Fighting on Ice
In going for a puck with a diameter of 8 cm, big men with heights of 190 cm and weighing more than 90 kg dash and crash into each other at speeds of up to 60 km/h. The goalkeeper, protected by thick protective gear and a special mask, uses superhuman reflexes to knock away or catch pucks fired at him/her at speeds of close to 200 km/h. This speed and power is the real taste of Ice Hockey, referred to as the "battle on ice."
Especially in the highest peak of the sport, the NHL (National Hockey League), approximately 600 veteran players from throughout the world, including North America, Russia, the Czech Republic and Sweden are divided up into 26 teams, which fight for the Stanley Cup, the proof of the strongest team.
For the first time in the history of the Olympics, these professional players from the NHL will all be able to participate in the Nagano Olympics. The Dream Team in which professionals from the NBA (National Basketball Association) participated at the Barcelona Olympics will also be able to realized in Ice Hockey.
Participation by professionals was recognized from the 1988 Calgary Olympics, but because the Olympics coincided with the NHL season, the top professionals whose contracts did not allow them to miss team games were actually prevented from participating in the Olympics. During the Nagano Olympics, however, for the first time in the 80 year history of the NHL, the NHL teams agreed to interrupt the season for the Olympics, opening the way for professionals to participate.
At the Nagano Olympics, 14 men's teams will participate, including Canada, U.S.A., Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, France, Italy, Germany, Slovakia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Austria and Japan. Of these, the top six up to Finland are exempted from the First League, and will appear from the Second League onwards.
Women's Ice Hockey will become an official event for the first time at the Nagano Olympics, and as a result of the World Championships held this year, the teams competing for the honor to be the first victorious country will be the top five teams of Canada, U.S.A., Finland, China and Sweden, and the host country Japan.
Current World Ice Hockey Situation
Currently Ice Hockey is played in three major tournaments which test the abilities of the various countries. the Olympics, the World Championships and the World Cup (expanded and name changed from the Canada Cup in 1996).
At the highest peak which is the World Championships, 12 countries belong to group A, and these teams play a preliminary round to narrow it down to eight countries, and then play off for top position in the finals tournament.
In the 1996 World Championship, the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, U.S.A., Finland, Canada, Italy and Russia were the eight countries that advanced to the finals tournament. The Czech Republic defeated Canada to record the country's first win since its separation. U.S.A. defeated Russia in the playoff for third.
As the World Championship, in which participation by professionals is permitted, is carried out after the NHL regular season has completed, some players from professional teams that did not make it into the playoffs of the regular season participate in the Championship.
The World Cup, with its name and rules changed from the Canada Cup last year, is played before the NHL season starts, so it is a valuable competition in which professional players can play in the uniforms of their mother countries. In 1996 the final was played out between U.S.A. and Canada, both made up entirely of NHL players, and U.S.A. scored their first victory.
Incidentally, the first Canada Cup (1976) was won by Canada, the second (1981) by the Soviet Union, the third (1984), fourth (1987) and fifth (1991) all won by Canada.
Veteran Players from Around the World
At the Olympics, the former Soviet Union, otherwise known as the "Big Red Machine" scored four consecutive victories from the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck (Austria) to the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, and have won the largest number of gold medals, with seven (not including the gold medal won as the EUN at Albertville in 1992).
However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, powerful players from within the country were lost to the NHL, so the overwhelming strength once seen in the former Soviet Union team is no longer seen in the Russian team.
Canada, which initially was overwhelmingly strong and has won six gold medals, has yet to win a gold medal since that won in the Oslo Winter Olympics in 1952 (Canada boycotted participation in the Ice Hockey in Sapporo in 1972 and Innsbruck in 1976.) At the Nagano Olympics participation by NHL professionals is permitted, however, and Canada's desperation to devote all their efforts to a recovery as the origin of the sport, and must therefore be at the top of the list of gold medal prospects.
The U.S.A. team, winners at the two past Olympics, is made up entirely of NHL players, and is together with Canada at the top of the list of gold medal prospects.
In Europe, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have organized their teams centering around NHL players, and may be expected to be involved in the fight for gold.
Ice Hockey in Japan
The best position in the Olympics achieved by Japan's men's team is the eighth position achieved in Squaw Valley in 1960. In the World Championships, the participation of countries such as Kazakhstan that were formerly part of the Soviet Union meant that in 1996 Japan finished at the bottom of group B, and for the first time in nine seasons was demoted to group C.
In group C of the World Championships held in March this year, Japan was able to remain in the finals league, but ended up coming fourth. The rules for the World Championship changed, however, with one team from the Far East being established in group A, Japan, having a higher position than China will participate in Group A in subsequent world championships. Despite this, there will be an obvious gap in ability with the countries gathering at the Nagano Olympics.
Japan, faced by the great obstacle of not having participated in the Olympics for Ice Hockey since Lake Placid in 1980, invited Dave King, former head coach of the NHL Calgary Flames as the general manager, and Bjon Kinding??, former manager of the Switzerland B team as manager, in an effort to strengthen Japan's ability. Several players of Japanese descent playing in the Japan League are also applying for naturalization, and if successful will be a valuable fighting power.
The powers in women's Ice Hockey are currently U.S.A. and Canada, followed by the other countries which are participating in the Olympics, which are Finland, Sweden and China.
At the Pacific Tournament held in Canada in April 1996, Japan lost to Canada 0-18, and to China 1-5. As with the men's team, there is an undeniable gap in abilities with the top teams. For the Nagano Olympics the intention is to send the team based on younger players overseas to strengthen their ability. (originally run May 17, 1997)
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