By Keith Weir
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Hosts Russia, Canada and the United States rumble into action in what promises to be a spectacular men's Olympic ice hockey tournament in Sochi, where six gold medals are up for grabs in other sports on Thursday.
Canada open the defense of their Olympic title against Norway while the Russians take on Slovenia and the United States, silver medalists in 2010, face off against Slovakia.
Excitement is already building for Saturday's heavyweight clash between the Russians and the Americans, stirring memories of the famous 1980 game in Lake Placid when the United States pulled off a shock win over the Soviet Union.
In the mountains above Sochi, Norwegian Ole Ainar Bjoerndalen is aiming for a record 13th Winter Games medal in the 20 km biathlon after just missing out in the pursuit earlier this week.
Cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen, another Norwegian, looks to bounce back from a rare disappointment in the sprint when she goes for her second Sochi gold in the 10km classic race.
The men's freestyle competition promises a high-flying battle between America's X Games champion Nick Goepper and Andreas Haatveit of Norway
Americans are also tipped for speed skating success with Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe the favorites for the women's 1,000 meters. Russian hopes lie with Olga Fatkulina after she took silver over 500 on Tuesday.
The absence of injured four-times Olympic champion Wang Meng opens up the race for the 500m short track title.
In the last event of the day, luge powerhouse Germany look destined to win the inaugural team relay.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)