Fourteen nations would qualify for the Olympic tournament, eight to the preliminary round, and six to the first round. The IIHF used the standings of the 1995 Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships to determine qualification. First, the top six nations from Pool A would go directly to the first round. The preliminary round was made up of the nations ranked seventh and eighth, along with the host Japan, and five others from a series of qualification tournaments. The nations ranked nine through twelve went straight to the final qualification round.
- Group A
Five nations played each other twice, both home and away, from October 25, 1995, until December 12, 1996.
- Group B
- Note: In January 1996 Greece beat Israel 10–2, but forfeited the result because of an ineligible player. Following that, in March of the same year Israel played Yugoslavia, in Lithuania, losing 5–3. Israel’s loss is officially a 5–0 loss, the match was declared forfeit because they used ineligible players from Russia.
- Group C
- Note: In January 1996 Hungary played a challenge series against Croatia winning 7–0 and 6–0.
- Group D