The United States spoiled Olympic hosts China’s first-ever appearance in men’s hockey with an 8-0 thrashing as the geopolitical rivals faced off in a wide-open Beijing tournament lacking NHL glamour.
Meanwhile, perennial gold medal threat Canada dispatched 2018 silver medallists Germany 5-1 in the other match in the Olympic tournament’s “Group of Death”.
The National Hockey League’s late decision to keep their superstars away from Beijing because of Covid sent heavyweights Canada and the US scrambling to assemble squads that are heavy on youth and light on experience at the international level.
But the young Americans had no trouble with a Chinese side packed with US and Canadian players who signed up to skate for China in the Olympic hosts’ maiden appearance in the event.
China was nearly barred from the Beijing Games over concerns they would embarrass themselves and the sport, and they came close to that against America.
The US squad, many of whom are college players, launched twice as many shots on goal and were far superior throughout the game.
Sean Farrell, a 20-year-old who plays for Harvard University, whipped in three goals in a long night for China’s US-born goalie Jeremy Smith.
The contest had loomed as an intriguing match-up due to the rancour between the two countries, with the US government refusing to send any government representatives to the Games in a snub of China over its human rights record.
Canada, birthplace of the sport and winner of three of the last five golds, deployed its seemingly inexhaustible pool of young talent to dominate the Germans in a rematch of the 2018 semi-final won by Germany.
The Canadians pounced with three goals in the first period and the Germans were never able to recover.
The 2018 semi-final “is in the back of your mind”, Canada forward Eric O’Dell said.
“It was a tough loss (in PyeongChang in 2018) and it felt good to get the win today,” he added.
With North America’s biggest stars absent, the experienced Finns and defending-champion Russians have emerged as potential favourites. Both are stocked with top talent from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), widely considered the world’s second-best after the NHL.
The Russians looked beatable in their opening game on Wednesday, battling to get past Switzerland, 1-0. But Finland’s veteran squad were sharp and efficient on Thursday, easily dispatching Slovakia 6-2 to open their account in Group C.
World champions in 2019, Finland is comprised of teammates from various KHL squads and their chemistry was on display from the start as they scored three goals on just six shots to begin the game.
“I think we were just very efficient today,” coach Jukka Jalonen said. “Sometimes, with those chances you will score one or two goals, but we scored six.”
In other Group C play earlier on Thursday, Sweden beat Latvia 3-2.