That is the prize for the countries getting ready to drop the puck in the Men’s Final Olympic Qualification tournaments, set to begin on 26 August in three European capital cities. All games will be live streamed directly on IIHF.com.
The Final Olympic Qualification is the last stage of a four-stage qualification system to determine who will join the top-8 nations that earned an automatic berth in the Olympics by way of the IIHF World Ranking, along with tournament hosts China.
The 12 nations that compete in the final stage are seeded into three groups, with the winner of each group earning a spot in Beijing 2022. We take you for a quick spin around the Olympic hopefuls.
GROUP D — Bratislava, Slovakia
Participating teams: Slovakia, Belarus, Austria, Poland
Playing at home this would seem like Slovakia’s tournament to lose. Since the Czechoslovakia split, the Slovaks have qualified for every Olympic Games tournament since 1994, with the highlight being a fourth-place finish in Vancouver 2010.
Craig Ramsay’s squad will be counting on a strong offence led by Peter Cehlarik, fresh off an excellent showing at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, where he was selected as Directorate Top Forward with 11 points in eight games.
Standing in way of the home team is Belarus and Austria, both of whom have qualified for the Games in the past but missed out in PyeongChang 2018. The Belarusians have not made the Olympics since 2010, and will be looking to turn things around after a 15th-place finish at the 2021 Worlds.
Austria meanwhile has not participated in an IIHF tournament after being relegated from the top division in 2019, so rust might be an issue as they look to get back to the Games. Newcomers Poland also compete in Division I Group A, but will be hard-pressed to get past the rest of the field in Bratislava.
Participating teams: Latvia, France, Italy, Hungary
Fresh off hosting the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, tournament hosts Latvia will be feeling the home pressure to get back to the Games. After missing out on a trip to Korea when they were beaten by eventual silver medallists Germany in the Final Olympic Qualification (also held in Riga), the Latvians are playing their first major tournament without coach Bob Hartley. Taking the reins is Haris Vitolins, a long-time national team player who also won gold in Korea as an assistant coach with the Olympic Athletes from Russia team.
The rest of the field is balanced and has the potential to make this a close group. France is back in international competition after getting bounced out by Great Britain at the 2019 World Championship. Les Bleus will be icing their strongest team available, with NHLers Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Antoine Roussel coming to Riga.
Other than Latvia, the only other Group E team that played in the World Championship top division this year is Italy. The Italians were not able to move the needle a lot in their last time in Riga, going 0-7 and getting outscored 11-41 to finish last in the tournament. Rounding out Group E is last-seeded Hungary, who qualified after upsetting another top division team, Great Britain, in the deciding game of the Pre-Qualification tournament back in February 2020 in Nottingham. Reaching their first Olympics since 1964 will be a tall order for the Magyars.
Participating teams: Norway, Denmark, Slovenia, Korea
The last remaining group in the Final Olympic Qualification is arguably its toughest, with all four teams having competed in the Olympic Games in Korea and in at least one top-division World Championship during the past five years.
The Norwegians are playing with the intent to reach their fourth straight Olympics and are calling in the heavy guns to get them to Beijing. NHL star and Minnesota Wild forward Mats Zuccarello is with the team in Oslo, as are national team regulars Matthias Trettenes, Henrik Haukeland, and the Olimb brothers Mathias and Ken-Andre. One missing piece will be defenceman Jonas Holos, who is out with a lower body injury.
Standing in the way of Norway is a tough group that begins with perennial rivals Denmark. The Danes have made steady strides in their national team program but have only had one top-10 finish (2016) in the last ten years at the Worlds. Nevertheless, the team is talented and has its top players available, including Nikolaj Ehlers, Frans Nielsen, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Mikkel Boedker. Add in a great performance from goalie Sebastian Dahm, and it would not be a surprise if Danes can take the group and reach their first-ever Olympic Games.
But the bottom half of the group are no slouches either. Slovenia simply has a knack for playing big in these Olympic qualifiers. They not only earned their first-ever Olympic berth in Sochi 2014 and following up again with a successful qualification in PyeongChang, but even reached the playoff round in both Olympics. The Slovenes will also have NHL superstar Anze Kopitar playing in Oslo, someone they didn’t have in those previous qualifiers. Don’t count this team out.
The last team in Group F is Korea. While they played in the last Olympic Games as the host team, the Koreans were able to take advantage of the experience and also from playing against the elite teams a few months later at the Worlds in Copenhagen. Some time has passed since then so it will be interesting to see how Jim Paek’s group stacks up.