With the Winter Olympics fast approaching, we knew we'd be consumed by the Olympic Hockey tournament, as we are every four years. But, to be honest, like most Americans, we don't follow international hockey in the interim. It's not the easiest thing in the world to differentiate the Slovenian and Slovakian roster. So, to get America up to speed on what we should all pay attention to in Sochi, we called on the very talented Greg Wyshynski, the editor of Yahoo!'s fantastic Puck Daddy blog, to break down the teams and storylines of the upcoming two-week tournament.
The first thing to know about the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is to watch the women instead.
Okay, not the entire women's tournament. Just when the American women play Canada, a rivalry that typically incites some sort of brawl and shatters every preconceived notion about women's hockey. The rest of the women's hockey world is like comparing the technology of a lunar colony to that of an Amish village.
The second thing to know about the men's hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics is that the games will put your alarm clock to the test. The American games in the preliminaries—Slovakia, Russia and Slovenia—are all scheduled for 7:30 A.M. Eastern Time. The gold medal game (February 23) will air a half hour earlier at 7 a.m. Eastern Time. Kegs and eggs, people.
The third thing to know about the men's hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics is that what it lacks in fighting and abject "old-time hockey" violence it makes up for by being an all-star tournament whose ultimate prize is worth 10 Stanley Cups to some players. And, really, this is the most interesting part of the Winter Olympics for most sports fans—outside of ice dancing, of course.
Here's a look at who's attending the party. Please remember that the teams play preliminary games in their group before advancing to a single-elimination medal round. The losers of the semifinals play for bronze or anonymity; the winners play for silver or gold.
Medal History: Gold in 1960 and 1980, under the watchful eye of coach Kurt Russell.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Gritty, blue-collar underdogs that are actually super-talented all-stars that should have beaten Canada in 2010.
Players Most Worth Watching: Patrick Kane is a reformed cabbie-punching bar crawler who was NHL playoff MVP last season with the Chicago Blackhawks; David Backes loves two things: Beating up Canadians and kissing puppies; Phil Kessel is an electrifying player with the charisma of a wet bag of sand.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: It's seemingly preordained that Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings will falter, opening the door for 2010 Olympic hero Ryan Miller to take the crease and finally make that overtime save against Sidney Crosby, like Charlie Brown getting another kick at the football.
Does Their Jersey Suck? Yes, because vinyl stars happened.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? We—and by "we" I mean freedom-lovin', Bud-swillin' 'Mericans—could medal if the offense is solid, but alas, it's likely to be bronze instead of gold.
Medal History: Without the hammer and sickle on the flag, they've won silver (1998) and bronze (2002).
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Lazy goal-hangers that wouldn't know what "defense" is even if all the vodka in Moscow was renamed "defense."
Players Most Worth Watching: Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals goal machine trying to win something of consequence in hockey for the first time; Ilya Kovalchuk, who "retired" from New Jersey to play in the less taxing KHL (physically and financially).
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Semyon Varlamov, the Colorado Avalanche goalie who recently had domestic abuse charges against him dropped–charges that Russian officials claimed were an American conspiracy to undermine the Russian national team. Which is a plot slightly more elaborate than Walter White's in the Breaking Bad finale.
Does Their Jersey Suck? No, because who doesn't like a design in which dragons are eating one's nipples?
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? Knowing how Vladimir Putin is likely to treat them and their families should they fall short, they'll win gold and every game in the tournament by an average score of 103-0.
Medal History: Zero medals.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: A dozen guys named Tomáš.
Players Most Worth Watching: Defenseman Zdeno Chára of the Boston Bruins, who can only be viewed by climbing a beanstalk.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Jaroslav Halák of the St. Louis Blues, who single-handedly beat the Russians in the 2010 Winter Games.
Does Their Jersey Suck? No, they're awesome because the national anthem of Slovakia is printed on them as striping. The only downside is you have to be nose-to-Tomáš to read them.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? They'll probably upset the U.S. or Russia in prelims and then call it a tournament.
Medal History: None. It's their first Olympic tournament.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Slovenly.
Players Most Worth Watching: Anže Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, the only NHL player on the roster. Incidentally, his father is the coach and cut his brother from the roster, which should make the next Slovenian holiday gathering interesting.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Robert Kristan, who once got into a fight during a playoff game.
Does Their Jersey Suck? Unknown, but previous incarnations appeared to be centered around Grumpy Cat as their logo.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? In the shadow of Slovakia. Just like real life!
Medal History: According to the record books, eight gold medals. According to Canadians, "All of them, except we're polite enough to allow others to hold on to some for a bit."
Stereotypical Summary of Play: An incredible assemblage of talent that occasionally falls short of total victory, leading to four years of painful self-evaluation for every Canadian on planet earth.
Players Most Worth Watching: Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, simultaneously the best player in the world and the most hated player in the NHL, who many fans believe is a whiner, a diver and overprotected by the league; P.K. Subban of Montreal, a player that an entire nation waits to toss under the bus for a simple mistake in an Olympic game; Patrick Sharp of Chicago, who will vie with Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the "most beautiful man in Sochi" crown.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Roberto Luongo is doing as Roberto Luongo does—waiting for the guy (Carey Price) who took his job to fail so his team can drag his average goaltending acumen to glory.
Does Their Jersey Suck? All three versions are terrible, but we especially hate the black alternate sweater with the red Nazi-esque armband.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? The actual official mantra of Team Canada is "we are winter." You think they're settling for anything short of the gold medal game?
Medal History: 14 medals, but nary a gold.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Great goaltending behind a collection of little pests.
Player Most Worth Watching: Teemu Selänne of the Anaheim Ducks, the 43-year-old legend who will once again claim it's his last Olympics and then appear in one every four years until the sun explodes.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: The Finns have the best goaltending in the world with Tuukka Rask (Boston), Antti Niemi (San Jose Sharks) and Kari Lehtonen (Dallas Stars). They also have the highest "vowels-per-save" ratio.
Does Their Jersey Suck? Ever have one of those dreams where you show up for work naked and then quickly stitch together a shirt using the flag outside of the office? It's like that.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? If one of the goalies gets hot, Finland could be a dark horse for gold. But their offense might be colder than an ice luge in Helsinki.
Medal History: 10 appearances with no medals? No(r) way! (Sorry.)
Stereotypical Summary Of Play: A complete pain in the ass in the prelims for better teams.
Player Most Worth Watching: It doesn't matter. Tore Vikingstad, the greatest hockey name in Olympic history, retired after the 2010 Games. Sorry Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, Morten Ask, Lars Erik Spets and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, but we knew Tore Vikingstad, we covered Tore Vikingstad and you sirs are no Tore Vikingstad.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Lars Haugen of the KHL is considered the best goalie in Norwegian hockey history, which is a bit like being named the most attractive Honey Boo Boo cast member. Also, this is his Google Images default, for some ungodly reason.
Does Their Jersey Suck? It's plain and it has "NORGE" written on it. Same as it ever was.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? They won't make it out of prelims, but they'll put a scare in a better team.
Medal History: 13 appearances, no gold. This is their first appearance in 12 years.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Pushovers. They haven't finished better than 10th place in an international hockey tournament in the last 20 years.
Player Most Worth Watching: Thomas Vanek of the New York Islanders is an electrifying offensive player who is no doubt giddy to spend a few weeks away from Long Island.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Bernhard Starkbaum, who only sounds like a down-on-his-luck character played by Paul Giamatti in a Charlie Kaufman film.
Does Their Jersey Suck? Not if you're down with a simple design augmented by a nightmare eagle.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? Way out of the money. Although "Rock Me Amadeus" once charted at No. 1 for Falco in the U.S., so anything can happen.
Medal History: Won gold in 1994 and bronze in 2006.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Strong offense offset by having as many elderly participants as a focus group on dentures. Seriously. They have eight players on the roster who were born before Return of the Jedi was released. The first time.
Players Most Worth Watching: Jaromír Jágr of the New Jersey Devils, who went from being a mulletted phenom with mountainous gambling debts to the self-deprecating elder statesman of NHL stars; Petr Nedvěd, the 42-year-old forward who actually played for Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics after defecting there; Radko Gudas, who can do this with his face.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Ondřej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets, the worst starting goalie in the NHL. So, uh, good luck then, Czechers.
Does Their Jersey Suck? Like the Finns, the Czechs used their flag as the basis for the jersey. Looks like it should open at the stomach to reveal the veterans' beer bellies.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? With any semblance of goaltending, they could medal, provided the game isn't past their bedtime.
Medal History: Two gold, including in 2006, two silver and three bronze since 1984.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Gorgeous men doing gorgeous things with the puck, gorgeously.
Players Most Worth Watching: Henrik and Daniel Sedin, identical twins of the Vancouver Canucks. Punch one in the face several dozen times and the other … well, isn't likely to punch you back; and Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings, who is our best bet to knock someone out of his skates with an open-ice hit.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, who won gold in 2006 and who is known to stop the puck in mid-air with a smile and a wink.
Does Their Jersey Suck? Sorta. There's no beating the three crowns, but putting a vinyl Viking ship on the shoulder comes close.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? Anything less than a medal would be a stunner.
Medal History: Fourteen appearances, and a pair of bronze medals in 1928 and 1948. So, uh, they're due.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Strong in the neutral zone.
Player Most Worth Watching: Nino Niederreiter of the Minnesota Wild, whose nickname is El Niño and who can turn the tide of a game.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Jonas Hiller of the Ducks, who can flat-out steal games and who once wore a mask depicting all of his teammates with killer 'staches for Movember.
Does Their Jersey Suck? They're less jerseys than pajamas by Swatch.
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? Memo to the Czechs or Swedes—one of you is getting a scare.
Medal History: Zip.
Stereotypical Summary of Play: Sorry, no idea. We're always too busy watching their fans—typically the drunkest, loudest fans at the Games.
Player Most Worth Watching: Sandis Ozoliņš, 42, who is known back in North America as Sandis Ozolinsh. He retired from international play after the 2006 Winter Games. In a related story, Sandis Ozolinch sucks at retirement.
Goalie That Will Make or Shatter Their Olympic Dream: Kristers Gudļevskis of the Tampa Bay Lightning's farm system and taker of adorbz selfies.
Does Their Jersey Suck? Perfect for creepers. "Are you checking out my junk?" "Uh, no, I'm reading your nation's name."
Where Will They Finish in Sochi? Go ahead and ask their fans after Latvia's final game. We're guessing the most common answer will be "wait, is it 2014 already?"
Greg Wyshynski is the editor of Yahoo Sports' Puck Daddy blog and co-host of the Marek Vs. Wyshynski podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @wyshynski or wherever the Latvian fans are drinking that night.
Photo courtesy of © AF archive/Alamy