With one year to go until Sochi 2014, the five qualifying teams that will complete the field for the Olympic ice hockey tournaments have officially earned their spots.
Latvia was the only host nation on the men’s side that won its Final Olympic Qualification group. The maroon-white team will be travelling to Sochi next year with underdogs from the other tournaments held this past week, Austria and Slovenia.
On the women’s side Germany succeeded on home ice in Weiden while Japan won the group in Slovakia.
The groups in Sochi 2014 will be played as follows (in brackets: IIHF World Ranking position):
Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament:
Group A: Russia (1), Slovakia (6), USA (7), Slovenia (18)
Group B: Finland (2), Canada (5), Norway (8), Austria (15)
Group C: Czech Republic (3), Sweden (4), Switzerland (9), Latvia (11)
Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament:
Group A: Canada (1), USA (2), Finland (3), Switzerland (4)
Group B: Sweden (5), Russia (6), Germany (8), Japan (11)
Note: the women’s ice hockey tournament is played in tiered groups.
Let’s have a quick look at the five qualifiers and their road to Sochi.
Latvia made it to the Olympics for the fourth time in a row. Four and eight years ago respectively the Latvians won the Final Olympic Qualification in Riga. 2013 was no exception, but it wasn’t a promenade for the home team either.
After defeating Great Britain 6-2, the Latvians gave up a 2-0 lead against Kazakhstan before defeating the Central Asian team 3-2 thanks to an early third-period goal from Lauris Darzins.
The last day became a challenge for mathematicians. Since Kazakhstan also surprisingly defeated France with the same result, 3-2, a French regulation-time win against Latvia on the last day could have caused extensive calculations.
It looked like a great day for Les Bleus in front of more than 10,000 fans at Arena Riga. Damien Fleury and Laurent Meunier opened the scoring and France was virtually in Sochi for more than 20 minutes.
But then Darzins cut the lead and Kazakhstan was in pole position for some minutes. But after 12 seconds in the third period Martin Karums tied it up. The 2-2 tie remained after 60 minutes of play and Latvia got the minimum it needed to win the group: one point. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s overtime-winning goal for France was just for the record.
"I don't really know how, we're a small country but we've got a lot of strength and a lot of... I can't say it but you know what," said a smiling Latvia team captain Sandis Ozolins when asked how Latvia has been able to qualify for four consecutive Olympics as a country of slightly more than 2 million inhabitants.
More: Story on Latvia’s win, Stats & Photos
Austria hasn’t been that successful in qualifying for the Olympics in recent years. Four years ago they lost the deciding game to Germany in Hanover 2-1, but this time in Bietigheim-Bissingen the Austrians took revenge on the opponent’s home ice and finished the group in first place ahead of Italy and Germany.
It will be the 13th participation in the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament for Austria and the first since 2002 after upsetting Germany, whose streak of participations in Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament since 1952 comes to an end.
Austria went into the last day with a perfect record after defeating Italy 3-2 and the Netherlands 6-1. Thanks to the good start the team just needed one additional point against host Germany, which suffered an overtime loss against Italy on the second day.
Same as the Latvians, the Austrians got exactly what they needed. They cut into two German leads to celebrate a 2-2 score after 60 minutes and even Patrick Reimer’s overtime goal for Germany couldn’t spoil the Austrian party in the sold-out arena.
“Right now we still can’t believe it because it’s an unbelievable feeling. At this point we’re just happy that we made it,” said Austrian goalie Bernhard Starkbaum, who had 35 saves.
“Tonight we lost, but nobody cares. We played a good tournament and everybody stuck together. That’s why we had success. Everybody really deserves to go to Sochi.”
More: Story on Austria’s win, Stats & Photos
Fans in Vojens were anticipating a big Denmark vs. Belarus final on Sunday night. But things turned out differently. The last game instead became redundant because underdog Slovenia stepped up and made it to Sochi with a clean record.
The small country between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea has just 2 million inhabitants, 924 registered ice hockey players and one professional club. But that has never stopped the national team before from impressing on the international stage.
Within ten months Slovenia gained promotion to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Sweden after winning the Division I tournament on home ice followed by the Stanley Cup triumph of the country’s most famous player, Anze Kopitar, with the Los Angeles Kings.
And now, Slovenia will go to the Olympics for the first time as an independent nation and after a couple of participations of Slovenian hockey players on the Yugoslav teams in the ‘60s, ‘70s and last time in Sarajevo 1984.
First, Slovenia shocked Belarus in a 4-2 victory, then the day after they did the same to hosts Denmark, 2-1. That was already enough. After winning the head-to-head games against the two followers, Slovenia already got its ticket to Sochi and closed the tournament out with a perfect record with a 6-1 victory over Ukraine on the last day.
“I am speechless,” said David Rodman. “Nobody expected this from us. We came here as the third-ranked team. We have beaten both the favourites and we are going to the Olympics. Our team is like a family. We play for each other and that's why we can beat teams who have more talent.”
Will there be a family reunion in Sochi? Coach Matjaz Kopitar used his younger son Gasper Kopitar for the first time. Now Slovenian fans will be counting on big brother Anze Kopitar joining them help the team in its first Olympic endeavour.
More: Story on Slovenia’s win, Stats & Photos
After some tough years, German women’s hockey is on the rise again. The U18 women’s national team is among the top European talent producers and the senior national team made its way back to the Top Division for last year and managed to stay there.
Now the results are also reflected in Olympic participation. After missing on Vancouver 2010, the German ladies will go to Sochi 2014 thanks to a clean record in the final qualification that took place on home ice in Weiden.
The Germans had the strongest opposition on the first two days and defeated China 3-1 and the Czech Republic with the same score. That was already enough to secure first place in the tournament. A 5-0 victory over Kazakhstan on the last day was the icing on the cake.
“We have practiced all-season for this goal, to qualify for the Olympics. You don't believe it is true, but slowly you start to feel it has become true,” said Manuela Anwander, who had a goal and an assist in the deciding game against the Czechs.
More: Story on Germany’s win, Stats & Photos
The Japanese women’s team had only played in one Olympics so far and that was when the country hosted the 1998 Games in Nagano. Now they return to the Olympic stage after winning a tournament full of surprises.
The biggest surprise in Poprad, however, seemed to be Denmark. Ranked only 19th in the world, the Danes had to start in the first of three stages. They won three games in Barcelona in October and surprised with three more wins in Valmiera, Latvia, in November.
Unbelievably, the streak continued with victories over favoured Slovakia (2-1) and Norway (2-1 in shootout).
Only one team could stop the Cinderella story. Japan also defeated Norway but suffered a 1-0 shootout loss to Slovakia before entering the last day.
When it came to the deciding game, luck was not on Denmark’s side anymore. Japan shone with scoring efficiency and blanked Denmark 5-0 en route to Sochi.
“We tried to play our best game today. We promised each other we'd go for the win, and we did it,” said Japan captain Chiho Osawa.
More: Story on Japan’s win, Stats & Photos
NOTE: Our video of day 3 with material from the deciding games in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Riga and Poprad will be published on the IIHF YouTube Channel overnight.