With Slovenia, Germany, and Norway officially qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea today, some attention should be given to those countries that just missed out on a spot. As much as the IIHF World Championships and the upcoming World Cup of Hockey would like to believe that they are the premier international hockey event, there is no greater stage than the Olympic games. While the debate rages on whether NHL players should be allowed to participate in the event, it is still a matter of national pride to see one’s country represented in the greatest winter sport of all. Pros or not, Olympic hockey will always receive great fanfare, making missing out in qualifications that much more painful for a handful of enthusiastic hockey countries.
Qualification for the Olympics is a much longer process than many realize, beginning a year after the previous Winter Olympic Games. In 2015, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rankings were calculated and qualification began. A scoring system is used, based on the past five finishes for a country at the annual World Championships (weighted more heavily by the more recent finishes), to rank all 47 countries that compose the IIHF. The top eight countries are given automatic berths into the next Olympics. In 2015, they were Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, United States, Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Slovakia, in that order. From there, three rounds of qualification tournaments are scheduled. The number of groupings in each round varies, depending on how many IIHF countries are participating, as well as how many available spots there are for the next Olympics. If the games are being held in an already-qualified country, then there are four berths up for grabs. However, if the games are being held in a non-qualifier, like the 2018 games in South Korea, that team is also given an automatic berth, leaving just three spots. After each round is complete, the group winners advance to the next round until the three or four Olympic qualifiers are determined. In the first round of these qualifiers, which took place in October and November of 2015, nine teams competed. The two bottom ranked teams had a play-in game for the eighth and final spot in group play. Two groups of four proceeded from their, with Estonia and Serbia advancing. In round two, held in February, three groups of competition made winners of Italy, Poland, and Japan, who moved on to the final round. The final qualification round, which took place over the past four days in Minsk, Riga, and Oslo, consisted of three groups with many common hockey countries and even featured many NHL stars including Anze Kopitar for Slovenia and Mats Zuccarello for Norway. In the end, Slovenia, Norway, and Germany walked away as winners, punching their ticket to Pyeongchang.
And what of the losers? Even in the third and final round, the points gaps and scoring differentials show that there are many teams that are still far from legitimate Olympic contention. Italy, Japan, Austria, and Poland were out of place, and France and Kazakhstan put up a valiant effort, but would have been a huge upset had they qualified. Three teams stick out as falling short, and for these three it will be a long four years before they get to fight for an Olympic spot again at the 2022 games in Beijing, China: Belarus, Latvia, and Denmark.
Belarus came the closest to qualifying this time around. An overtime loss to Slovenia in the final game of group play today sealed their fate. The team was led up front by former NHLers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, as well as recent Toronto Maple Leafs PTO-signee Roman Graborenko, UMass alum and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oleg Yevenko, and American-Belarusian Nick Bailen on defense. On equal footing with Slovenia through each of the teams’ first two games, it came down to a battle for the group today. Unfortunately, they could not find the same magic that they had in the “Salt Lake Miracle” win over Sweden in the 2002 Winter Olympics, despite hosting the tournament in Minsk. Slovenia scored in OT, and that once goal will put Belarusian hopes on hold for a while. The Kostitsyn’s very well might not be around for the next qualification tournament, but with a good young defensive core in place, Belarus will look to bring along some home-grown talent at forward and in net and give it another go in four years.
Latvia too came very close to a trip to Korea in 2018. Going into today’s final game, at home in Riga, Latvia and Germany were both 2-0, creating yet another winner-take-all scenario. Going up against a strong German squad, featuring veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and Christian Ehrhoff and young scorers Tobias Rieder of the Arizona Coyotes and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers, the Latvians held their own. However, they just fell short, losing 3-2. The future is bright for Team Latvia though, as next time around they will still have top players like the Buffalo Sabres’ Zemgus Girgenson, Vancouver Canucks prospect Rodrigo Abols, and young Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Kristers Gudlevskis, and all three will be more seasoned, and hopefully joined by more young, talented depth. Expect Latvia to again make a strong push when it comes time for Beijing.
Far and away, the most disappointing team in qualifying was Denmark. Playing in the same group as Slovenia and Belarus, Team Denmark had tough competition, but was still the favorite to win. Instead, the team came out flat, losing 5-2 to Belarus and 3-0 to Slovenia. A team featuring new Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, Canucks defenseman Philip Larsen, and a plethora of forward talent including big free agent signings Frans Nielsen of the Detroit Red Wings and Mikkel Boedker of the San Jose Sharks, top prospects Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets and Oliver Bjorkstrand of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and reliable veteran Jannik Hansen of the Canucks, surely should have performed better. Had the groups been aligned differently, perhaps the results would also be different, but there is no excuse. Denmark not only should be in Pyeongchang in 2018, but also had the chance to make a splash. Instead, the team will have to try again in four years and hope that they continue to produce talent like they have right now.