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The Kwandong Hockey Centre is ice hockey venue for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, located in Gangneung (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Gangneung (South Korea) (AFP) – No National Hockey League players? No problem. The replacements filling rosters at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, past and future NHLers, are still expected to produce a thrilling and dramatic tournament.

Next week, the Pyeongchang Games will open the first men’s hockey Olympic event since 1994 without talent from the NHL, whose owners snubbed the Games in a money dispute.

Instead, largely unheralded players from European, collegiate and minor-league squads will have the unexpected opportunity of competing for Olympic gold.

“A lot of teams feel they have a chance to compete for a medal and that alone will make it intense,” Canada general manager Sean Burke said.

Defending champion Canada seeks a third consecutive gold medal and 10th title overall. The roster has players with a combined 5,544 NHL appearances, led by 833 from forward Chris Kelly, a 2011 Stanley Cup champion with the Boston Bruins.

“This team proves the depth of Canadian hockey,” said Isabelle Charest, Canada’s chef de mission. “We will always be a force to be reckoned with on the ice.”

There are 15 players with NHL experience on the US roster, with captain Brian Gionta, 39, just retiring after last season.

“I like the hunger of our team,” US coach Tony Granato said. “We have guys who are really motivated, guys who will be realising their dream.

“There has been some talk of not having the NHL guys in (means) you don’t have highly skilled guys. That’s a bad representation. There are a lot of great players.”

– ‘Outstanding’ Russians –

Two of them are former NHL stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, who make their fifth Olympic appearance as Olympic Athletes from Russia.

Russian talent has not won Olympic gold since 1992, as the Unified Team after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They have been stripped of their flag and anthem after the 2014 Sochi doping scandal, but offer plenty of talent.

There are 15 players from the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League leader and champion SKA St. Petersburg, and eight more from second-best CSKA Moscow. That familiarity is a big edge on rivals.

“On paper, the Russians have an outstanding team. They have the most experienced players. They have the best careers,” said Granato.

“A lot of other teams have put together solid rosters as well. I think we can compete with any of them. We’re a team that should feel very confident.”

US goaltender Ryan Zapolski wondered about the chances of a small-scale repeat of 1980’s Miracle on Ice, when the United States stunned the Russian team.

“It’s a great opportunity for our whole team to do something like that,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge. Their roster is pretty dangerous for us.”

The NHL is looking at 17-year-old Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who could be the top pick in this year’s NHL Draft.

The Swedes took silver in 2014 and have five players from last year’s world champion squad.

“It’s going to be incredibly fun,” said Sweden’s Joel Lundqvist, the twin brother of NHL star goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist, who led Sweden to 2006 gold.

Canadian women seek a fifth consecutive Olympic hockey crown, with arch-rival the United States expected to face them in the final. The Americans have won three world titles since a heartbreak over-time loss in the Sochi final.

“It always gets more intense with each game,” Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin said. “Every time we play it’s like a gold medal game.”

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