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Ice Hockey Friday, 11 January, 2002, 11:23 GMT
Home advantage will rule
America battling it out with Canada in 1998
America battling it out with Canada in 1998
BBC Sport's Bob Ballard looks ahead to the ice hockey at the Winter Olympics.

If you think England's 36 years of hurt is bad enough in wanting football's biggest prize to come home - imagine what it is like for Canada in its desperation to reclaim Olympic gold after half a century.

It was 1952 in Norway when the country that formed the basis of the game that we know today last took the honours by beating the United States.

I believe that agonising wait could almost be over, and, indeed the final could be contested by the same two countries.

On paper that would seem to be an absurd prediction.

Hasek's goal-tending won it for the Czechs
Hasek's goal-tending won it for the Czechs
Neither country won a medal four years ago in Nagano, Japan, and the United States did not even reach the last four.

But home advantage will play a great part in the outcome of this competition.

And after the events of 11 September, what price a little jingoism to help the home team all the way?

Where Canada may have the edge this time is with the man overseeing team operations, a certain Wayne Gretsky.

The world's most famous player was part of the team in 1998 that punched well below its weight.

The reason for that is that they did not have enough offensive threat, and ultimately they did not have five players who could score penalty shots when it mattered against the Czech Republic in the semi-finals.

The Americans have a reputation to restore after under-achieving at Nagano.

Goal-tending art

The majority of the '98 squad return, and they seem to have struck the right balance this time between experience and youth.

I believe the home team should achieve a medal of some colour.

The Czech Republic upset the odds four years ago to beat Russia 1-0.

One man was overwhelmingly responsible for winning the gold, netminder Dominic Hasek.

His semi-final display against the Canadians, and his thwarting of the Russians a few days later were among the best, if not the best example of the goal-tending art that have ever been seen on such a big stage.

They also have the enigmatic Jaromir Jagr, the Washington Capitals forward who was the leading points scorer in the NHL last season.

In terms of trickery on the ice he is hard to beat, but his big game attitude at international level could be called into question, he had little impact in their victory over Russia.

Talking of the most successful country in Olympic history, in its many guises, which Russia will we see in Salt Lake City?

Which Russia will we see in Salt Lake City?
Which Russia will we see in Salt Lake City?
Despite some internal unrest within the team and dissatisfaction with the coaching line-up in 1998, they came within touching distance of gold.

This time they have Vyacheslav Fetisov, the assistant coach of the New Jersey Devils, the players pick, at the helm.

But they have suffered a big blow.

Pavel Bure, now of the Florida Panthers, who won their thrilling semi-final against Finland four years ago virtually single-handedly with five goals, is injured.

He injured his hand on 9 January and he is facing a battle to get fit again before the Olympics.

And in Darius Kasparaitis they have a man who, to put it mildly, likes to get involved in the physical stuff.

As for the other two countries with realistic medal chances, you should not discount the chances of the Finns or the Swedes, but I will.

Finland were overwhelmed by Russia when they should have been able to capitalise in Japan, and, for my money, rely too much on talisman Teemu Selanne.

Sweden's Peter Forsberg will not be there, despite his best efforts to get fit.

Sweden are missing the man they normally look to drive the team on.

This could come back to haunt me by 24 February, but my hunch, and it is no more than that, is that Canada will take gold, USA silver and the Czech Republic bronze.

We'll wait and see.

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