Small hockey nations still have Olympic dreams
Anze Kopitar knows Slovenia isn't likely to see the medal podium at its first Olympic hockey tournament. Jonas Hiller is only slightly more optimistic about Switzerland's chances.
The NHL stars leading smaller nations to Sochi are still thrilled about their turn in the spotlight.
While usual powers Canada, Russia, Sweden and the Americans dominate the medal talk in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, the 12-team field also includes teams from Latvia, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia, all hoping to seize the chance to sneak up on the big teams in the single-elimination portion of the tournament.
''I don't know if you want to talk medal right now,'' said Hiller, the starting goalie for the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks. ''I think the first goal is still making the quarterfinals. We need our best game out of everybody to have a chance to compete with the big teams, and hope that they don't play their best. But if you have that game and the other team doesn't, who knows?''
Ever since Switzerland won bronze at its home St. Moritz Games in 1948, the Olympic hockey medal table has been thoroughly dominated by six teams - the U.S. team, Canada, Sweden, Finland and the various political iterations of the Czech and Russian teams. Only West Germany broke into the medal group in the past 66 years, winning bronze at Innsbruck in 1976.
The smaller nations are usually preliminary-round fodder, but hockey's global growth will be showcased throughout the field in Sochi. Every team has at least one NHL player on its roster - even Slovenia, a nation of 2 million which had never reached the Olympics before beating Belarus, Denmark and Ukraine in a qualifying tournament last year.
Kopitar, the Los Angeles Kings' high-scoring forward and the first Slovenian to play in the NHL, is the only NHL player on the roster coached by his father, Matjaz.
Latvia also has just one NHL player in Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons, while 5-foot-7 forward Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers is the only NHL player on Norway's roster. Austria has three NHL representatives: forwards Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl.
The most popular dark-horse choice for a medal run seems to be Switzerland, the mountainous nation of roughly 8 million where hockey ranks only behind soccer for public attention. The current Swiss team, coached by Canadian Sean Simpson, caught the world's attention with surprising silver medals in last year's world championships as Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi earned the MVP award.
Hiller hasn't suited up for Switzerland since the Vancouver Olympics, but he's eager to play alongside seven fellow NHL players in Sochi.
''We've definitely got a decent enough team where we're able to play with the bigger teams,'' Hiller said. ''I think the team has proven at the world championships that they find a way to do it on a more consistent basis. We're definitely not just going there to be there. We want to prove that Swiss hockey is getting better every year.''
Hiller and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Mark Streit both see Switzerland's success as the product of an aggressive commitment to youth hockey and the limit on import players in Switzerland's top domestic league, allowing Swiss talent to grow.
''There's always been a lot of skill,'' said Streit, who's heading to his fourth Olympics for Switzerland. ''But the mindset for the young players to come over here, play in the junior leagues, to go through the minors and to make it to the NHL, that just needed some time. Now we have a lot of players over here, and I think for the young players, it's their goal to make their way to the NHL, and that's a huge factor.''
With just four NHL players on its roster four years ago, Switzerland still put a scare into the big boys at the Vancouver Olympics, taking host Canada to a shootout and losing two well-played games to the U.S. team. Four years before that in Turin, Switzerland shut out Canada and beat the Czech Republic before losing to Sweden in the quarterfinals.
Hiller and Streit aren't talking medals, but they're also not heading halfway across the world just to play a supporting role to the traditional hockey powers.
''Our players can play with anybody in the world, and goaltending can always win a game,'' Hiller said. ''Sometimes goaltending can equal out a lot of other things that a bigger team might have going for it.''
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.