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The men's hockey tournament at the Beijing Olympics will begin early Wednesday, while most of us are sleeping, and Team USA's first game is Thursday morning Central time (7:10 a.m. vs. China, USA Network). This tournament is happening without the participation of NHL players; blame COVID-19, both for its impact on the NHL regular-season schedule and at the Games.

Here are seven things you need to know about men's hockey at these Winter Olympics:

Defending champion: The Olympic Athletes from Russia. Germany took silver and Canada settled for bronze. The 2018 Games marked the first time since 1994 that NHL players did not compete after a financial dispute between the league and the IOC. Players from other professional leagues, such as Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and the American Hockey League, made up the majority of the rosters, and future Wild winger Kirill Kaprizov scored the winning goal for OAR in a 4-3 overtime victory over Germany. The U.S., which lost to Czech Republic 3-2 in the quarterfinals, relied heavily on college players. The NHL planned to allow its players to compete in the 2022 Games, but pulled out in December because of COVID-19 concerns.

Format: The 12 teams will split into three groups of four teams each, with each team playing against the others in its group once. Group A features the U.S., Canada, China and Germany. Group B is Czech Republic, Denmark, Russia and Switzerland. Group C is Finland, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden. The top team in each group, plus the top second-ranked team, will earn byes to the quarterfinals. The remaining eight teams — re-ranked depending on their group stage results — will play qualification playoffs, such as the No. 5 team facing the No. 12 team. The winners will advance to the quarterfinals.

Olympic debuts: Denmark and host country China will make their Olympic debuts. China's team is made up largely of North Americans — including Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios' son, Jake — who play for a China-based KHL team.

Recent history: Canada is the reigning world champion, beating the Finland 3-2 in overtime this past summer, albeit with an NHL-laden roster. Canada has also won three of the past five Olympics. Russia, though, returns six players who won the gold in 2018, including two-time Stanley Cup winner Slava Voynov and ex-NHL forward Mikhail Grigorenko. Plus, Russia has KHL leading scorer Vadim Shipachyov.

Contenders: Just as they were four years ago, the Russians are favorites to win. Canada, and Finland could pose threats. Former Wild player Eric Staal, now 37, is the most experienced player on Team Canada, which also has the 2021 No. 1 overall draft pick, Michigan defenseman Owen Power. Finland sports recent NHL players Sami Vatanen, Leo Komarov, Markus Granlund and Valtteri Filppula.

Minnesota connections: There are nine players with Minnesota ties on the U.S. roster. Three Gophers (Ben Meyers, Matthew Knies and Brock Faber), Noah Cates from Minnesota Duluth, Nathan Smith from Minnesota State Mankato, and Sam Hentges and Nick Perbix from St. Cloud State. Aaron Ness, the 2008 Mr. Hockey out of Roseau High School who played for the Gophers and is now in the AHL, will be a defenseman on the team, as will Boston College's Drew Helleson, who is a Farmington native and attended Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault. Besides Staal, one more Wild connection is on Team Canada: Forward Jack McBain, the Wild's third-round draft pick in 2018.

COVID: Several teams are dealing with positive COVID-19 tests among players early in the Games. Three Russian players were still awaiting clearance to travel to China at the end of last week because of positive tests. The U.S. left Jake Sanderson stateside and had to isolate Steven Kampfer and Andy Miele in the athlete village upon arrival. Three Swiss players also tested positive in Beijing. It's possible these players could miss several games.

Men's hockey schedule

All games will be streamed live on Peacock and

Group B, Russian Olympic Committee vs. Switzerland, 2:40 am (USA)
Group B, Czech Republic vs. Denmark, 7:10 am, (USA)
Group C, Sweden vs. Latvia, 10:10 pm, (CNBC)

Group C, Finland vs. Slovakia, 2:40 am, (USA)
Group A, United States vs. China, 7:10 am, (USA)
Group A, Canada vs. Germany, 7:10 am
Group B, Denmark vs. Russian Olympic Committee, 10:10 pm

Group B, Czech Republic vs. Switzerland, 2:40 am, (USA)
Group C, Sweden vs. Slovakia, 2:40 am
Group C, Latvia vs. Finland, 7:10 am
Group A, Canada vs. United States, 10:10 pm, (USA)

Group A, Germany vs. China, 2:40 am
Group B, Russian Olympic Committee vs. Czech Republic, 7:10 am, (CNBC)
Group B, Switzerland vs. Denmark, 7:10 am, (USA)
Group C , Slovakia vs. Latvia, 10:10 pm, (CNBC)

Group C, Finland vs. Sweden, 2:40 am, (USA)
Group A, China vs. Canada, 7:10 am
Group A, United States vs. Germany, 7:10 am, (USA)

Feb. 14
Qualification playoff, 10:10 pm, (USA)
Qualification playoff, 10:10 pm, (CNBC)

Feb. 15
Qualification playoff, 2:40 am
Qualification playoff, 7:10 am, (USA)
Quarterfinal, 10:10 pm, (USA)

Feb. 16
Quarterfinal, midnight
Quarterfinal, 2:40 am
Quarterfinal, 7:30 am

Feb. 17
Semifinal, 10:10 pm

Feb. 18
Semifinal, 7:10 am

Feb. 19
Bronze medal game, 7:10 am
Gold medal game, 10:10 pm

The Associated Press contributed to this report.