At any Olympic Games, some of the favorites falter, while lowly-regarded athletes and teams appear to come from nowhere to end up on the medals podium.  During these Turin Olympics, this has been especially true in the men's and women's ice hockey tournaments, where the upsets have been plentiful. 

It was no shock Monday night when the United States won a women's ice hockey medal. It was expected. The surprising thing was that they were playing for the bronze medal.

Since women's hockey became an Olympic sport at the 1998 Games in Nagano, the United States has always played Canada for the gold medal.  The U.S. won it in 1998, while Canada took the top spot on the podium at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and again here in Turin.

There have been a number of major hockey upsets, not the least of which was the Swedish women's shocking 3-2 win over Team USA after a penalty shootout last Friday.  It was the first time a European women's team had defeated either of the North American giants, Canada and the United States, in the Winter Olympics or World Championships.
But Ed Hula, editor of Olympic news Web site, Around the, says it is a good thing for women's hockey.

"This is the sort of thing that the sport needs, to prove that it is a bit more universal than a Canadian - U.S. match every four years," he explained.  "The IOC is very concerned about universality for sports.  It does make a difference for the IOC, especially next year, when the IOC takes a look at the winter sports program, and decides whether to make any changes. This is the sort of result that is needed, perhaps, to make sure that the women's hockey tournament remains part of the Olympic program."

Julie Chu, a forward on the U.S. women's hockey team, is glad to see more competition from other countries.

"I definitely think the gap is closing, and I think it is great for our sport," she said.  "Part of us has to step back and say, 'Well, this is what we want for our sport.' We want it to be competitive.  We want to have a number of teams that can compete every day out there."

There have been even more surprises in the men's hockey tournament.  Switzerland and Finland shut out defending men's gold medalist Canada 2-0 last Saturday and Sunday. Number-10 Latvia tied the sixth-seeded 2002 Olympic silver medalist United States 3-3 in their opening match.  Team USA lost to Sweden 2-1 Sunday, and fell to Slovakia by that same score on Saturday.

The defending world champion Czech Republic was upset by Switzerland and Finland 3-2 and 4-2 respectively, while in another surprise, Russia beat Sweden, 5-0.

In perhaps the biggest shock, Canada, the defending Olympic champion, failed to make the medals round, falling to Russia, 2-0, in the quarterfinals.  The Americans also were ousted in the quarterfinals Wednesday night, losing to Finland, 4-3. 

American-born Kimberly Benneduce, who now lives in London, likes the trend of more competitive countries.

"I think, actually, the level of play is increasing in other countries," she noted.  "It's nice now, because there are other teams besides just the United States and Canada.  And I think it's the other countries now starting to invest a bit more time and money, and see it is a worthwhile sport."

Some have blamed the run of upsets in the men's tournament on the fact that many of the Olympians double as players in the National Hockey League, which did not take its Olympic break until the Sunday before the opening ceremony. 

The U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams are comprised entirely of NHL players, while all but one member of the Czech team plays in the NHL.

National Hockey League players had already been playing four months before the Olympic tournament started.  Contrast that with the teams made up of players from the European national leagues.  Most arrived in Turin at least one week before their NHL counterparts.