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Vancouver Games hockey preview

SI.com's writers will preview each event from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Here's Michael Farber's look ahead to the men's hockey tournament.

This could be it, the long goodbye for NHL players in the Olympics -- at least for the foreseeable future. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who championed the idea and reopened a collective bargaining agreement to ensure his league grabbed hold of the five rings in 1998, is reluctant to free his players for Sochi 2014 even though NHLPA members are eager to keep going. No matter who wins the tug-of-war in the next CBA negotiations, the 12-day tournament has the makings of a grand finale.

The hockey world rarely offers a best-on-best tournament, albeit one as truncated as the Olympics. The annual world championships are held in May, unfortunate timing that keeps the marquee players still involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs out of the event. The World Cup, successor to the Canada Cup, has been held just twice -- 1996 and 2004 -- in September, prior to the scheduled start of the NHL season when players aren't in peak shape. No excuses now. The Olympic men's hockey tournament is the real deal, played in winter in hockey-daft Canada on the smaller (200 feet by 85 feet) North American rink.

Sidney Crosby, center, Canada: Snubbed four years ago by Hockey Canada, Crosby is now the fulcrum, although not the captain, of the home team. (Defenseman Scott Niedermayer, playing in his native British Columbia, is.) The never-take-a-shift-off Crosby, youngest captain of a Stanley Cup winner, must provide a jolt to a Canadian attack that shockingly was shut out three times in Turin.

Alexander Ovechkin, left wing, Russia: Hockey's ultimate scorer, showman and patriot. (He already has said he will play at home in Sochi even if the NHL opts out.) He is as excitable as he is exciting, a tour de force who is following in his mother's footsteps as a two-time Olympian. Tatiana, who also wore No. 8, was the point guard for the Soviet Union in the 1976 and 1980 Games.

Peter Forsberg, left wing/center, Sweden: "Foppa" is part of the so-called "Golden Generation" of Swedish hockey -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin, et al -- that indeed won gold in Turin 2006. There's your thrill of victory. Now for the agony of the feet (sorry): Forsberg's chronic ankle and foot problems have undermined the declining years of a brilliant NHL career. He's in his hockey dotage, playing for his hometown club of MoDo in the Swedish Elite League. The Olympics are his re-entry on the world stage, but there's one catch: He's out with a rib injury and not expected to play until Jan. 25. That could threaten his availability come Vancouver.

Ryan Miller, goaltender, USA: Americans tend to lavish their attention on the most black-and-white position on the ice, falling in love with Olympic netminders, from Jack McCartan in 1960 to Jim Craig in 1980 and, goodness, even to Ray LeBlanc in 1992. Miller will be the next object of affection. He probably will earn the huzzahs. The Buffalo Sabres stalwart was the NHL's top goalie through the first half of the '09-10 season.

Although general manager Brian Burke is fond of saying that not a nickel will be wagered on the Americans in Las Vegas -- does NBA commissioner DavidStern know about this? -- Team USA dares hope for a gold medal. This is a long shot, of course, but while their pedigree can't match that of the fancied Canadians and Russians, the smallish Americans have excellent speed, high-end wingers in Zach Parise and Patrick Kane and the hottest goalie in the game. Miller might steal a win or two in the knockout games, like the Czechs' Dominik Hasek in '98. Can he steal three?

The Sweden-Finland replay of the '06 gold-medal game (Feb. 21) always devolves into stereotypes -- not to get crude here, but basically the Swedes think the Finns are tipplers and the Finns think the Swedes are wusses -- but the hockey world most eagerly awaits a grudge match, in the knockout round, between historic foes Russian and Canada. Russia beat Team Canada in the '06 Olympic quarters, then toppled it in overtime in '08 World Championships final in Quebec City and triumphed again last year in Switzerland. Since the Summit Series of '72, Russia-Canada has been at the apex of international hockey.

In the three Olympics with NHL players, six different nations have met in the gold-medal game. After stunning Canada in a semifinal shootout -- inexplicably, Wayne Gretzky was not among the five Canadian shooters -- the Czech Republic beat Russia in Nagano. Then Canada thumped the U.S. in Salt Lake City before the gritty Finns lost to Sweden in Turin. The point, and the joy, is this: Olympic hockey is rife with surprises, teams and individuals. Some unlikely stars have emerged, including Kenny Jonsson, the old New York Islanders blueliner who was plucked out of the Swedish B League before the Turin Games and was the most effective defenseman in the tournament.

Gold medal date: Feb. 28.

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