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By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

Today marks exactly 200 days until the 2018 Olympic Winter Games will open. With the Olympic ice hockey tournaments in PyeongChang not far away, we take this summer day to look forward to what will be the pre-eminent event on the international calendar in 2017/18.

Where will games be played?
The 2018 Olympics features two venues for hockey, the 10,000-seat Gangneung Hockey Centre and the Kwandong Hockey Centre (capacity 6,000). Both arenas have an international ice surface. All ice sports will be played in the coastal city of Gangneung. The KTX high-speed train is being extended to PyeongChang and Gangneung. Travel time between Seoul and the Incheon airport to Gangneung will thus be reduced to 68 minutes.

When do the ice hockey games begin?
The game schedules are not final yet but ice hockey is planned during all days of the Olympics starting on 10th February, the day after the opening ceremony, with the women’s ice hockey tournament until 25th February, the day of the closing ceremony. The men’s tournament is proposed to start of 14th February.

What is the time difference?
Korean Standard Time in the winter is six hours ahead of Moscow time, eight hours ahead of Central European Time and 14 hours ahead of Eastern Time in North America.

What countries have qualified for the men’s tournament?
The top-eight countries from the 2015 IIHF World Ranking automatically qualified as well as three countries through qualifying events and the hosts from Korea. In all, 12 teams in three groups will play. Group A features Canada, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Korea. Group B includes Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, United States. Group C has Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Norway.

Will NHL players participate?
The NHL announced that it will not make a break for the Olympic Winter Games. All teams will have to create a roster using non-NHL players mostly from Europe and other leagues in North America. This marks the first time since 1994 that this will happen, but the tournament format remains the same. Teams will play a round robin series of games within their group, no team being eliminated at this stage. The top four teams receive byes to the quarter-finals while teams 5 to 12 play a qualification game, the winners also moving on to the quarters.

Who is the favourite?
Typically, Canada would have been considered the favourite as it has won the gold in three of the last four Olympics (except 2006), but the Russians must be mentioned as well because several top NHLers have returned to the KHL for the coming season to ensure they can play in Korea. There is most definitely an uncertainty for the other teams, a sense of the unknown, which will make the Olympics exciting in its own right, in a different way from the NHL years.

Does Korea have any hope at all?
Four years ago, one might have answered with an emphatic no! But under Jim Paek the nation has improved quickly and radically. Indeed, Korea qualified for the 2018 IIHF Ice World Championship in Denmark strictly on its own merit, earning promotion from the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A to the top this past spring by leaving countries like Hungary and Kazakhstan behind. Of course, a medal might seem a long shot, but the team is likely to be more competitive than many have thought a few years ago.

What about the women’s tournament?
The top-five teams of the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Ranking qualified automatically while two teams had to go through qualification tournaments and the Koreans got an automatic spot as hosts. The format will be the same as recent times. The top-four teams will be in Group A and all will qualify for the playoff elimination. The top-two will advance directly to the semi-finals while the 3rd and 4th-place teams will play the top-two teams from Group B in a quarter-finals round. Group A consists of the top-four seeded teams USA, Canada, Finland and Russia. Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and Korea will play in the “lower” Group B.

Who is the favourite?
It’s no surprise that the North Americans are still considered odd-on bet to make the gold medal game, but Finland’s stunning victory over Canada at this past Women’s World Championship in Plymouth is cause for optimism among the European countries. Between the North Americans, logic dictates that the U.S. is favoured because it has won the gold at the 2015, 2016, and 2017 Worlds, but, paradoxically, Canada has won the last four Olympic golds. In short, it’s a toss-up. Again.

What happens between now and February?
Canada and the United States have already started centralizing programs while the Europeans will place extra emphasis on training as a team as often as possible. Counties will play various exhibition games in the coming months to prepare for the Olympics.