The nations that won the first five places in the hockey tournament at the 1956 Winter Games—Soviet Russia, the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Czechoslovakia—will all be at Squaw Valley. Each has been even more careful this time in building its team, more progressive in its training methods, more devoted to attuning each player to his function in a smoothly gliding machine.
The Russian team, which arrived in Denver Jan. 28 and walked away with its first two exhibition contests, seems even stronger than it was at Cortina, where it won all seven of its games, scoring 40 goals and conceding only nine. The new team, like the last one, skates fast and well and passes with notable precision. The Russians are deadly when the opposition has a man in the penalty box. Then they jealously and meticulously control the puck until they can drive home this advantage. But they are best on defense, and their key man is Goalie Nikolai Puchkov, a master judge of angles and distance. Helping Puchkov keep the puck clear of the net are two quick and aggressive defensemen, Genrikh Sidorenkov and Nikolai Sologubov.
Canada is still smarting from its poor showing in 1956, when the team flew into Cortina with a bland confidence in its country's supremacy over world hockey and left with an undistinguished third-place medal. This time the Canadians have chosen the tough Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen and sprinkled among them members of the 1958 World Champion Whitby Dunlops and the 1959 world titlists, the Belleville McFarlands. This composite team will probably have the fastest skaters at Squaw Valley and the roughest backcheckers on defense. Olympic rules, however, are quite strictly against the heavy body contact to which pro hockey fans are accustomed, and the Canadians will have to tone down their game or else spend a lot of their time in the penalty box. There is also a question as to how well the Dutchmen have learned to play with the men from the other teams. Nevertheless Canada has a squad which, man for man, is every bit as good as the Russians, maybe better.
The U.S. surprised everyone by getting a silver medal in 1956 but has never won a hockey gold medal. In fact, no team representing the U.S. has ever beaten a Soviet team. Nor is the record against Canada much brighter. The two best men on the U.S. squad are probably Defenseman John Mayasich and Wing Dick Meredith, both veterans of Cortina. The rest of the team still lacks experience—eight players have never been in major international competition. Most experts feel the U.S. will have to scramble to stay out of fourth place, but Coach Jack Riley is optimistic and thinks this is the best U.S. team ever. He says, "Ours is the strongest squad it is possible to get together in this country, and we will be up among the top three."
BATTLE OF THE BRONZE
Czechoslovakia will use a style of play similar to that of the Russian team, featuring good backchecking and puck control. If the Czechs have a fault it is that they cannot be counted upon to withstand stiff backchecking. Their shooting, however, is reasonably good, and they should be on at least even terms with the Swedes and may possibly nose out the U.S. for a third-place bronze medal.