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By  Martin Merk – IIHF.com

This year the Olympic Qualification promises to be tighter than ever with no clear favourites in the three groups and for the first time the teams have the possibility to count on their NHL players in the Olympic Qualification due to the new dates early September.

Group D in Minsk, Belarus

After moving up the World Ranking, Belarus got the chance to host the Final Olympic Qualification for the first time at Minsk Arena, the magnificent venue built for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Belarus made it to the Olympics first time in 1998. For 2002 Belarus succeeded in the qualification tournament and finished fourth in Salt Lake City – the biggest success of the Belarusian national team ever after beating Sweden in the quarter-finals. Belarus played in Vancouver 2010 as one of the automatically qualified teams but missed out on qualification in 2006 and 2014.

Only NHLer Mikhail Grabovski as well as Vladimir Denisov were not able to join due to health reasons. Is everything clear for a party at home? It’s not that easy. At a recent press conference, Belarusian Ice Hockey Association President Igor Rachkovski gave the role of the favourite to Denmark with its NHL-heavy roster.

There’s another reason too. Belarus, Denmark and Slovenia already met in the qualification tournament for Sochi 2014 in Denmark and the winner was… Slovenia, the underdog of the competition.

With eight NHLers on the team, Denmark looks to be stronger than ever before less than four months after ending the World Championship on a high with the quarter-final qualification. Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller is missing due to private reasons while Morten Poulsen will miss the tournament due to an injury. But even without Eller the Danes have goalie Frederik Andersen, defenceman Philip Larsen, and forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mikkel Boedker, Nikolaj Ehlers, Jannik Hansen, Nicklas Jensen and Frans Nielsen from the NHL as well as long-time players from European clubs. Making it to the Olympics for the first time in 2018 would be best advertisement for the country that will host for the first time the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Copenhagen and Herning the same year.

Slovenia doesn’t have that many NHL players. They just have one, but what a player it is! Los Angeles Kings captain and two-time Stanley Cup winner Anze Kopitar will lead the Slovenian team that recently earned promotion to the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and dreams of another upset after qualifying for Sochi 2014 and making it to the quarter-finals there. The small former Yugoslav republic is the best example that good players can also be developed in a smaller hockey community and with limited means.

Poland is the underdog in this group but on its way up to former glory. After having been far away from the top tier in Division I play, the national team has missed out on promotion in the last moment during the last two years and successfully hosted Division I tournaments in big venues in Krakow and Katowice. While Jacek Plachta’s team is not expected to win this tournament, it will gladly take the opportunity to play stronger rivals than usual and learn for the future. The roster is mostly complete and for the first time includes Polish-American forward Michael Cichy, who moved from NCAA hockey to Poland two years ago.

Group E in Riga, Latvia

For the fourth consecutive time Latvia will host a Final Olympic Qualification tournament, for the third consecutive time it will be at Arena Riga, the 10,300-seat arena opened for the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Home-ice advantage is a strong argument for the maroon-and-white team that will get loud fan support. Want a proof? The Latvians have won all four Olympic Qualification tournaments on home ice and since 2002 the Baltic nation hasn’t missed the Olympic Games in ice hockey. This year, however, the challenge may be bigger than ever with strong opponents and recent unease. Just before the start of the camp coach Leonids Beresnevs resigned. Haralds Vasiljevs, who led the team to its first Olympic Qualification to make it to Salt Lake City 2002, is the new man in charge. The roster includes players who had some NHL games, led by Zemgus Girgensons, while 17 players are under contract in the KHL – nine of them in the Latvian entry Dinamo Riga.

The biggest reason why it could be more difficult for Latvia is Germany. Between 1952 and 2010 the men’s national team always made it the Olympics until missing out on Sochi 2014 by losing the spot on home ice to Austria. Having seven players from NHL clubs with goalie Philipp Grubauer, defencemen Christian Ehrhoff, Korbinian Holzer, Denis Seidenberg und forwards Leon Draisaitl, Tom Kuhnhackl and Tobias Rieder gives the team high hopes and confidence. After missing it out last time, the co-host of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne and Paris is eager to succeed.

Division I nation Austria isn’t the favourite in Riga but after winning the Olympic Qualification tournament in Germany to qualify for Sochi 2014, the Austrians will assume this role again with pleasure when opening on Thursday against host Latvia. While Thomas Vanek, the most famous Austrian hockey player, didn’t join the team, new head coach Alpo Suhonen can count on NHLers Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl, who will be joined by his brother Thomas.

Three years ago Great Britain travelled to Riga to assume the role of the underdog. This time Japan will be the team many won’t take into account. The Japanese suffered relegation from the second to the third tier of World Championship hockey last spring and were for the first time overtaken by Asian rival Korea. This season the Japanese want to bounce back and hope to start the season on a positive note when facing stronger opposition in Riga. The team doesn’t have a current NHL player but a former one in veteran goalie Yutaka Fukufuji.

Group F in Oslo, Norway

Norway will host a group at a venue with an Olympic feeling. At the Jordal Amfi rink in the capital of Oslo the 1952 Olympic Winter Games were held as well as two World Championships. At this historic rink, that got a roof in the ‘70s, Norway already qualified for Vancouver 2010 and earned direct qualification for Sochi 2014 after having become a steady top-10 country. The roster includes NHL forwards Andreas Martinsen and Mats Zuccarello and several other world-class players from top European hockey leagues such as goalie Lars Haugen and forward Patrick Thoresen, whose father Petter Thoresen took over as new national team coach.

Between 1988 and 2002 France played at five consecutive Olympic Winter Games. If the team makes a step forward, it could make it again for PyeongChang 2018 and send a positive signal before assuming the role as co-host of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne and Paris. NHL forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is on the roster as are other internationally experienced players such as goaltender Cristobal Huet and the Da Costa brothers to name just a few.

Kazakhstan played at the Olympics in 1998 and 2006. Since that year the team mostly played in the second tier of world hockey and once it earned promotion it was relegated again. However, the Kazakh national team will be the most prepared one. Kazakhstan travels to Oslo basically with the KHL team Barys Astana. Every player without an exception has been part of the club team’s pre-season camp for the last few weeks under Andrei Nazarov, who serves as coach for both the club and national team. On the other hand a few common faces like Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev and Fyodor Polishuk, who play for Russian KHL teams, are missing.

Like Kazakhstan, Italy has been going up and down between the first two tiers of the World Championship and last time played at the Olympics as the host country in Turin 2006. During the last two seasons the federation focused on using players developed at home under coach Stefan Mair. But even then the roster includes one or the other player from a top league such as goalie Andreas Bernhard in Finland or forwards Diego Kostner and Giovanni Morini in Switzerland. Thomas Larkin, the first player grown up and developed in Italy to be drafted by an NHL team, is not among the initially registered players but the defenceman of KHL team Medvescak Zagreb is expected to join the team in time.