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Friday, February 13, 1998 Published at 06:45 GMT

Sport: Winter Olympics 98: Ice Hockey

Ice Hockey - Move over boys
image: [ Ice Hockey - not a sport for the faint hearted ]
Ice Hockey - not a sport for the faint hearted

This year's Olympic Ice Hockey tournament differs from any before. For the first time in the Winter Games's 74-year history, the world's best women players will be competing in one of the fastest games in the world, for the dream of Olympic gold.

This year the only teams in the tournament are Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Sweden and the USA. But as the women's game is growing at a huge rate more international teams are expected to take part when the games come to Salt Lake City in 2002.

[ image: Skill, concentration - and passion]
Skill, concentration - and passion
The United States and Canada are tipped to be the only teams with a chance of winning the competition, with the others lagging behind. But sport is always an unpredictable business and all six teams will be hoping to get on to the medals rostrum.

The 1997 World Women's Hockey Championships in Kitchener, Ontario, from March 31-April 6, served as both a preview of and a qualification for the Nagano Games.

Canada beat the United States 4-3 in the final but only after the game went into overtime. Despite the gap between the top teams and everyone else, the tournament proved popular with fans and the media, which gave the sport a much-needed boost.

NHL domination

The men's tournament will include many superstars from professional hockey. The slate of North American Hockey League players reads like a who's who of the sport.

Wayne Gretzky of Canada, Brett Hull and Brian Leetch of the United States, and Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin of Sweden are just a few of the players to watch out for.

[ image: Where is that puck?]
Where is that puck?
In total 14 teams will be competing. Eight of those have to play in a preliminary round, where two of them will qualify for a place alongside the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Canada and the Czech Republic in the Championship competition.

Hockey experts say the United States and Canada look set to battle for gold with the hunt for the lesser medals likely to be decided between Sweden and Russia.

For many years the team of the former Soviet Union dominated the world of ice hockey. The 'Big Red Machine' won all but three gold medals from 1956 until 1994, but since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia have failed to impress.

Drugs Scandal

The Olympics will provide an opportunity for professional hockey to flourish on a world stage and put behind it a damaging series of allegations of drug taking among players.

It is alleged that many NHL players are taking over-the-counter decongestant tablets in large quantities to aid performance. The American magazine, Sports Illustrated, alleges that a fifth of all NHL players are taking the drug.

Because the drug contains pseudoephedrine -- a banned substance at the Olympics -- players have been warned that testing positive will mean an early flight home and national disgrace.

Olympic spirit

Whatever the outcome of the two tournaments, more people will watch Olympic hockey than ever before. The game's popularity is spreading to new countries and with the women's game growing at a rate of 410% per year world-wide, the future of the sport seems to be assured.

Even though the professionals from North America's hockey league are destined to dominate the men's competition, it should prove a fabulous showcase of hockey talent for the world to enjoy.

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Internet Links

Official Nagano Olympic Site

Official Olympic Hockey Site

Ice Hockey Hall of Fame

Women's Ice Hockey information

Ice Hockey Rules Information

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In this section

Canada slide to ice hockey defeat

Czech's bounce US hockey Dream Team

Favourites through, Olympic champs out

Kazakhstan through to 'dream' finals

Ice Hockey - Move over boys

Finland make hockey history

Russia bounce Czechs in hockey thriller

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