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New ice hockey format but expect same old results Players go high-tech with socks

SOCHI, Russia Feb 5, (Agencies): A format change to the Sochi Winter Games women’s ice hockey tournament may prevent coaches and players from having to apologise for the embarrassing routs that have blighted past Olympics. But hockey officials could yet be left squirming as they try to justify how a winless team managed to reach the Sochi medal round. During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge fired a warning shot across the sport’s bows, acknowledging that the huge gap in skill between the two North American powerhouses Canada and the United States and the rest of the world needed to be addressed. But with that gap seemingly as wide as ever, and the sport under pressure to eliminate the ugly routs that trigger debate every four years over whether women’s ice hockey deserves to be on Games program, officials opted for the quick fix implementing a format that will separate the strong nations from the weak.

For Sochi, the world’s top four ranked teams, Canada, US, Finland and Switzerland will compete in Group A with all four teams advancing to the medal round, meaning one country could see their way through to the quarter-finals without having won a single game. The top two teams in Group A will advance directly to the semi-finals. The other group will feature Germany, Japan, Russia and Sweden. Despite their best efforts to inject some competitiveness into the women’s tournament the format is unlikely to change the end result with Canada and the United States again playing for the gold medal. The two have between them won every gold and silver medal on offer at every Olympics since its introduction in 1998 and every world championships since that began in 1990 and it is a trend that is expected to continue in Russia. Certainly the change in format will not change anything in the US approach as they prepare for their opener against Finland on Feb 8.

“I don’t see that it changes anything that we’re trying to do,” US coach Katey Stone told reporters. “We’re going to take it one game at a time and stay in every moment, play every moment, play our best hockey on that day and move on. “I just think it’s exciting, when it comes to an opportunity like this you have world class athletes, they want to play at the highest level you possibly can so you have great challenges from start to finish.” In other words, do not expect the US or Canada to show any mercy to opponents. At the Vancouver Games, Canada and the US outscored opponents 72-3 in the qualification round. Canada was particularly ruthless on home ice demolishing overmatched opponents 18-0, 10-1 and 13-1 with the Americans equally unforgiving recording runaway 12-1, 13-0 and 6-0 wins. While the International Ice Hockey Federation hopes the new format will eliminate similar blowouts in Sochi it would be the upset of the Olympics if the US or Canada were not to reach the gold medal game. “It’s definitely a rivalry... we definitely know them very well and it’s always a great game but we’re focused on Finland right now,” said veteran netminder Jessie Vetter.

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Some members of the US hockey team heading to the Sochi Games this weekend will be carrying some high-tech gear with them that will be kept under wraps. Socks. Very high-tech, performance socks. During the last couple years there’s been a growing trend among NHL players trying to protect their lower legs from skate blades. Several manufacturers produce these high-tech socks using a variety of material — including Kevlar and copper — to save calf muscles, Achilles tendons and a player’s feet. Detroit equipment manager Paul Boyer has many of his players wearing the socks, and among the Red Wings heading to Sochi include goalie Jimmy Howard playing for the Americans, Henrik Zetterberg with Sweden and Pavel Datsyuk with the Russians.

“I’ve got guys jumping into them because of the safety factor,” Boyer said. “If a guy is wearing them and a skate goes across his calf or Achilles tendon, they’re going to be protected. If there’s enough pressure per square inch, the socks can be cut. But a guy will probably have only a mark instead of a cut.” Jason McMaster, equipment manager for the Winnipeg Jets, is even more succinct: “It’s the difference between a player missing little to no games to missing a large portion of the season.” Socks became an issue in recent years with companies switching from knit to thin performance material. McMaster wrote in an email to The Associated Press that equipment managers feel the old knit socks helped protect against such nicks and slices. Four of the Jets will be playing in Sochi: Olli Jokinen (Finland), Ondrej Pavalec and Michael Frolik (Czech Republic) and American Blake Wheeler. McMaster has packed four pairs of each player’s favorite cut-resistant socks with their equipment for the Olympics.

“I would like to see every player wear cut resistant socks,” McMaster said. “Anything to keep the players healthy is very important us. The socks may not stop all injuries, but if you can minimize the severity of an injury you have helped keep the player on the ice.” Getting players to try the high-tech socks has been challenging. By the time players reach the NHL or Olympic level, they’re used to the equipment they’ve been wearing for years and don’t want to change. Material strong enough to fend off a skate blade also tends to build up heat inside the sock making for a comfort issue. Sabres coach Ted Nolan, also coaching the Latvian National Team, said some players didn’t even wear socks back in the day. His son, Los Angeles Kings center Jordan Nolan, does wear cut-resistant socks. “Skates are pretty sharp,” Nolan said. When Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson had his left Achilles tendon sliced by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke’s left skate Feb. 13, 2013, players went to equipment managers asking for a sock to protect themselves.

There are still some holdouts. Buffalo defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who will be playing for Sweden, doesn’t wear the cut-resistant socks but is open to a change. “If you see how Karlsson got cut, I have a hard time seeing him not getting cut with a non-cut sock, you know what I mean,” Tallinder said. His Buffalo teammate Zemgus Girgensons (ZEHM-guhz GEER-gehn-suhns) wears them after being handed a pair when he joined Rochester in the AHL after being drafted in 2012. He once tested the socks to check how well they protect against sharp objects, and he finally punched through the material because he said he couldn’t tell a difference from his old socks either from the look or feel. “With a lot of pressure you can cut it,” Girgensons said. “But it’s like armor.” The center will be wearing his cut-resistant socks in Sochi with the Latvian National Team. “That’s a smart thing to do because you saw Karlsson got cut,” Girgensons said. “That’s just one way to avoid unnecessary injury.”

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