With a huge global fan base and elite leagues across the world, ice hockey is one of the Winter Olympics' premium betting events. Yet, the men's tournament has been turned upside down for PyeongChang 2018, thanks to the self-imposed ban on NHL ice hockey players. The net result is a strong-looking 'Olympic Athletes from Russia' squad, with changes to the power dynamic of the Olympic game, which leaves the ice hockey betting market wide open for value seekers.
Ice hockey has been a main event at the Winter Olympics since 1920, but the last five have permitted National Hockey League players to feature – key when it came to ice hockey betting during the Games. Take the Sochi Olympics in 2014, when 87% of medalists in the ice hockey were players from the NHL. Gold medalist Canada's whole squad came from the NHL, with 96% in the case of silver medalist Sweden. Correspondingly, nine of the top ten-point scorers from the 2014 Games were NHL based, with just one from the Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
Then the ice hockey betting markets changed dramatically in April 2017, when the NHL announced that the League had made the decision to forego a domestic winter break, thereby banning franchised players from taking part at PyeongChang. This means that Canada, the usual suspect as favourites in ice hockey, have been hugely weakened on paper – and it's a similar case for the USA. Online bookmakers have pushed out the odds on Canada to 7/2 and the USA to 14/1 in response to squads that now include a lot of NCAA and European players. Canada have won three of the last four gold medals at the Winter Olympics, but astute ice hockey bettors may be wise to look elsewhere this time.
With no NHL draft in 2018, the Olympic Ice Hockey competition is a bit like a football World Cup, where Brazil can't field players from European leagues. Consequently, ice hockey bettors need to look for the second best pool of talent in the global game, which without a doubt is Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Now that we know where the power players in the tournament are most likely to come from, we can seek a potential edge by analysing the percentage of KHL players that the 12 teams in the tournament will have in their respective squads:
Athletes from Russia: 100%
Others: 12% or less
Clearly, the two sides positioned to take advantage of the NHL absence are 'Olympic Athletes from Russia' and the Czech Republic.
The Russian team look strong favourites at 6/5 with Paddy Power. They're missing NHL hotshots like Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but every side is feeling the pinch. What they do have is probably the tournament's top trio of operators: the KHL's leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, the vastly experienced Pavel Datsyuk and ex-Los Angeles Kings defender Vyacheslav Voynov. The Russian side will be extremely keen to win gold and do their country proud after the drugs scandal that's dominated the Olympic media for the past year, so expect them to put up a huge performance. If the market is available with online bookmakers, backing Ilya Kovalchuk to be the tournament's top point scorer looks a solid bet.
Despite the strength of the Russians, the value in the tournament could come in the form of the Czech Republic, available to back each way at 8/1 with Unibet. The team's coach has selected a very experienced squad, rather than picking young players who reached the semi-final of the World Junior Championship. Key players include captain Martin Erat, who formerly played 881 NHL games, and 25-year-old Jiri Sekac, another player with experience playing in North America. Overall, the side will be packed with hardened KHL players.
The Czech Republic is ice hockey mad and is no stranger to Olympic success, having won gold in 1998 (ironically, the first year to feature NHL players). One interesting dynamic of the tournament is the fact that, after the group stages, the teams will be ranked on their performances. The leading four will go directly into the quarter-final, while the other four will enter a knock-out stage. The Czechs will be very keen to win their group and can be backed at 15/8 to come out ahead of group favourites, Canada.
Given that South Korea is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2018, it's only right that their 500/1 odds should be considered. But the reality is that they have about as much chance of winning as North Korea's Kim Jong-un turning up in the ski jump. Expect the Olympic athletes from Russia to put up a strong favourite's charge for victory – but back the Czech Republic each way at top ice hockey betting sites to get the value.