2014 Olympic hockey qualification: Long shot nations take shot at Sochi

Ruslan Fedotenko leads Ukraine's longshot bid for qualification at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. - Eric Bolte-US PRESSWIRE

Countries like Hungary, Japan and Ukraine don't usually bring up thoughts of Olympic hockey, but those three nations will host tournaments this weekend to try and make it to Sochi 2014.

There's a lot of international hockey going on around the globe right now, but the one international tournament everyone cares about the most is the focus this weekend in five cities around the globe.

The 2014 Winter Olympics don't take place for another 15 months, but qualification for the final places in both the men's and women's tournaments are in full swing. It's the only tournament in the IIHF calendar at which teams can "climb the ladder" of international competition all the way to the top level in just one year, as winning one tournament allows you to qualify for the next level, which will take place later in the year.

For now, we're still on the second level from the bottom. The very bottom level took place in September for the men and October for the women, as basically an initiation for very low-ranked nations. Four years ago, the Slovakian women's hockey team emerged from the bottom level before winning the final qualification spot in Vancouver 2010 a couple months later, so it's not unprecedented to see an underdog riser.

Slovakia was very outmatched at the 2010 Olympics, but the emergence of its young goaltender, Zuzana Tomcikova, revealed to the world one of the sport's brightest young stars (she would later win the MVP of the 2011 IIHF World Championship and is a top NCAA goalie for Bemidji State).

This year, it was Croatia on the men's side and Denmark and the Netherlands on the women's side that emerged from their low-level qualifiers to reach this second stage. If any team can come close to matching Slovakia's 2008-09 ascension, it would likely be the Danish women's team, who are currently working their way up the ladder in the World Championship competition, up to the Division 1A level this coming year, one tournament below the top.

Here's a look at who plays this weekend, first with the men's tournaments:

Men's Olympic Qualification - Groups G, H, & J
Country World Rank 2012 WC Finish Total Men's Players Total Jr. Players Indoor Rinks
Hungary (G) 19 18 218 2713 18
The Netherlands (G) 24 25 1468 1156 26
Lithuania (G) 25 27 137 410 6
Croatia (G) 30 31 114 379 2
Ukraine (H) 20 22 607 3384 25
Poland (H) 23 24 713 1494 35
Estonia (H) 26 29 442 976 6
Spain (H) 29 30 236 530 18
Great Britain (J) 21 21 1484 2897 46
Japan (J) 22 20 9999 7256 99
Romania (J) 27 26 151 872 5
Korea (J) 28 23 93 1365 43

The highest-ranked country in each group had the option of hosting the tournament, and Great Britain was the only nation that did not take advantage of this opportunity. So Budapest (Hungary), Kiev (Ukraine) and Nikko (Japan) are the hosts for these tournaments, and crowds are expected to be good in both Budapest and Kiev at the very least, as those are countries with pretty strong hockey followings.

The hosts are generally viewed as the favorites to advance in this, but the Japan qualifier could be a three team race. South Korea has been a nation that has slowly improved its hockey program, and this marks their first every participation in the Olympic qualification tournament. They are on a similar level with Japan and Great Britain, but have only ever beaten Great Britain once in international competition and they have never beaten Japan. South Korea is trying to develop its program significantly in the next five years to be ready for hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Ukraine will be getting some NHL help, as locked out NHL player Ruslan Fedotenko is on the roster. Alexei Ponikarovsky was not on the initial roster, but two spots were left open and it is rumored he is battling an injury. It is quite possible that Ponikarovsky will make an appearance for the final game against Poland that will likely determine who advances.

Hungary should be the clear favorite in its pool. There was some talk that Dainius Zubrus could suit up for Lithuania, but he remains uninsured and out of work during the lockout and didn't want to risk injury. Hungary, meanwhile, have players playing in various competitive leagues around the world, including a couple of ECHL players, an Elitserien regular (Janos Hari of MoDo) and a club in the Austrian based EBEL league.

Women's Olympic Qualification - Groups E & F
Country World Rank 2012 WC Finish Total Women's Players Indoor Rinks
China (E) 13 16 184 46
France (E) 16 17 1214 124
Great Britain (E) 17 18 738 46
The Netherlands (E) 21 19 218 26
Latvia (F) 14 13 116 16
Austria (F) 15 12 615 42
Italy (F) 18 20 483 45
Denmark (F) 19 15 396 25

China has fallen quite far in the women's hockey world, as a nation that was once a regular in the Olympics (top eight) is now two steps away from qualification. They're hoping home ice in Shanghai will be enough to overcome France, who beat them 4-3 at last year's World Championship Div. 1B tournament in England. The winner should be one of those nations, while the other tournament is pretty wide open between Latvia, Austria and Denmark. Austria beat Latvia 6-0 at last year's Div. 1A tournament (though only outshot them 35-33), while Denmark won the Div. 1B tournament.

France has the ninth-highest amount of registered female players in the world, if you're curious where that number ranked. All player registration and rink info came from the IIHF's 2012 Survey of Players, released on Wednesday.

The winners of these tournaments will play to qualify for the 2014 Olympics in February. The men's tournaments will be held in Germany (Bietigheim-Bissingen), Latvia and Denmark, while the women's tournaments will be in Slovakia and Germany (Welden).

Qualified for 2014 Winter Olympics
Discipline Group Countries
Men's A Russia (1), Slovakia (6), USA (7), 12th ranked qualifier
B Finland (2), Canada (5), Norway (8), 11th ranked qualifier
C Czech Republic (3), Sweden (4), Switzerland (9), 10th ranked qualifier
Women's A Canada (1), USA (2), Finland (3), Switzerland (4)
B Sweden (5), Russia (6), two qualifiers*

The women's tournament has been set up differently than the men's, with the top two teams in Group A advancing directly to the semifinals and the top two teams in Group B playing in the quarterfinals against the bottom two teams in Group A.

The men's tournament will run the same as in 2010, with the group winners and the best second-place team advancing to the quarter finals and teams ranked five through 12 playing each other for the right to face the top-four teams in the quarters.

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