NIKKO, Japan Ė Across the world, the Olympic dream remains alive for 35 menís and womenís hockey nations, as the second stage of the qualification period is set to get underway on Thursday and Friday.
The road to Sochi continues with the Olympic Pre-Qualification stage, a series of four-team round robin tournaments taking place from Nikko, Japan to China, Hungary, Latvia, and Ukraine. With only a handful of spots available for the big dance in Sochi 2014, the competition will be fierce.
Click here to view the Olympic Qualification overview and to access the tournament pages.
On the menís side, the tournament in Nikko will pit two Asian nations, Korea and host Japan, against Great Britain and Romania. In Kyiv, the Ukrainian national team goes up against Poland, Estonia, and Spain. One country over, Hungary will face the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Croatia, which advanced from the opening Preliminary Qualification stage held in September.
There are two Pre-Qualification Womenís tournaments taking place at the same time as the men. Group E will be played in Shanghai. The Chinese womenís team will compete against France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. The other tournament, Group F, takes place in Valmiera and will feature host Latvia, Austria, Italy, and Denmark.
The menís tournament in Ukraine and the two womenís tournaments in China and Latvia will kick off on Thursday. Rosters will be available on IIHF.com the night before the first game. These tournaments will take a break on Saturday before the grand final on Sunday.
The menís events in Hungary and Japan will be played in three consecutive days from Friday to Sunday.
The winning team at the end of each of these single round-robin tournaments earns the right to advance to the Final Olympic Qualification stage, taking place in February 2013 approximately one year away from the Olympics in Sochi.
Awaiting the November winners are the countries ranked from 10th to 18th in the menís World Ranking and 7th to 12th in the womenís World Ranking.
The winners of the Final Olympic Qualification menís and womenís tournaments book their ticket to Sochi. There are three qualification spots available in the menís Olympic ice hockey tournament, with the top-nine ranked nations taking up the rest of the spots. Two qualifiers will emerge from the womenís tournaments, joining the top-six ranked nations in international hockeyís biggest stage.
For the Pre-Qualification participants hitting the ice this weekend Ė while the odds are against them Ė earning a trip to Sochi 2014 is not out of the question. In the last Winter Olympics, Slovakiaís womenís team emerged undefeated in both the Pre-Qualification and Final Qualification stages to sensationally claim its place amongst the elites in Vancouver 2010.
In 1998, Belarusí and Kazakhstanís menís teams emerged from the Pre-Qualification and joined the party in Nagano, playing in the Olympics for the first time ever. In 2002, Germany, Ukraine and France all went through both the Pre-Qualification and the Final Qualification to earn promotion to the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Could a new contender emerge in Sochi 2014?
- Ukraine hasnít played an Olympic ice hockey tournament since 2002, but has high hopes this time. The countryís two NHLers Ruslan Fedotenko and Olexi Ponikarovsky will represent their national team on home ice in Kyiv for the first time since Salt Lake City 2002. Both play for the Ukrainian KHL team Donbass Donetsk during the lockout. However, Lithuania will have to do without Dainius Zubrus.
- Some games will be broadcast live. DIGI Sport will show all three games of the Hungarian national team in Budapest, NHK will air all games of Japan in Nikko and the three games of the Ukrainian national team in Kyiv will be broadcast by Hockey TV.
With files from Martin Merk in Kyiv