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Small hockey nations still have Olympic dreams

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm •  Published: January 22, 2014

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.

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