Team Norway, Latvia, Austria & Slovenia 2014 Olympic preview

The Hockey News
Anze Kopitar (Jukka Rautio/HHOF-IIHF Images)

By Denis Gibbons

NORWAY
A few years ago former NHLer Patrick Thoresen called for a change in the administration of Norwegian hockey and said he wouldn’t play for his country if alterations weren’t made. Evidently his plea got their attention. Just six years ago only four of Norway’s 23 players at the World Championship were playing in Sweden. Now more than half the team is playing in Sweden, Finland, Germany or Russia. In fact, Norway has climbed the ladder to eighth overall in the IIHF world rankings.

Thoresen, who now plays for SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental League, and Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers will be counted on for much of the Norwegian offense. Norway’s best defenseman is Jonas Holos, who played 39 games for the Colorado Avalanche in 2010-11. He played a ton at the 2010 Olympics, leading the team with an average ice time of 28:56. Former NHLer Ole-Kristian Tollefsen adds a lot of muscle on the blueline.

The Norwegians plan on using Lars Haugen of the KHL’s Dinamo Minsk to start the tournament in goal. THN PREDICTION: 9th

LATVIA
Latvian coach Ted Nolan, also the interim bench boss of the Buffalo Sabres, is aiming to make it past the group stage of the tournament with a team made up mostly of players from Kontinental League club Dynamo Riga. Latvia has only one current NHL player – Zemgus Girgensons, a rookie with the Sabres. Other NHL draftees on the roster are forwards Kaspars Daugavins, Martins Karsums, Janis Sprukts and defenseman Oskars Bartulis.

Goaltending has always been a problem. Kristers Gudlevskis, 21, a 2013 fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, will likely be the starter.

Latvia’s group of defensemen will be missing former NHLer Karlis Skrastins, who died tragically in the Lokomotiv plane crash in 2011. It will rely on creaky vet Sandis Ozolinsh, 41, who had originally retired from international play after 2006 and returned to help Latvia qualify in 2013.

Latvian fans are passionate. In 2005, many of them drove all the way to Vienna, Austria to support their team at the worlds. They surely will do the same for Sochi. THN PREDICTION: 10th

AUSTRIA
A Canadian import is the coach and mastermind behind Austria’s made-in-Austria blueprint for the 2014 Games.

Manny Viveiros is a St. Albert, Alta., native who was drafted by Minnesota in 1984. He played briefly in the NHL, but moved to Austria at 25 and enjoyed a long career as an offensive defenseman with Villach and Klagenfurt.

This is Austria’s 13th Olympic appearance in men’s hockey and first since 2002. The depth chart is thin, but Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner of the Islanders and Philadelphia’s Michael Raffl will provide offense to prevent Austria from being buried by the opposition in a pool with powerhouses Canada and Finland, but also lowly Norway. Defenseman Thomas Pock has 118 games of NHL experience with the Rangers and Islanders.

Right winger Brian Lebler is the son of Canadian-born Ed Lebler, who played for Austria at the ’84 and ’88 Olympics. Brian was born in Austria while Ed played there. Goalie Bernhard Starkbaum made his World Championship debut in 2013 following a breakout season in Sweden. THN PREDICTION: 11th

SLOVENIA
Anze Kopitar knows Slovenia doesn’t have a hope in the world of medalling at the 2014 Games. But that won’t stop him from being the best he can be wearing his jersey with pride.

Against all odds, Slovenia qualified without Kopitar and Detroit Red Wings prospect Jan Mursak at a tournament against higher seeds Belarus and Denmark. Captain Tomaz Razingar was in tears after Slovenia’s greatest triumph in men’s hockey.

Although Slovenia, coached by Kopitar’s father Matjaz, will be in tough in a group with Russia, Slovakia and the United States, it has some talent. The Rodman brothers, Marcel and David, played major junior in Canada. Marcel was a draft pick of Boston in 2001 and David was the hero of the qualifying win over Denmark, scoring both goals. The most experienced goalie is Robert Kristan.

Slovenia, with a population of two million, has just 924 registered players and seven indoor ice rinks. The national team is selected from about 140 senior or pro players. The chances of Slovenia winning a game in Sochi are small. THN PREDICTION: 12th

This feature originally appeared in the Jan. 27 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.