Winter Olympics 2014: Pressure on hosts to deliver as Ice Hockey expectations grow before Games officially begin in Russia

Ice Hockey is considered one of the blue riband events of the Winter Olympics with the Russian national team expected to win gold

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The Independent Online

Ice hockey, one of the blue riband Winter Olympic Games events, begins on Saturday with the women's competition at the Shayba Arena in Sochi.

However, it is the men's event, which starts next Wednesday, which will be the subject of even more interest.

Host nation Russia, for the past four years ranked number one by the International Ice Hockey Federation, is understandably under pressure to win gold.

The sport is massive in the country and continues to grow in popularity, a fact not missed by some of Russia's other Olympians.

Alexander Khoroshilov, who is acknowledged as Russia's best chance for an alpine skiing medal, said: "I have no fans in Russia. It's not very popular on TV.

"You can't see the Russian cup or watch the national championships.

"We have a lot of snow in our country and it is very cold. But it's all about the hockey."

However, Russia's most recent Olympic ice hockey medal was a bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002, with a silver four years earlier at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

Most of head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov's squad play either in Canada or the United States, two of the sports' super powers, and home fans will be looking to players such as Alexander Ovechkin, who captains NHL side the Washington Capitals, to inspire their heroes to glory.

The 2010 Olympics final in Vancouver was fought out between Canada and the USA, with celebrations throughout the host country when they came through to win gold in a thrilling encounter.

There is also plenty to be excited about in the women's event, which made its Olympic debut in Nagano.

The Canadians - who also beat their female USA counterparts in the Vancouver final - will look to continue their recent domination of international competitions.

Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford and Hayley Wickenheiser are hoping to win a gold medal in four successive Games.

However, the United States are determined to upset their neighbours and traditional rivals.

"There is a little pressure coming in since we've not won Olympic gold since 1998," said Kelli Stack, who makes her second Olympic appearance.

"But we like to play big games and I think we will rise to the occasion. We've done an incredible job of preparing for Sochi and planning for the tournament.

"We play up-tempo hockey and are an incredibly fast team. We like to go to the net, get dirty in the corners, but really we pride ourselves on being one of the best defensive teams out there and have great goaltending."