The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.
When the puck drops on the men's Olympic hockey tournament, things will look pretty different from just four years ago in Sochi.
For starters, the NHL won't be sending any of its players for the first time since 1998, a matter further complicated by the Russian doping ban and the country's KHL still figuring out if it will allow its players to participate in the Games. (Russian athletes can still compete, but as an 'Olympic Athlete from Russia.') It's worth noting that none of the Russian hockey players were accused of wrongdoing in the IOC's investigation.
So who gets to go? At this point, it looks like rosters will be made up of somewhat familiar names—think Brian Gionta—and up-and-coming players from the NCAA and junior ranks to go with little-known overseas pros. To be eligible for the Olympics, players must meet two International Ice Hockey Federation requirements: Each player must be under the jurisdiction of an IIHF member national association and be a citizen of the country he represents.
Most of the familiar faces on the women's side will be in PyeongChang as the U.S. looks for its first gold-medal finish since 1998, when the game was approved as an Olympic event. The rivalry between the United States and Canada is as strong as ever, and sure to provide plenty of highlights. Canada has had a stranglehold on the top of the Olympic podium since the Nagano Games: Coming into South Korea, the Canadians have taken the last four Olympic gold medals, including gold medal game wins over Team USA in 2002, 2010 and 2014. But the U.S. has similarly owned the World Championships in recent years, having met the Canadians in finals of every World Championship tournament since 1990, with Team USA winning the last four. As part of a lead-up to the 2018 Games, Canada went 5-1 in a set of friendly matchups with the U.S. But the Americans went undefeated in a title run at the Four Nations Cup in November, with two victories over their northern neighbors.
For the casual hockey fan, there are several small but notable differences from the NHL game: IIHF games feature a wider ice surface (100 feet vs. 85), larger rosters (teams can dress 20 skaters as opposed to 18), automatic icing, no restrictions on goalies playing the puck behind the net (goodbye, trapezoid!) and an ejection for players that fight. A full breakdown can be found on the IIHF website.
When it comes to the women's game, there is no checking allowed, but don't mistake that for a boring game—it's just as physical as one would expect hockey to be.
In terms of gameplay, things mostly line up with what you see from watching NHL games. One thing to be wary of: The clock on the 20-minute periods counts up instead of down, which can take some getting used to. Maybe the biggest change comes in the form of the shootout. If a game remains tied after a 10-minute overtime period, teams go to a three-round shootout. If the tie is still unbroken after those three rounds, it becomes a sudden victory situation, in which a team can send out any player to shoot any number of times. If you'll recall, it's how we ended up with The Legend of T.J. Sochi, and once decided a gold medal game. (Sidenote: Enjoy a pre-NHL Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya. Wow.)
The bracket consists of 12 teams, with autobids going to the top eight IIHF-ranked teams following the 2015 World Championships (Sweden, Finland, Canada, OAR, the United States, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Slovakia), plus a berth for host country South Korea. Slovenia, Germany and Norway gained entry through subsequent tournaments.
The women's tournament features eight teams, with five berths coming via IIHF rankings (U.S., Canada, Finland, OAR and Sweden) and one to host South Korea, with Switzerland and Japan winning qualification tournaments.
How does the tournament work?
Teams are broken up into three groups: A (Canada, Czech Republic, Switzerland and South Korea), B (OAR, U.S., Slovakia and Slovenia) and C (Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany). Each team will play a game against each team in its group, with three points for a regulation win, two for an overtime or shootout win and one for an OT/shootout loss.
Once group play is over, teams are seeded by group position and points earned, with the top four teams getting a bye into the quarterfinals of the winner-take-all tournament.
The eight teams are separated into Group A, made up of the top-four IIHF-ranked teams (U.S, Canada, Finland, OAR) and B (Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea). After group play, thing's get a little hectic:
The top two teams from Group A get a bye and top seeds in the semifinals. The third-place team in Group A plays the second-place team from Group B in the quarterfinals, while the fourth-place Group A team and top Group B finisher face-off for a spot in the semis. The quarterfinal losers play for fifth place and the bottom Group B teams duke it out in the seventh-place game.
What will the jerseys look like?
In a word: Yikes.
So... Who wins?
Should the KHL participate, Russia gets the way-too-early-to-actually-tell nod in the men's bracket, though without knowing who will be on the final rosters, it's anybody's tournament to win.
For the women, it's easy to look ahead to a U.S.-Canada showdown for the gold, though Finland and Russia have made enormous strides since the 2014 Games, with the Finns on the cusp of the upper echelon of teams. The Russians aren't quite there yet, and will have a tough time cracking the top three.