In Sochi, talent alone might not be enough to win hockey gold

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Canada is the defending Olympic men’s hockey champion and will enter the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia with the most imposing collection of forwards and defensemen in the tournament.

The United States came within a goal of earning a gold medal four years ago and has pieced together another impressive roster.

The credentials for both teams are outstanding, but not necessarily enough to assure either a medal when the competition begins Wednesday.

And not just because Team USA and Canada will be matched against the game’s finest national clubs.

That would make it a daunting challenge for either, of course, but the on-ice competition might well be when players from both will feel most comfortable in the next couple of weeks.

At least they would if the ice surface in Sochi wasn’t considerably larger than what they’re used to in North America.

NHL rinks are 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. International Ice Hockey Federation regulations call for a sheet that is the same length and roughly 100 feet wide.

History shows that the difference isn’t measured simply in feet, but in results: Neither the U.S. team nor Canada medaled in the two Olympics played on IIHF-sized ice outside of North America since NHL players began to participate in 1998.

While European players learned the game on the bigger ice, most U.S. and Canadian players have experienced it only in international competitions, if at all.

“Maybe there’s a slight advantage for European teams, but lots of our guys have played [in North America] for 10 or so years, so they’re used to the small ice, too,” Finnish forward Jussi Jokinen said.

“But we grew up playing on the bigger ice. I’m sure that’s going to be one of the keys.”

Penguins general manager Ray Shero, associate general manager for Team USA, said projecting how players would fare on the larger surface was a critical factor when filling out the roster.

“If you were playing in the [undersized] old Boston Garden, [the makeup of the team] would be one thing,” he said. “If you’re playing on an Olympic sheet, it’s going to be another.”

U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik suggested the bigger ice will have the greatest impact on goaltenders “because of angles, stuff like that,” and Canadian left winger Chris Kunitz said he expects the extra space to work in his favor.

“There’s going to be a lot of room to be able to drive through and make open lanes behind you,” he said.

Even if players get acclimated to the bigger rink, adjusting to smaller living quarters in the Olympic Village might be an issue for some.

When they’re in the NHL, players stay in luxury hotels, usually in their own room. In Sochi, three players will be shoehorned into a space smaller than the walk-in closets in some of their residences at home.

Being just a few feet away from a teammate — perhaps on both sides — isn’t certain to be the biggest impediment, however, to getting adequate rest at the Games.

Not when some NHL players literally will be traveling halfway around the world to get there.

Sochi is in the Europe/Moscow time zone, which means players from NHL teams based in the East, such as the Penguins, will have to adapt to a nine-hour difference when they arrive in Russia. Guys from clubs based in the Pacific are facing a 12-hour difference, effectively reversing their days and nights.

The United States and Canada have been preparing for that, consulting with sleep experts to figure out the best way to deal with epic cases of jet lag.

“They have a plan to try to make it easier on yourself, as far as getting to sleep earlier and that sort of thing,” U.S. defenseman Paul Martin said.

“The tournament happens so fast. You have a couple of practices, and then you’re into games. Everyone will be trying to get accustomed to the time change.”

They might be obliged to get used to some new cuisine, too. While at least some familiar food will be available in the Olympic Village, players — voluntarily or otherwise — might occasionally consume items with which they are not terribly familiar.

“USA Hockey will be bringing stuff, but it’s not going to be exactly two weeks of homemade stuff,” Shero said. “It’s going to be different. That’s part of the cultural experience which you have to somewhat enjoy.”

Some players undoubtedly will. Others probably won’t.

But how enjoyable the Olympic experience is ultimately will be determined by how a player’s team fares in the tournament. And going in, roughly half of the 12-team field has a legitimate shot at a gold medal if things break right.

“I’d say there’s more than a handful of teams that could easily find a way to win it,” said center Sidney Crosby, whose overtime goal clinched gold for Canada in Vancouver four years ago. “So many teams are right there.

“With everyone so competitive now, I think it’s pretty tough to pick one team that’s ahead of the other. Every country is so good. In a one-game elimination, anything can happen, so you really have to be at your best at the right time.”

No matter what challenges must be overcome on the way there.

Predicting the field

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Penguins beat writer Dave Molinari handicaps the field for men’s hockey at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Gold — Sweden. Losing Henrik Sedin is a major blow, but the combination of Henrik Lundqvist’s goaltending and his teammates’ experience and depth should be just enough to lift the Swedes into the top spot.

Silver — Canada. If the Canadians’ goaltending holds up, they have a real chance to claim another gold.

Bronze — Russia. Evgeni Malkin and his teammates have plenty of pressure to win the tournament but lack the goaltending and defense corps to make it happen.

4. United States — Until the U.S. proves it can succeed in a big way outside of North America, skepticism will prevail.

5. Finland — High quality goaltending and stingy team defense make the Finns a legitimate medal threat.

6. Switzerland — The Swiss have the goaltending and defense to pull off an upset or two.

7. Slovakia — There’s a core of quality players. Just not enough of them, especially with Marian Gaborik unavailable.

8. Czech Republic — Are the Czechs’ key players experienced or simply old? Hard to believe Jiri Hudler didn’t merit a place on this squad.

9. Austria — Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl give the Austrians a solid base up front.

10. Norway — The Norwegian lineup will be Mats Zuccarello and a bunch of guys named Lars.

11. Slovenia — Anze Kopitar is a terrific talent, but he’s also the only NHL player on the roster.

12. Latvia — Coach Ted Nolan will get everything his players have to give. That, however, isn’t very much.

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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