By Mike Collett-White
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Attention at the Winter Olympics turned on Tuesday to the eagerly awaited men's ice hockey competition even before a puck had been shot in anger, as host team Russia and heavyweights Canada and the United States paraded before the world's media.
For many fans the Winter Games do not properly begin until the puck drops on the men's ice hockey rink, and that happens on Wednesday at the gleaming new Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena on Russia's Black Sea Coast.
On day four of the February 7-23 Olympics, most of the action was up in the nearby Caucasus Mountains, where mild temperatures were causing increasing concern about poor snow conditions.
The final training session for Wednesday's women's downhill was cancelled due to the conditions, and ahead of the Nordic Combined competition on the same day American Bill Demong said of the snow: "It's not even slushy, it's just mushy.
"No matter how many chemicals they use I anticipate the snow will get beaten down during the course of the race and I think it will be very tough," he told reporters.
Temperatures are expected to rise to at least 15C (59 Fahrenheit) later this week.
U.S. skier Bode Miller has blamed the weather for wrecking his hopes of glory in Sunday's downhill, and he fears the mild conditions may scupper his bid to successfully defend his super combined title, saying softer snow favours slalom technicians.
Despite the gripes, competition went ahead on Tuesday and American snowboarder Shaun White, one of the best known faces in winter sport, will be vying to retain his halfpipe title.
The women ski jumpers compete in the Olympics for the first time after a long campaign to be included.
ICE HOCKEY MANIA
The first of eight medals to be decided on Tuesday went to teenager Dara Howell of Canada in the inaugural women's freestyle skiing slopestyle.
Several skiers crashed out spectacularly, including Howell's compatriot and favourite Kaya Turski, who did not qualify, and fellow Canadian Yuki Tsubota, who appeared to suffer a serious injury on her second run of the final.
The result strengthened Canada's place at the top of the overall medals' table with four golds, while Russia linger in sixth position with one gold, two silver and three bronze medals.
The hosts are desperate to improve on their woeful performance at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver four years ago, when just three gold medals left them 11th in the table.
When the figure skating team won gold in Sochi on Sunday there was a surge of excitement across the country and internationally. That would be nothing compared to the euphoria a men's ice hockey gold would bring.
If there is one country where the sport matters as much as in Canada, it is Russia, and more than 100 journalists and 40 television cameras were there for the men's media conference.
"I participated in four Olympic Games and I don't remember such an interest in ice hockey players," former goaltending great Vladislav Tretyak, now president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, told reporters.
In a show of unity, and underlining the sport's importance, the entire ice hockey team showed up to face the media.
"It is a team sport and it's up to the entire team to get the gold so that is why we are here together," said Tretyak.
The heavyweight American and Canadian teams had their first practice on Monday, but attention was already turning to Saturday's mouth-watering clash between the United States and Russia.
That game will bring back memories of the "miracle on ice" at Lake Placid in 1980 when a U.S. team made up of amateur and college players, stunned the dominant Soviets, who had won five of the previous six Olympic ice hockey gold medals.
PRAYING FOR AN EARTHQUAKE
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his personal and political prestige on staging a successful Games, would dearly love a home victory in that game.
The Sochi Games have cost an estimated $51 billion, which would make it the most expensive Olympics ever, although that figure has been questioned and would include long term infrastructure projects in the region.
The buildup to the Games was overshadowed by threats of militant violence, an international outcry over a contentious "anti-gay propaganda" law and allegations of widespread corruption and profligacy.
Once they got underway that hostility quickly evaporated, although a militant Islamist group urged followers to pray for an earthquake in Sochi during the Olympics to avenge Muslims who died there fighting "Russian infidels".
The appeal was made by a local branch of the Caucasus Emirate, a group which is waging an insurgency for an Islamist state in Russia's North Caucasus and called on supporters last year to attack the Games.
"All who are able to read this letter can supplicate that the Almighty destroys the land in Sochi with an earthquake, and makes the infidels 'drunk of water' before Hell and drown in a flood!," said the appeal posted online on Monday.
On a more positive note, the International Olympic Committee lifted a ban on the Indian Olympic Association, which was suspended when a corruption-tainted official was voted in as secretary general in 2012.