Month: April 2018 (Page 2 of 3)

Lithuania’s Dream Team aiming upwards

By Henrik Manninen

Two years ago, on a balmy spring evening in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, an experimental and youthful Lithuania came within a regulation time goal from winning a sensational gold at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group B. With the 13,500-seater Zalgiris Arena in Kaunas now ready to open its doors for the 2018 edition of the tournament, hopes are high for Lithuania to achieve home glory and claim that much-coveted top spot.

In a year when their nation celebrates 100 years since first regaining independence, the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation is marking the grand occasion in high spirits. With the Lithuanian roster being labelled as ‘dream team’ and the faces of Dainius Zubrus, Mantas Armalis, Nerijus Alisauskas, Tadas Kumeliauskas and the 45-year-old debutant Darius Kasparaitis adorning the posters promoting the event, Lithuania certainly hasn’t shied away from raising the expectations.

Boosted by impressive ticket sales it is now up for the big-name players to rise up to the occasion in front of a home support expected to beat the average attendance of 6,032 dating back from four years ago when Lithuania’s capital Vilnius hosted the tournament.

“This is the biggest sporting event in the Baltics this year and held in the largest sports arena in the region. If everything goes right we look to finish first. There is no question about this unless we get a lot of injuries,” said Lithuania’s head coach Haake ahead of a festival of hockey awaiting in the country’s second city as Estonia, Croatia, Japan, Romania and Ukraine awaits between 22-28 April.

Optimistic while still doing his bit to keep a lid on expectations, the man Lithuania puts their faith in to guide them up the promised land of Division IA comes with vast experience within a game he first picked up on frozen lakes in Western Germany in the 1950s.

Bielefeld-born Haake’s international coaching career started as a 28-year-old assistant coach of what was then West Germany’s U18 national team at a European Championship in France 1974. After spending an eye-opening 18 months in Canada where he also first got to know Lithuania’s current assistant coach George Kingston, Haake returned to Europe where his first international appointment was as assistant coach when Spain’s senior national team made its IIHF World Championship debut in 1977.

With an eclectic coaching resume that includes working for Windhoek Cazadores in Namibia, Australia’s Sydney Allstars, Portogalete in Spain to that of winning the Italian league as head coach of Bolzano and assistant coach of top-level German teams Kolner Haie and Iserlohn Roosters, Haake has never shied away from relishing a challenge which seen him coach on four different continents.

The opportunity to acquaint himself with Lithuanian hockey arose when the affable Haake struck up a conversation with the President of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation, Petras Nauseda, in Helsinki during the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Fresh from having staved off relegation at the 2012 World Championships Division I Group B, Lithuania was then in the hunt for a new head coach to replace Sergei Borisov. They found their match in Haake, who jumped at the opportunity to try and reverse the waning fortunes of a national team that in 2006 had been one victory away from winning a place at the top-division of the World Championship.

“I became the first coach from a western country to coach Lithuania’s national team. In the past, they always had coaches from Russia, Belarus or Latvia. My first World Championship was in Donetsk 2013 and this is now my sixth year,” said Haake who also during three of those seasons worked as assistant coach of Lithuania’s U20 national team as well as the country’s top club Energija Elektrenai.

While greatly admiring the hard graft put in by the growing Lithuanian hockey community with its limited resources, he also readily points out some of the challenges he feels is holding back further progress in the Baltic nation.

“When you have the power you don’t want to lose it. To translate this into Lithuanian context, teams are not cooperating at youth hockey level and instead look after their own interests. We need strong teams from U12 to U18 level and have them come together once a month to play in tournaments, but it is not possible. We should look at Slovenia and what they do with their resources. Instead in Lithuania, we now have three to five good players in each team, but as they are not being challenged their level is now going down instead of up between the ages of 12-16,” said Haake, who also has started to feel the effect of this in certain positions at a national team level.

“The problem for Lithuanian hockey for the near the future is that we don’t have defencemen. We have the four veterans, Kasparaitis, Rolandas Aliukonis, Arturas Katulis and Mindaugas Kieras, all of them over 35. For the young players to continue their development they have to go abroad but it is not easy as a Lithuanian player to find a team to play for,” said Haake, who hopes the star-studded roster and wins out on the ice can add exposure to the Lithuanian game at home and beyond.

“People in Lithuania like hockey. We saw that already at the 2014 World Championships in Vilnius. This time around we will be helped by Kasparaitis who is playing for his own country for the very first time at a World Championship. Born 1972, like (Jaromir) Jagr, he is on the ice three times a week during the season, he played for us already in November and he is still in unbelievable good shape,” said Haake, who also has high hopes for another troika of big-name returnees ready to turn on a show in front of their home audience and offer that extra bit of edge that got them so tantalisingly close of getting their hands on the gold medals two years ago.

“Zubrus plays with together with Kasparaitis during the season in Miami and just as in 2014 he will be very good for us. Armalis is back in goal after two years and for the first time in many years, Tadas Kumeliauskas will play for us, so it looks like we will have a strong team,” said a hopeful Haake.

Fourth gold for Spain

By Andy Potts –

Spain’s golden season continues with the men’s national team winning the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B on home ice in Granada.

The senior team’s success means the Spaniards have picked up four gold medals this season, securing promotions for the men’s U18 and U20 teams and the senior women’s roster. No other country, at any level of IIHF competition, has managed a comparable medal haul, with Spain ending its campaign with four golds from a possible five. All the successful teams were playing in Division IIB of their respective competitions.

The latest triumph came on home ice in Granada. The Andalusian city hosted the Winter Universiade in 2015, but it has a greater sporting tradition in bullfighting and football. This week, though, it had a chance to enjoy a glut of goals from a Spanish team determined to bounce straight back to Division IIA after relegation 12 months ago. The host nation rattled in 49 goals in five games, allowing just six, as it powered to top spot ahead of New Zealand thanks to a 6-4 success when the teams met.

As the seedings suggested, it all came down to Friday night’s decider against the Kiwis. Both teams had progressed through the competition without dropping a point, although the rampant form of the Spanish offence suggested the host nation might have the edge. Opening with a 15-1 drubbing of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Spain also enjoyed a 14-0 rout of Mexico and a 10-1 success over Luxembourg. With all-out attack at the heart of Luciano Basile’s team for this tournament, Spain took the same approach into the showdown with New Zealand, firing in 53 shots net Daniel Lee’s net.

Despite that, it took most of the first period to find a way through the opposing defence. A power-play goal in the 18th minute – Carlos Rivero winning the puck in the corner and feeding Alejandro Carbonell for a close-range wrist shot – finally broke the deadlock to give Spain a lead that its first-period dominance deserved. Carbonell, who plays his hockey in the French second tier with Annecy, is one of four players on the roster playing abroad. Bruno Baldris (Angers Ducs), Gaston Gonzalez (Montpellier Vipers) and Adrian Ubieto (Anglet Hormadi) also play across the border in France.

In the middle frame, the Spanish offence was rampant once again – and this time it converted chances into goals more readily, scoring four times on Lee. Patricio Fuentes set the tone in the 22nd minute, adding a second after Spain repeatedly prevented New Zealand from clearing its lines, and there were further tallies from Oriol Rubio, Oriol Boronat and Ignacio Granell.

However, the hitherto reliable defence – which had allowed just two goals in four games – began to wobble. New Zealand scored three of its own to remain in contention. Paris Heyd quickly converted a power play when he tipped home Callum Burns’ point shot, Aleksandr Polozov finished off after Jacob Ratcliffe’s shot was deflected into his path and Andrew Cox saw his point shot bounce off a defenceman and find the net. At the end of the middle frame, Spain led 5-3 and New Zealand, despite facing an onslaught, still believed it had a chance.

Boronat got his second of the night to make it 6-3 early in the third, but a power play tally from Frazer Ellis kept the Kiwis in contention. Now, though, a more cautious Spain slowed down the offence and closed out the victory to spark the gold medal celebrations at the final hooter. For New Zealand, it was a second successive silver medal after finishing runner-up on home ice last year.

Not surprisingly, Spanish players dominated the scoring charts to take four of the top five places. Boronat (5+7) led the way, with the Puigcerda player finishing one point ahead of team-mate Fuentes from San Sebastian. Seven goals for Boronat’s clubmate Pablo Munoz made him the top goalscorer and he was joined on 10 points by the tournament’s most productive defenseman, Ubieto. New Zealand’s Jordan Challis (3+7) also made the top five. Spain’s dominance ensured that the team allowed just 70 shots on its net over the five games. Ander Alcaine faced most of them and finished with a GAA of 1.49 on his way to the directorate award for top goalie, but Israel’s Nir Tichon also made a good case for honours with an SVG of 91.82%. Fuentes was the top forward and New Zealand’s Stefan Helmersson was top D-man.

Israel secured third place with a victory over Mexico in its final game to finish on nine points. That result also condemned Luxembourg to relegation. The team from the principality won its last game against DPR Korea and would have survived on that head-to-head result if Mexico had gained at least a point against Israel. Instead, though, the teams finished in a three-way tie with Mexico and Luxembourg sharing the same goal difference. The Mexicans’ 3-1 success in the head-to-head meeting kept the Central Americans in this section and sent Luxembourg back to Division III after just one season.

Comparisons to Sidney Crosby not easy for Alexis Lafreniere to ignore


He’s heard all the chatter about how good he is right now and how much better he’s projected to become.

It’s something that’s hard for Alexis Lafreniere to ignore when he’s already being touted as a future first overall NHL Draft pick – not for this year, or even next, but in 2020.

There are even endless comparisons to Sidney Crosby, who shares the distinction of being a No. 1 pick by the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic.

“A lot,” Lafreniere said when asked how often he hears is name in the same sentence as the Pittsburgh Penguins captain, “but I try to (disregard them). Eighty-seven is another player. He’s the best in the world. I try to do my job – what I do good.”

Lafreniere was the youngest but highest-scoring player at Canada’s world under-18 championship training camp last week. Canada’s tournament begins Thursday in Russia against the powerful Americans.

Hockey Canada waited until the second round of the CHL playoffs were complete before setting a roster for the opener, and only 2000-born players were being assured of selection. However, coach Don Hay said Lafreniere impressed early in camp and added he wouldn’t hesitate to give roster spots to younger players if they’re deserving.

Lafreniere then went out and netted a goal and added an assist in Canada’s first pre-tournament game, a 5-0 win over Slovakia on Sunday. He scored again in the final tune-up match, a 3-2 victory over Finland on Monday, to secure his place on the team.

His track record shouldn’t have left any doubt anyway.

Lafreniere was drafted first overall by Rimouski in 2017 after an 83-point effort with his hometown midget AAA Saint-Eustache Vikings. In his rookie QMJHL season he scored 42 goals as a 16-year-old — something no ‘Q’ player had done since Crosby.

Lafreniere also recorded 80 points with the Oceanic, becoming just the second person to reach that mark at his age since Crosby earned 135 points in 2003-04. (The other player is Angelo Esposito, an eventual Penguins first-rounder, who had 98 points for the Quebec Remparts in 2005-06.)

“I knew there was a lot of hype around him,” said goaltender Colten Ellis, a teammate on both Rimouski and Team Canada. “He’s fulfilled everything I thought he’d be.”

So, it’s not surprising Lafreniere is being mentioned in the same breath as Crosby, especially given the Rimouski connection.

Canadian assistant coach Daniel Renaud isn’t crazy about the references to the future Hall of Famer. But as the head coach of the rival Shawinigan Cataractes, Renaud knows full well the six-foot-one, 184-pound winger is a “dominant player.”

“He’s who he is. He’s Lafreniere,” Renaud said. “He’s gonna evolve into himself. It’s not fair to compare him to anybody right at this point in time. He’s just 16. But as a 16-year-old player, he was something to see this year. I’m really excited to have the chance to coach him.

“This year, every time we got a chance to play him, he made us pay the price big time. He got a couple points each and every night.”

Defending against Lafreniere requires the attention of every player on the ice, Renaud added.

Matching him one-on-one is a losing battle. When he does break through to get an unfettered chance, it’s a frightening proposition for the man in net.

“You never know what he’s going to do,” Ellis said. “He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. It’s definitely a challenge every time he comes down on ya.

“He likes to do a little pump fake and go backhand, forehand, low blocker. He gets me with that quite a bit (in practice). But you can never cheat for it because, once he sees you cheating, he’ll just change it up and make you look stupid. He’s hard to read. He’s an awesome player.”

Lafreniere is quick to defer credit for his success to his coaches and teammates, particularly his over-age centreman and former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Samuel Dove-McFalls.

Lafreniere’s goal and point totals ranked second in QMJHL rookie scoring. The player ahead of him by two in each category was Halifax Mooseheads winger Filip Zadina – a projected top-five pick in the 2018 NHL Draft who’s two years older.

It seems like Lafreniere has taken a good first step towards the 2020 draft.

“Two years is a long time away. He can definitely handle it,” Ellis said. “He’s got a great mindset. He’s dealt with the pressure all year.”

There are areas in which Lafreniere can improve. Skating, shooting, and developing a consistent work ethic come to mind for Renaud.

His hockey sense, however, needs little tweaking.

“He sees everything on the ice, with and without the puck,” Renaud said. “When he has the puck, he can see open players that normally no one would be able to see. Without the puck, he’s able to find that free ice, open space, and get open and create offence out of nothing.

“You think you’re in full control and, bang, he sees something, and they have a pretty good scoring chance out of it.”

Sounds like No. 87, doesn’t it?

“It’s nice, but I think Crosby’s on another level,” Lafreniere said. “He’s already winning Cups and gold medals. I just try to do my stuff. That will be good.”

Dahlin tops Central Scouting’s final ranking of International skaters

By Mike G. Morreale

Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin of Frolunda in Sweden is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of International skaters for the 2018 NHL Draft, to be held at American Airlines Center in Dallas on June 22-23.

Central Scouting revealed its final list of the top International skaters and goaltenders, and top North American skaters and goaltenders, on Monday.

Dahlin (6-foot-2, 181 pounds), a left-handed shot, could become the first Sweden-born player chosen No. 1 since Mats Sundin by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989. He would be the first defenseman chosen No. 1 since Aaron Ekblad by the Florida Panthers in 2014.

“Dahlin is an exceptionally talented prospect who will be able to contribute, influence and impact a team’s fortunes much in the way that defensemen Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators) and Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning) have in the NHL,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “If you wanted to pick one player from the 2018 draft who could potentially be viewed as a generational talent, Rasmus would be the only candidate. There is that much respect for him and his abilities.”

Dahlin, who turned 18 on Friday, had 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists), a plus-4 rating, 30 hits, 36 blocked shots and 84 shots on goal while averaging 19:02 of ice time in 41 games in the Swedish Hockey League. He had three points (one goal, two assists) and a plus-3 rating in six SHL playoff games.

He was named the best defenseman at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship after he had six points, all assists, 25 shots on goal and a plus-7 rating while averaging 23:08 of ice time in seven games to help Sweden win the silver medal. He also was the youngest player on Sweden’s roster for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics by seven years.

“Dahlin is in a class of his own,” said Goran Stubb, director of NHL European Scouting. “He’s fulfilled everything that was expected of him as a regular with Frolunda. He’s a smart two-way defenseman with a great set of tools, including skating, puck handling, vision, intelligence and shot.

“He’s not overly physical on the ice but he doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff.”

Dahlin opted to sit out the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, which runs April 19-29, in order to prepare for the NHL Scouting Combine in June. He played 74 games in 2017-18, including regular-season and playoff games for Frolunda, and with Sweden in international tournaments.

Rounding out the top five among European skaters are No. 2 defenseman Adam Boqvist (5-11, 168) of Brynas’ team in Sweden’s junior league; No. 3 right wing Vitali Kravtsov (6-2, 170) of Chelyabinsk in Russia; No. 4 right wing Martin Kaut (6-1, 176) of Pardubice in the Czech Republic; and No. 5 defenseman Adam Ginning (6-3, 196) of Linkoping in Sweden.

Boqvist, 17, is a right-shot defenseman who had 24 points (14 goals, 10 assists) and a plus-6 rating in 25 games with Brynas in the junior league, and one assist in 15 games with Brynas in the SHL. He’s the younger brother of New Jersey Devils forward prospect Jesper Boqvist (No. 36, 2017 draft).

[RANKINGS (PDF): North American Skaters | North American Goalies | International Skaters | International Goalies]

“Boqvist is an extremely skilled defenseman with excellent vision and tons of talent,” Stubb said. “He has good on-ice awareness, a good shot and is a finesse-type player who plays bigger than he is.”

Kravtsov, 18, was No. 10 on Central Scouting’s midterm list. He made a big jump after major strides in the second half of the season for Chelyabinsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. He had seven points (four goals, three assists) in 35 regular-season games, and 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 16 KHL playoff games.

“He’s gained more weight and is a powerful skater with balance and speed,” Stubb said. “He’s also gritty at times and has a no-quit attitude. A prototypical power-forward.”

Kaut, 18, had 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 38 games in the Czech Republic’s top professional league.

Ginning, 18, a left-shot defenseman, had two points (one goal, one assist) in 28 SHL games.

Lukas Dostal (6-1, 158) of Treibic in the Czech Republic’s second division, is the No. 1 on Central Scouting’s final list of International goaltenders. Dostal, 17, had a 2.43 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 20 games.

“He has good overall net coverage with strong angle and positional play,” Stubb said. “When he is hot, he’s really good. But like many other young and inexperienced goalies, he’s a bit inconsistent from game to game. But he does play with a lot of desire, determination and confidence.”

Italian scores only goal for promotion

By Andrew Podnieks –

Linda DeRocco scored the only goal of the game midway through the second period and Giulia Mazzocchi stopped all 21 shots to give Italy a 1-0 win over China on the final day of the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B.

The win puts Italy ahead of Korea in the final standings and give it a spot in the Division I Group A for next year. Italy will finish this year’s Women’s World Championship program 16th overall – its highest ranking it also reached in 1999 and 2005 – and will for the first time compete in the second tier of the Women’s Worlds. Its only previous appearance at higher level came when it hosted the 2006 Olympics in Turin.

Italy won the Division I Group B on home ice in Asiago before 550 fans in the final game. A tournament that saw a dramatic turn of events on the final day of the tournament. In the early game on Saturday, Korea hammered Poland, 9-2, to move into top spot with 11 points and a record of 3-1-0-1, putting Italy in a must-win situation in the evening.

The first period was tense and with few scoring chances, and China had a chance early in the second to open the scoring when Xin He hit the post from the slot.

DeRocco put the puck in at 10:17 of the second when her point shot hit a Chinese player in front and dribbled slowly past goalie Yuqing Wang.

Italy played flawless defence, but China nearly tied the game under most improbable circumstances. With a little more than two minutes left to play in the third, Zhixin Liu took a double-minor penalty, and all seemed to be lost for the Chinese.

At one point, though, they fired the puck down the ice and Mazzocchi mishandled the puck behind her goal. Minghui Kong picked it up and tried a quick wraparound. Mazzocchi made the acrobatic glove save facing her own goal, and Italy hung on for the win.

Korea was the only team to beat Italy, 3-2 thanks to two goals in the last three minutes of play from Randi Griffin and Chaelin Park, but had to settle for second place because of losing four points elsewhere. After their Olympic experience the Koreans, who came in as the promoted and lowest seeded team, were on fire and just one point away from earning a second straight promotion. But the Koreans lost an Asian clash between the last and next Winter Olympics host China 3-2 and lost a point in the 2-1 overtime win against Kazakhstan of the opening day.

The scoring and award race was dominated by the top-two ranked countries. Italy’s Eleonora Dalpra led with nine points (3+6) ahead of two Koreans, captain Jongah Park (4+3) and goal-scoring leader Yoonjung Park (5+0). Jongah Park, who two months earlier carried the Olympic torch to lit the cauldron as second-last athlete together with North Korean player Su Hyon Jong, was voted best forward by the tournament directorate. The other two individual awards when to Italians. Mazzocchi, who had the best save percentage with 94.62% tightly before China’s Yuqing Wang (94.44%), was named best goaltender and Nadia Mattivi best defenceman.

After starting the tournament with a loss, Latvia moved up in the standings and beat Kazakhstan for third place on the last day – 1-0 thanks to Sarma Ozmena’s goal.

China, which won bronze one year ago and had hope for more thanks to its ambitious program that includes two teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, finished the tournament in fifth place with two wins and three losses and will remain in the Division I Group B for 2019.

Although Poland finished in last place, it will not be relegated because the top level is going to ten teams. The group will be completed by the Netherlands next year.

France moves up

By Andrew Podnieks –

Home ice suited France well in Vaujany this weekend as the French women claimed first place in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A to earn promotion to the 2019 Women’s Worlds.

France will complete the top division that will be extended to ten teams for next year’s event in Finland.

The French finished their five-game round robin campaign with four wins and a loss, including today’s impressive 7-1 win over Slovakia ahead of Austria and Hungary, teams they had beaten before.

“We knew every game would be a challenge, but we were here at home playing in front of family and friends, so we felt we had to win,” said winning goalie Caroline Baldin. “Today, we played well again. We have a lot of solidarity among us, which was the difference. We fought hard every game.”

Although France has participated in the IIHF’s women’s program since 1999, this is the first time the nation will be in the top pool. The team’s only loss was a 2-1 decision to Norway last Monday.

“I think the thing we look forward to next year the most is playing against the top teams,” Baldin continued. “We’ll be able to see if the gap between us and the top teams is small or not. We hope to fight against every team.”

Although France has only a small number of women’s players, the advantage is that they are a dedicated group – to the game, and to each other.

“Many of us have played together for seven or eight years,” Baldin explained, “so we know each other really well. We grew up together and have known each other since we were 12. This year we were a bit lucky and came together. But even though we’ve been together a long time, we’re still a young team. I think our average age is about 23.”

Slovakia finished in last place with one win, but because the top pool is expanding from eight to ten teams it won’t be relegated.

In truth, tonight’s result didn’t mean much for France as it had advanced earlier in the day after Austria beat Norway and Hungary beating Denmark, both by 3-0 scores. Before Day 5, Norway had been the only team to beat France and could have caused a tie for first place at nine points with France and other teams if they had won in regulation time and if France had lost in regulation time. Neither happened.

France sealed its victory tonight thanks to three goals in a span of 4:20 early in the period. Chloe Aurard opened the scoring with a low shot that fooled Romana Kiapesova at 3:37.

A minute and a half later, Clara Rozier went end-to-end and finished with a pretty wrist shot to the far side to make it 2-0, and Margot Desvignes made it 3-0 on another chance from in close.

Slovakia’s coach, Jenny Potter, long-time star with Team USA, changed goalies, but that move couldn’t help the team’s offensive struggle. Late in the period the Slovaks had a two-man advantage for 52 seconds but didn’t generate any great scoring chances with the opportunity.

Aurard got her second midway through the middle period to give France even more breathing room but just a few minutes later Nikola Rumanova got Slovakia on the board.

Soon after, the team had a great opportunity to make a game of it when Lea Villiot was given a major and game misconduct penalty for hitting from behind, but Slovakia gave up a goal with the lengthy advantage, more or less sealing its fate.

For Baldin, the win caps a memorable season which saw her backstop the ZSC Lions Zurich to the women’s championship in Switzerland.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends with my club team in Zurich,” she enthused. “They’re like family to me. Even though they might play for Team Switzerland, that doesn’t matter. For the moment, this win today is the biggest win of my life. But last year at the Olympic qualification, we came close to beating Germany, and really close to beating Japan, so tonight it was amazing to finally win.”

Austria, after opening the tournament with a loss, improved to a silver-medal finish while Hungary won the bronze. Norway’s Ena Nystrom was named best goaltender by the tournament directorate while Gwendoline Gendarme of France was voted best defender and Fanni Gasparics, who led the tournament in scoring (6+4), won the award as best forward.

The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship will include the United States, Canada, host Finland, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Japan and France. The host city and the dates will be announced soon. Next year’s Division I Group A will include Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Slovakia and Italy, which earned promotion tonight

A Cape Bretoner grows the game in China

By Cape Breton Post

Jessica Wong was picked first overall by the Calgary Inferno in the 2013 Canadian Women’s Hockey League draft and after two seasons, called it a career.

Since then, she landed a job with Hockey Canada as a co-coordinator of membership development and lived in Calgary with her fiancée, high school sweetheart Mitchell Brewer of Baddeck, and their dog, Gus.

But an opportunity arose that she just couldn’t pass up: growing the game in China. It started with a call from Kunlun Red Star head coach Digit Murphy, who asked Wong to come out of retirement to join the fledgling club. The Red Star and the Vanke Rays were the two CWHL expansion teams from China for the 2017-18 season.

“At this point, it was not really about my career, it was about Team China,” said the 27-year-old, who’s back home in Baddeck for a visit. Players from Kunlun and Vanke skate for China’s national team that’s competing in the 2018 IIHF Women’s World Championship Division 1 ‘B’ Championship in Italy this week.

“I was kind of done with the more competitive stuff. I had a good run and a great career, and once I was able to put the more competitive side aside and focus more on them and try and help them grow, I just thought it was something I truly wanted to do. I was really glad I had the opportunity to be with them this first year.”

The Red Star team plays 45 minutes outside of Shenzen in southeast China, a city of over 12.5 million people located in Guangdong Province.

Wong said the sport has been growing steadily, but it did take some time. During the team’s first game, many fans who came out to watch were silent, mainly because they weren’t sure when to cheer or were unfamiliar with the rules of the game.

To remedy the situation, a program was printed for the next game that had team rosters, as well as a guide with the rules of hockey and when to cheer.

“It was pretty funny,” Wong said. “It’s got to start somewhere, right? We’re growing the game little by little and that’s something I’ll always remember.”

Although she came out of retirement, Wong didn’t lose a step. The blue-liner finished with 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points in 28 games this season, led the team in ice time and was a finalist for the league’s defenceman of the year.

She also helped the squad move from expansion club to league contender. The Red Star reached the Clarkson Cup championship game but lost 2-1 in overtime to the Markham Thunder in Toronto on March 25.

“Overall, it was an amazing year,” said Wong. The Red Star finished with a 21-6-0-1 record for second place in the standings. “It was definitely more than we thought we could do and we’re super proud we were able to participate in the Clarkson Cup. Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but we definitely are proud of how we played all season.”

Playing in China also had a special meaning for Wong.

“Being half Chinese, my grandmother lived three hours south of Shenzen and it does really mean a lot, just to see what China’s all about,” she said. “It was my first time and it opened my eyes up a lot to see where she grew up and came from, it definitely means a lot. I’m really happy I took this experience.”

Wong is the most accomplished women’s hockey player ever from Cape Breton. She skated for Canada’s national women’s under-22 team in 2010 and 2011, winning gold at the MLP Cup both years. She also won gold at the 2009 IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship and was also a gold medalist at the 2015 Nations Cup with Canada’s women’s development team.

Wong played NCAA Division 1 hockey for four seasons at the University Minnesota Duluth. In her first season in 2009-10, she scored the winning goal in the third overtime to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 win over the Cornell Big Red in the final of the Frozen Four championship. She was named team captain in her final season in 2012-13 and graduated as the all-time leader in goal scoring among defencemen.

As for next season, Wong wasn’t sure what the future holds. She said there are still some community events and camps she’ll attend with the team this summer. In the meantime, she and her fiancée will get married in July.

Player Profile

Name: Jessica Wong

Hometown: Baddeck

Height: 5-6

Position: Defence

Age: 27

• Played for the Kunlun Red Star of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2017-18.

• First overall pick of the Calgary Inferno in the 2013 CWHL draft.

• Four time gold medalist for Canada in international competition.

Mongolia win IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia on goal difference

By Dan Palmer – Inside the Games

Mongolia won the International Ice Hockey Federation Challenge Cup of Asia on goal difference as three nations ended the round-robin tournament on nine points.

The Mongolians, as well as hosts The Philippines and Thailand, all finished the event with three victories and one defeat following today’s concluding matches.

It meant the winners were decided by taking into account the three teams’ results against each other with their matches against Singapore and Kuwait discarded.

Thailand had beaten The Philippines 7-4 at the SM Mall of Asia Ice Skating Rink in Pasay, with the hosts then beating Mongolia 6-5.

Mongolia’s 5-1 win over the Thais yesterday meant all three teams beat each other and the margin of their success was crucial as they ended on the best goal difference of plus three.

Thailand ended on minus one to finish second with the hosts in third on minus three.

Mongolia had never before won the event.

Both The Phillippines and Thailand recorded massive wins today, with Mongolia not in action, but they proved irrelevant in the final reckoning.

The Thais beat Kuwait 12-1 before the Filipino outfit roared past Singapore 15-0.

Kuwait have finished bottom and will be relegated to Division One for 2019, to be replaced by Malaysia.

Al Dhaheri says Arab Clubs Championship ice hockey tournament an ‘overwhelming success’$p=1e3ecb0&w=1136&$w=ec52ab9

By Amith Passela – The National

Abu Dhabi Storms win inaugural title after beating Team Lebanon 5-3 in final at Zayed Sports City Ice Rink.

Juma Al Dhaheri, the Abu Dhabi Storms captain, believes the Arab Clubs Championship will become an annual feature on the UAE Ice Sports Federation’s calendar after his side won the inaugural title over the weekend.

Al Dhaheri, who is also the general secretary of the federation, hailed the “overwhelming success” of the championship after helping his side stage a thrilling comeback to win the final at Zayed Sports City Ice Rink 5-3.

“Leave aside the result, ice hockey fans witnessed a great match which had everything – the skills, speed and excitement – that a final game could provide,” he said after Saturday’s championship match in Abu Dhabi.

Ice hockey in the UAE remains a largely expatriate sport, Al Dhaheri said, but that competitions like the Arab Clubs Championship “will certainly encourage more indigenous people, particularly the youth, to join the sport.

“Our goal is to develop the sport in the region. We have created a pathway and the Arab Clubs Championship is one of them. There are more Arab countries now ready to join.”

Matti Fagerstrom, the Storms coach, said the championship had raised the profile of ice hockey in the region to a new level.

“It means more funding, more sponsorship’s and more importantly attracting more viewers through live TV coverage,” the Finn said.

The five-team competition played over a league format saw both the Storms and Team Lebanon reach the final game undefeated.

The Storms fielded their professionals for large parts of the match against a Montreal-based Team Lebanon, a combined side comprising of young Canadians and naturalized Lebanese players.

Nabil Kamleh, Team Lebanon’s assistant coach who plays for Dubai Mighty Camels in the Emirates Hockey League, believes the final was one of the best witnessed on these shores.

“I have been in Dubai for more than 13 years and witnessed one of the best games ever in the UAE,” he said.

“Full credit to the Storms for winning it but we witnessed a high skilled fast-paced game.

“As a Lebanese-Canadian, born and raised in Canada, it’s a remarkable tournament as it provides the opportunity to play for your country,” he added.

“I played for this team [Lebanon] in the President’s Cup in November and the standard has gone so high that I wasn’t able to play in this.”

Alexander Pajusovs netted all three goals for Team Lebanon, one in each period, yet his efforts fell short against the home side.

Andrei Bashko put the Storms ahead on 10 minutes but Pajusovs struck four minutes from time to level the scores at the end of the first period.

Pajusovs netted the solitary goal in the second period before Artur Zainutdinov leveled the score in the opening minute of the third period.

Pajusovs regained the lead for Team Lebanon in the next minute but it was short lived as Mikhael Klimin struck seconds later to level it again at 3-3.

The game turned hostile towards the end and Team Lebanon’s Majed Madi and Mathew Darwish were both sent off for misconduct.

Zainutdinov scored with just over two minutes remaining to put Storms ahead and then Masleniau Yaraslau fired a long-range shot when the visitors played without goalkeeper Alec Sader, who had an outstanding game with several excellent saves.


Dutch delight in Maribor

By Andy Potts –

The Netherlands powered to gold in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group A with a flawless week’s work in Maribor, Slovenia. Unbeaten in five games, with just three goals allowed, the Dutch were a class above the opposition throughout the competition and wrapped up the title in fine style with an impressive 4-0 victory over Great Britain in Friday’s decisive game between the best two teams of the tournament.

As a result, the Netherlands returns to Division IB. Relegation in 2016 in Asiago was followed by a silver medal in Korea last year at one of the preparation events for the Olympics in PyeongChang, but this time the Dutch went one better.

The game against Great Britain was a clash between two nations with 100% records, but even in the early rounds of the tournament the Dutch had looked stronger. More goals scored and fewer allowed at the other end meant the Netherlands would be the favourite ahead of the gold-medal showdown.

Joep Franke’s team lived up to its billing from the start. The first period was one-way traffic, with the Brits limited to just a couple of shots at Nadia Zijlstra while the Netherlands fired in 13 efforts at Nicole Jackson. Britain was fighting to stay in the game, but lost that battle in the middle frame when the Dutch scored three without reply. Captain Savine Wielenga got things started with a power-play goal shortly after the intermission before feeding Kayleigh Hamers for a rocket of a shot to make it 2-0.

Britain’s best hopes of a recovery came and went with a 5-on-3 power play towards the end of the second period. The Dutch, though, not only killed the penalty but went on to kill off the game with a third goal seconds after Hamers escaped the box. Julie Zwarthoed scored, with Wielenga among the assists again, to make it 3-0 and take her to 11 points for the tournament. Another power play saw Bieke van Nes add a fourth early in the final frame, and the outcome was beyond doubt.

Zwarthoed and Wielenga led the Dutch scoring with 11 and 10 points respectively, while Zijlstra’s goaltending brought her two shutouts from three starts, and just one goal allowed in the 2-1 win over Slovenia. That game was the tightest battle for the eventual champion: the other results were a 5-2 win over DPR Korea and big shutout wins against Australia and Mexico.

For Britain, a silver medal was an improvement on bronze in 2017 and that gave cause for encouragement for head coach Cheryl Smith. “We have plenty to be proud of, and the program is clearly going in the right direction,” she said after the game. The tournament also marked the end of Angela Taylor’s international career after two spells on the national team totalling more than a decade brought 54 appearances and 70 points for her country.

The tournament also brought a bronze medal for DPR Korea. The roster featured several players who gained Olympic experience as part of the Unified Korean team in PyeongChang in February. Un Hyang Kim, who made five Olympic appearances, was the top goalscorer with six; Hyang Mi Kim, who featured in three games in PyeongChang, led the scoring with nine points. Su Hyon Jong, who famously joined her South Korean colleague Jongah Park to carry the Olympic Torch to the cauldron during the Opening Ceremony, contributed with six assists in five games.

Australia edged the Slovenian hosts for fourth place, winning 4-2 when the nations went head-to-head on Friday; Slovenia’s Pia Pren had some consolation as her two assists lifted her to 11 points and a share of the tournament scoring lead with Zwarthoed. Mexico struggled throughout the competition and was relegated after failing to win a game and scoring just three goals.

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