Is Olympic Hockey Single Elimination? [Updated!]

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At its heart, the Olympic Games are about bringing the world together for a common passion—athletics. For more than a century, the Olympic movement has unified the sporting world, bringing people together from all over the world who share a common passion for sport. No matter where you are, you can follow the action live on TV and online.

But the true spirit of the Olympic Games is encapsulated in the motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’—meaning ‘faster, higher, stronger’. For many years, the motto has applied to the winners of the various sports, with gold, silver, and bronze as the recognized metals of the Olympic games. But in the modern era, it has never been more relevant than it is today. The three words could easily describe the current state of major league hockey, as the fastest players, the highest-scoring athletes, and the strongest athletes all battle it out to be the best in the world. And it’s not just about the top-level athletes either; the smaller the division, the more intense the competition, with each game becoming a battle of wills.

While the structure of the competition within the Hockey Lodges has not changed, the format of the games has evolved over the years. Beginning as an exhibition game between the national teams of each country, the first Modern-Era Olympic Games featured only six teams, and all of them played each other at least twice. In 1920, the first true Olympic tournament was held in Antwerp, resulting in six teams competing for the first ever Olympic gold. That format has remained unchanged ever since. It’s just that the number of teams and the size of the field have increased, with 24 teams competing in the 1924 Paris Games and 28 in the 1936 Summer Games. The last time the tournament was played with just six teams was in 1952, and then it was replaced by the current format of eight teams competing in a single elimination tournament. That was introduced to increase the intensity of the games, with only the winners advancing to the gold medal match—and even that was scrapped in 1956 in favor of having all the participants advance to the grand final.

But while the format has evolved, the structure has remained the same. After the first two days of preliminary round games, the top four teams advance to the semi-finals, followed by the other four in the other half of the bracket. The final two teams then compete for gold in a best-of-three series. That puts an end to the competition and unites the world in the shared passion of sport.

An Evolving Format

The structure of the games has evolved over the years, with the number of team competing increasing from six to a maximum of eight. The size of the playing field has also increased, as have the number of games per day, from two in the first modern-era tournament to three in the last one. And while the number of matches between teams remained the same (24 in the first two days of the tournament and then a sudden-death final), the length of each game has increased, with the longest hockey game recording 3o minutes in 1952. The three-hour duration rule was adopted to bring some order to the chaotic nature of the games, which would see scores of goals scored and injuries common. So while the games have evolved to remain competitive and exciting, the basic structure has not changed—at least not much.

That’s not to say that the format is perfect, with many people questioning whether or not it’s ‘fair’. As a result of the increased scoring and competition, the number of ‘empty net goals’ has more than tripled, from one in the 1904 Olympics to six in the 1936 Olympics—a record number that still stands today. And while many feel that three hours of hockey is a bit too much, two hockey games per day for 13 days in length is still considered a bit excessive by many. Just this week, the International Paralympic Committee voted to ban one-off games, with a maximum of two six-minute halves per game, with a two-minute break between them. The vote was in response to the extreme roughness of the games and clashes between players, with many feeling that it’s taking the fun out of the sport and making it more serious. That could all be avoided if the NHL, or another governing body, would simply adopt a modified double-elimination tournament format.

Is It Worth It?

At its core, the Olympic Games are about bringing the world together for a common passion—athletics. The first Modern-Era Olympic Games unified the sporting world, bringing people together from all over the world who share a common passion for sport. Today, with the popularity of individual sports and the rise of leagues like the NHL, the Olympics offer a competition-based format that pits the best against the best, with the winner taking all. The mantra ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’, which means ‘faster, higher, stronger’, could easily apply to the world of hockey. The world’s best players are drawn from all over the globe and are forced to compete against each other, with the winner taking all. It’s not a perfect system, as we’ve seen with the rise of so-called ‘super teams’ that come together for the sole purpose of knocking off the competition, but it’s a system that sees the best of the best play against each other in a winner-take-all setting that brings the world of sport together for a common purpose.

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