The Olympic events you can't miss

The Winter Olympics kick off Friday, and ESPN.com's Howard Bryant, Jim Caple, Bonnie D. Ford and Joy Russo preview the events you can't miss during the 2010 Games.

Feb. 12

Opening ceremony: There's usually only one big secret leading up to the ritual kickoff, and that's which national sports icon will serve as the final torchbearer. Who else could it be in Hockey Heaven other than The Great One, Wayne Gretzky? Organizers have been coy about No. 99's possible assist, and mum about two other questions: How will the torch-lighting comply with fire codes in the first indoor opening ceremony in Olympic history, and will there be an unprecedented "second cauldron" somewhere outside BC Place for crowds to enjoy and TV crews to use as a backdrop for live shots? Apart from that suspense, the best part of the ceremony for couch potatoes is critiquing the outfits worn by national delegations on what amounts to Oscar night for sporting apparel companies. The U.S. team will be clad in Ralph Lauren, while the host Canadians went with the Hudson Bay Trading Co. Stay tuned. -- Ford

Feb. 13

Men's downhill: Former Olympian Scott Macartney says that to appreciate how steep and fast a typical downhill is, imagine "taking a hockey rink and standing it on its edge." The downhill at Whistler is no different. Parts of the course are named the Toilet Bowl, the Weasel and the Afterburner. Bode Miller won't be the favorite -- Switzerland's Didier Cuche and Carlo Janka are -- but Miller can repair his image by flying down the mountain to victory. (American Andrew Weibrecht has been improving dramatically this season and could surprise here.) -- Caple

Women's freestyle skiing: Moguls: Canada has yet to win a gold medal, in any event, in a home Olympics. Defending champion and current World Cup circuit leader Jennifer Heil could break that streak Saturday evening, although several top U.S. skiers will try their best to prevent her from doing that. Crews have been working around the clock to make sure there's enough snow on Cypress Mountain, and the athletes gave it a thumbs-up after training runs this week, but suffice to say it won't be powder. -- Ford

Men's speedskating, 5,000 meters: Put on your orange colors and watch Dutchman Sven Kramer continue to do his Roger Federer thing. Kramer hasn't lost in the 5,000 since 2007, and the Dutch could dominate the entire podium. -- Bryant

Feb. 14

Women's skiing, super-combined: And then, suddenly, the world slipped off its axis. If Lindsey Vonn's bruised shin doesn't heal sufficiently or keeps the U.S. skier out of the Games entirely, Austria's Michaela Dorfmeister and France's Fabienne Suter would be the favorites to walk away with the gold. Austria may even score two medals in the super-G. -- Bryant

Men's luge: When you're watching the luge, check out the unlucky 13th curve, what the athletes are calling the 50-50 curve, meaning half the sleds make it out of the curve and half wind up in a crash. -- Bryant

Women's hockey: USA versus China: The U.S. team begins what should be a routine march to the medal round with a game against China that can be classified only as a warm-up. The Chinese finished fourth in the inaugural women's Olympic tournament in 1998 but have fallen on harder times since and are 0-11 against the U.S. in major events. The U.S. has also outscored them 17-1 in two previous Olympic meetings. 'Nuff said. -- Ford

Feb. 15

Men's short-track speedskating, 500: We like stars in this country, and along with Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White, Apolo Ohno is the American to watch in short-track speedskating. -- Bryant

Figure skating: Pairs free skate: This is the only figure skating event in which North Americans will almost surely finish out of the money. Husband-and-wife duo Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China, bronze medalists four years ago, became favorites almost as soon as they stepped back onto the ice after two years in retirement. Two other Chinese pairs likely will fight it out for the other two medals with the Russians and Germans. Canadian champions Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison are dark horses. -- Ford

Feb. 16

Figure skating, men's short program: The United States sends perhaps its deepest men's team onto the ice -- Evan Lysacek is ranked No. 1 in the world, Jeremy Abbott sits third and Johnny Weir is eighth -- but will it be enough to overcome 2006 gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko in the Russian's return, Canada's Patrick Chen or France's Brian Joubert? More importantly, will PETA protesters splash fake blood on Weir's fake fox fur? -- Caple

Men's skiing, super-combined: This is where you really see a skier's strength. The event begins with the blood-curdling downhill in the morning and finishes with the saner slalom in the afternoon -- though one missed gate can ruin four years of training. Ted Ligety won the combined at Torino in 2006, and Bode will also be a top contender. (Austria's Benjamin Raich is ranked No. 1 in the combined.) -- Caple

Men's hockey, United States and Canada make Vancouver debuts: The Canadian hockey team sports a payroll just under that of the Boston Red Sox ($127 million) and opens the Olympics against Norway. The U.S. hockey team isn't exactly a sapling, but needs to start off on the right foot in its first game against Switzerland if it is to challenge for gold, something the Americans haven't won in 30 years. -- Bryant

Women's luge: Erin Hamlin is Team USA's best hope to win a medal, but the real story is the Germans versus everyone. They are the equivalent of the United States' dominance in basketball for so many years. -- Bryant

Feb. 17

Alpine skiing, women's downhill: Lindsey Vonn once accepted a cow in place of prize money after winning a World Cup downhill race at Val d'Isere in 2005, but the only prize that will satisfy her today is the gold medal. And she'll have to overcome a shin injury to do it. If she's going to follow Michael Phelps on the Wheaties box, she'll need to win here. -- Caple

Men's speedskating, 1,000: Shani Davis' best race is the 1,500, but when he's on the ice, set apart from the world (and sometimes his teammates) both in disposition and talent, you can't not watch. Plus, there are rumors Mr. Stephen Colbert will be in the house (his show is sponsoring the U.S. speedskating team). -- Bryant

Luge doubles: Funniest line from a member of the U.S. bobsled team about luge doubles: "Someone actually looked at the sled and said, 'Hmm, one guy isn't enough on that, so we'll put two guys on it, with the smaller guy on the bottom. Good idea.'" -- Bryant

Men's snowboarding/halfpipe: Here's why our money is still on Shaun White to repeat as Olympic champion in halfpipe. He smacked his face against the halfpipe during a practice run at last month's X Games as he tried to throw his latest trick: the Double McTwist 1260. He got up and came back to win the event. He is nothing but determined to repeat. -- Russo

Feb. 18

Men's figure skating, free skate: Tuesday's short program will have left a handful of skaters in contention. Will Plushenko extend Russia's gold-medal streak to five Olympics and become the first back-to-back champ since Dick Button (1948-52)? Or can Lysacek, Abbott or Weir knock him off to win America's first gold in this event since Brian Boitano in 1988? And if so, will they wind up with a song about them in the next "South Park" movie? -- Caple

Women's snowboarding/halfpipe: The fragmented competition format in this sport means that quite a few of the world's best haven't met head-to-head much, if at all, this season, but there's one certainty: 2002 gold medalist Kelly Clark, defending Olympic champion Hannah Teter and 2006 silver medalist and reigning X Games champ Gretchen Bleiler of the U.S. will be formidable competition for the rest of the world, especially the Chinese. -- Ford

Feb. 19

Men's skiing, super-G: America's best hopes here? Ligety (ranked ninth in the world standings) and Bode (12th), of course. But if you're placing bets here, you'll want to go with the Europeans. Austria's Michael Walchhofer is ranked No. 1, Norwegian superstar Aksel Lund Svindal is No. 2 and Austria's Benjamin Rauch is No. 3. And while the Swiss grand old man Didier Cuche is 35 years old and dealing with a broken thumb, he is ranked fourth. Yes, there are non-Americans in the Olympics! Who knew? -- Caple

Men's skeleton, medal night: If you've never seen skeleton before, just check it out before designating yourself a tough guy. Face-first, chin an inch off the ice and no brakes on what is considered the fastest course in the world. With that in mind, does it really matter which country is racing? -- Bryant

Feb. 20

Women's skiing, super-G: Will the "Vonntourage" be loud or silent? -- Bryant

Men's speedskating, 1,500 meters: If Shani Davis -- one of the best skaters in U.S. history -- wins this as expected (he has dominated the 1,000 and 1,500 during the World Cup season) will he break his code of silence with American reporters? More importantly for cable viewers (and aren't we all), will he grant an interview to Stephen Colbert, whom Davis whipped in a 500-meter race despite sporting the comedian a 13-minute head start in a sprint that usually takes about 35 seconds? -- Caple

Short-track speedskating, men's 1,000 and women's 1,500: This is another opportunity for Apolo Ohno to add to his medal haul, while fellow American Katherine Reutter goes for gold, as well. Which will be a relief. Reutter says for the past month or so, "People I don't even know keep telling me, 'You're racing in 24 days!' Thanks, it's not like I'm stressed or anything." -- Caple

Cross-country, 30K pursuit: Split between 15 kilometers of classical skiing and 15 kilometers of free skiing, this probably will be American Kris Freeman's best shot at a medal (his strength is classical skiing). Norway's Petter Northug, the Ochocinco of cross-country skiing, can say outrageous things immediately after winning a race, so listen in. Though, of course, he may be speaking Norwegian, so listen very carefully. -- Caple

Feb. 21

Men's skiing, giant slalom: The men had their Vonn equivalent in Bode four years ago; but with all the eyes and pressure on Vonn in Vancouver, Ligety can concentrate with relatively few distractions. -- Bryant

Men's hockey, rivalry day: The Olympic gods must have had a hand in this schedule. Hockey fans will be treated to three heated matchups in one day: Russia-Czech Republic, Canada-USA and Sweden-Finland. The crowds will be rowdy and the action will be intense, even on the NHL-sized rink. -- Russo

Feb. 22

Ice dancing, free dance: The last of three nights of dance competition could be the best reality dance show of all time. A North American medals sweep is possible if the U.S. teams of Meryl Davis and Charlie White and 2006 silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto as well as Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skate the way they've been skating all season. We'll also know by now whether Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin were burned by their choice of Aboriginal music and tribal costumes in an original dance program some Australian critics found offensive. -- Ford

Women's hockey, semifinals: If the draw and seedings go true to form, two Scandinavian teams will stand in the way of a U.S.-Canada final, and the U.S. will play Sweden, which pulled off the 2006 upset that forced the Americans to settle for bronze -- the only time the Americans have lost to the Swedes in 18 games in major events. That also remains the only occasion in which the U.S. or Canada has lost to any team other than each other in top-level competition. -- Ford

Feb. 23

Women's figure skating, short program: The Olympics is never won here, but it's often lost. South Korea's Yu-Na Kim will probably be the belle of the ball on this night for her scintillating "Bond girl" program that features music from the famous "007" films, but several skaters should be bunched at the top, including Japan's Mao Asada and Canada's sweetheart, Joanie Rochette. -- Ford

Feb. 24

Alpine skiing, women's slalom: Germany's Maria Riesch is ranked No. 1 and will be the favorite. Vonn's strength is in the speed events, not the technical events, but she is ranked 13th in the slalom, so you can't completely count her out. -- Caple

Women's freestyle skiing, aerials: It's China against the field here. Australia's Lydia Lassila is positioned best to break up a medals sweep by a talented group that has a stranglehold on World Cup competition this season and is aptly nicknamed "The Chinese Air Force." Jana Lindsey is the top-ranked American in the discipline. -- Ford

Women's bobsled: Something for everyone here: There are the Germans, Cathleen Martini and Romy Logsch, but the Canadian team expects to contend for medals, as do the Americans. -- Bryant

Feb. 25

Women's figure skating, free skate: Japan's Mao Asada could vault to gold if she hits two triple axels as she did at the Four Continents event a few weeks ago, but doing that under Olympic pressure is a long shot. If she's in form, she and compatriot Miki Ando should pose a strong challenge to world champion Kim. Rochette could win her country's first medal in the event since Elizabeth Manley in 1988. Americans Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu will need the skates of their lives to be within hailing distance. -- Ford

Women's hockey, gold-medal game: If it's U.S. versus Canada, here's a telling statistic: Through last year's world championship, over the past 20 years, the U.S. team was a combined 83-2-2 against 10 other world-class teams and 14-35-1 against its northern neighbors. Canada is riding a five-game winning streak against the Americans this season, but home-ice expectations can cut both ways, as the U.S. team found out in Salt Lake City in 2002. Either way, this rematch could be played in front of one of the largest crowds ever to see a women's hockey game. -- Ford

Men's freestyle skiing, aerials: Anton Kushner of Belarus has dominated the 2009-10 World Cup circuit and the Chinese bring a strong contingent here, as well, but Jeret "Speedy" Peterson could trump them all if he can land his signature "Hurricane" trick in the finals. A Czech skier won the gold in 2002 with a similar triple-flip, quintuple-twist maneuver, but Peterson's is sequenced differently and even harder. -- Ford

Feb. 26

Women's skiing, slalom: The favorite here is Maria Riesch, but depending on how Vonn and her shin respond up to this point, she could be doing her best Phelps impersonation. -- Bryant

Women's curling, medal night: Believe it or not, curling is one of the toughest tickets at these Olympics because it's a popular sport in Canada. The American team is led by four-time Olympian Debbie McCormick, whose father, Wally Henry, just happens to be the team's coach. -- Caple

Big night in short-track speedskating: The skating schedule comes to a close with three events -- the men's 500, the women's 1,000 and the always-entertaining men's 5,000 meter pursuit, which is two parts world-class relay race and one part multiple clown-car pileup. -- Caple

Feb. 27

Men's curling, medal night: Canada is a favorite, but will the U.S. men still be in contention (the U.S. took the bronze in 2006)? If not, it won't be for lack of chemistry. These guys bonded as teammates while sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Minnesota the past six months; Jason Smith and Jeff Isaacson shared a room with a bunk bed. -- Caple

Men's skiing, slalom: Jimmy Cochran (20th) is the highest-ranked American in the slalom, so don't expect the U.S. to close out the alpine events with a bang. The bigger question is, given how warm the winter has been in the region, will it be snowing in Whistler by the end of the Olympics, or raining, or will spectators line the course in shorts and T-shirts? -- Caple

Men's bobsled: The mantra for the U.S. team for the entire World Cup season has been that the gold belongs to them. Legend Andre Lange and the Germans expect to have a lot to say about that. -- Bryant

Feb. 28

Men's hockey, gold-medal game: There are few ways this game can go wrong. If it's Russia, you get Alex Ovechkin. If it's Canada, you get Sidney Crosby and a dream team of millionaires. If it's the United States, you get history. And don't be surprised by the Czechs. Best matchup: Canada versus Russia, Ovechkin versus Crosby, for love of country, warming up for an Eastern Conference finals clash in the NHL. -- Bryant

Closing ceremony: Shed a tear until 2014 in Sochi, Russia, because from an American perspective, 2010 will have been the most talented and promising team the U.S. has put together for the Winter Games. Perhaps it will have been the most successful, too. -- Bryant