red jerseys are too stark, with just the white cross on the upper left chest, leaving it looking too much like a practice jersey.

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Today's first video selection highlights Switzerland's silver medal performance at the 2013 World Championships.

Finally, an impressive display by Swiss fans prior to a game at the 2009 World Championships, hosted by Switzerland, chanting "Hopp Schwiiz! Hopp Schwiiz!", the traditional Swiss fans cheer of support.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2014 Olympic Hockey Preview - Slovakia

The Slovakia National Hockey Team is currently ranked 8th in the IIHF World Rankings, a ranking that can be seen as deceptively low given Slovakia's recent performances in the World Championships. Slovakia placed 10th or worse four times in a row from 2008 and 2011, but then followed that up with a silver medal in 2011!

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At times Slovakia is forced to ice rosters devoid of many NHL stars who are otherwise occupied by participating in the NHL playoffs or pass on participating in the World Championships to heal nagging injuries from the long, just concluded NHL season. Once stocked with the best Slovakia has to offer, they can rise to be a force. You overlook Slovakia as a medal contender at your own peril.

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Peter Bondra in 2002

Based on their status as one of the top nine ranked countries, Slovakia was automatically entered in the 2014 Olympic tournament, allowing them avoid the qualification process for teams outside the top nine.

The Slovaks have participated in the Olympics in ice hockey five times since 1994 after the division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with finishes of 6th in 1994, 5th in 2010 and 4th the last time out in Vancouver, results more in line with what they are capable of with all hands on deck, unlike their sometimes poor showings at the World Championships while fielding rosters of less than full strength. 

One such example of when Slovakia was forced to field a less than full roster came at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City when the NHL did not break in time for Slovakia's best players to compete in the early Preliminary Round, costing them a chance to advance to the Final Round group stage when their star players, such as Peter Bondra, Josef Stumpel, Ziggy PalffyPavol DemitraMarian HossaMiroslav Satan and Zedeno Chara, were either unavailable or limited to a game or two at best.

Slovakia proved the unfairness of this system by winning the World Championship just two months later when allowed to field a more complete roster, which resulted in the Olympic schedule being altered to match the NHL schedule break starting in 2006 to prevent such an occurrence from happening again.

Since gaining their independence, Slovakia have been regular participants in the World Championships, first being assigned to Pool C as a new country, the lowest rung of the ladder system, despite the Czechs remaining in the Top Divison. They proved they did not belong at the bottom level by immediately winning Pool C in 1994 and followed up by winning Pool B the very next year, completing a rise to the Top Division in the shortest time possible.

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Peter Stastny led the Slovaks to the top division in short order

They slowly rose from a 10th place finish in 1996 to 9th and then a pair of 7ths before winning a silver medal in 2000. A drop back to 7th in 2001 was followed by the highlight of Slovakian hockey history, as they captured the World Championship in 2002.

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Miroslav Satan hoists the World Championship trophy in 2002

Since that time however, the program began a steady, slow decline. They followed their championship with a respectable bronze medal in 2003 and then dropped to 4th, 5th and then 8th place. 2007 saw a rise to 6th, but then the dismal drop to the relegation round and a 13th place finish in 2008 and a 10th place in 2009, avoiding relegation thanks only to a narrow 4-3 win over Hungary. It was more of the same with a 12th in 2010 and a disappointing 10th in 2011 when they were the host nation, but then a stellar silver medal in 2012 served notice of what they are capable of given the right circumstances. 

Slovakia enters the 2014 Olympics with 14 NHLers on it's roster, highlighted by Chara of Boston, Marian Hossa and Michal Handzus of Chicago, Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar of Detroit, and Tomas Kopecky of  Florida, as well as the possibility of Marian Gaborik of the Columbus if healthy in time. The remainder of the Slovak roster are all currently playing in the Russian KHL, some of whom have previous NHL experience like Marcel Hossa.

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Chara will carry the flag for Slovakia in the opening ceremonies

The key for Slovakia will be the play of their goaltenders, Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj, neither of which has established himself as a clear number one goaltender in the NHL this season, with Halak splitting time in St. Louis and Budaj  backing up in Montreal.

With the format for this year's Olympics calling for the top four teams after the Preliminary Round to receive byes into the quarterfinals, the key for Slovakia will be defeating Slovenia by as many goals as possible on February 15th and coming away with at least a point against the United States in their opening matchup on February 13th to gain a favorable pairing in the Secondary Round knockout games on February 23rd.

Today's featured jersey is a 2002 Slovakia National Team Peter Bondra jersey as worn when the Slovaks reached the pinnacle by winning the 2002 World Championships after less than 10 years of play following the division of Czechoslovakia.

Bondra was a two-time 50 goal scorer in the NHL who also achieved the distinction of becoming a 500 goal scorer as well in a career mainly spent with the Washington Capitals. He also played for Slovakia at the 1998 and 2006 Olympics, the 1996 World Cup  and the World Championships in 2002 and 2003, winning a gold followed by a bronze medal.

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Here is a look at the jerseys that Slovakia will be wearing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The horizontal pinstripes on the white jerseys are actually the lyrics to the Slovakia national anthem, making for one of the better of the new crop of jerseys for 2014.

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Our video selection today takes a look back at the excitement of Slovakia winning their first World Championship back in 2002.


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