Month: December 2019 (Page 2 of 2)

Swiss women surprise

Swiss forward Lara Stalder led the Four Nations tournament in Fussen in goals and points

By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

About three months away from the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship various teams used the December international break to test against their competitors.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the Rivalry Series between the United States and Canada began with a 4-1 home-win for Team USA thanks to a 31-save performance from Alex Cavallini and multi-point efforts from Alex Carpenter, Amanda Kessel and Kelly Pannek. Victoria Bach scored Canada’s goal.

“I thought everybody played well and we played at a high compete level tonight,” said Team USA head coach Bob Corkum. “We managed the puck much better than we did in Pittsburgh. It was a great environment here in Hartford and we’re thankful to all the fans who came out and supported us.”

The series continues tonight in Moncton, N.B. and with three games in February in Victoria, B.C., Vancouver, B.C. and Anaheim, Calif

Switzerland wins in Fussen

Back in Europe it was time for the traditional tournaments during the international breaks where Switzerland had one of its best performances in years.

Since winning bronze medals at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the Swiss haven’t reached the top-4 anymore in five attempts. And they haven’t beaten Finland during seven-and-a-half years and 12 games.

Not so this month as the Swiss opened the Four Nations tournament in Fussen with a 5-4 shootout win against the Finns, who have been the best European team in the last three seasons.

Susanna Tapani and Noora Tulus each scored a pair of goals for Finland but the Swiss came back from a two-goal deficit with goals from Lara Stalder, Dominique Ruegg, Alina Muller and Rahel Enzler for a 4-3 lead. Eventually the Finns tied the game at four and it went to overtime and shootout where Stalder scored the game-winning goal.

Switzerland continued with another tight win, 5-4 in overtime against host Germany. Again the Swiss came back from a 2-0 deficit. Laura Zimmermann scored two goals in regulation time and Stalder again had two goals including the game-winner at 3:54 in overtime.

The Swiss confirmed the tournament win with a 4-0 blanking of Sweden on the last day, which for the Swedes continued a nightmarish year that started with the first relegation of a Swedish ice hockey national team in any World Championship category. Alina Muller scored two goals for Switzerland in that game.

Stalder was named best forward of the tournament with a tournament-leading four goals and six points while the Swiss also had stellar goaltending. 19-year-old Saskia Maurer helped the Swiss in their upset win against Finland with 36 saves followed by a 31-save shutout against Sweden in her other game.

“The sensational team spirit and professional attitude were the main reasons for the success,” said head coach Colin Muller. “We played indeed well. It was noticeable that compared to the previous tournament we had an experienced team here. We did a step forward but still have potential for improvement.”

Finland also lost its second game, 4-1 to Sweden, but thanks to a 3-2 win against Germany reached four points, which was enough for second place before Germany and Sweden

Young Russians wins in Sochi

Further east Russia hosted a Six Nations Tournament at the Olympic park in Sochi. Even though the Russians tested a B squad rather than the official women’s national team, they won the tournament.

The Russians beat Norway (4-2) and Denmark (6-0) in the group stage before celebrating a 3-1 win in the final against the Czech Republic, the other group winner.

The tournament was also an opportunity for the two newly promoted Women’s Worlds teams to test against higher opposition. Hungary with a 2-1 record and third place fared better than Denmark, which eventually got its first win in the game for fifth place against France.

Austria does the unexpected

The Austrian players celebrate promotion after beating Slovenia in their last game

By Chapin Landvogt – IIHF.com

It’s not too often that the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A tournament winner is decided by the first of three games on the last day of the tournament, but exactly that took place this very day when Austria successfully defeated Slovenia 4-1.

And with that, a modern-day Cinderella story was completed.

Austria is heading to the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Alberta, Canada, where the cities of Edmonton and Red Deer will host the event. It’s been a long time coming for the Alp republic of Austria, as the program last participated in a WJC in 2010. Depending on the outcome of the 2020 World Juniors in the Czech Republic, Canada may be hosting a tournament that could have a decidedly German flair to it, as no less than two of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland will be participating, if not all three.

In today’s all-decisive contest, Austria jumped out to a 2-0 lead over last place Slovenia with two late goals in the first period. But after a scoreless second period, things got interesting when a Maj Tavcar goal in the 53rd minute of play got Slovenia on the board, making things closer than anyone had expected. Max Rebering was able to get Austria’s fate back on track with a goal in the 56th minute and then Paul Huber potted his second of the day, and fourth of the tournament, into an empty net in the 59th minute to crown Austria’s fantastic – and indeed monumental – feat.

“This simply feels outstanding!” stated Roger Bader, the Swiss-born Sports Manager of the Austrian Ice Hockey Federation who serves as team leader at the event in Minsk. “It feels like something we flat out earned. We came in knowing how we wanted to play here and that’s exactly what we did. We kept the course. We played the hockey we wanted to play. We did our thing and we were ultimately rewarded for it.”

This sentiment was echoed by the team’s top scorer and assistant captain, Benjamin Baumgartner: “It’s simply fantastic! We battled our way through this tournament and came in with a game plan and ready to do everything necessary to win, from game to game. We saw in that first game against tournament favourite and host Belarus, that we were at the same level and the game could have gone either way. We had the lead on three separate occasions in the first period alone, but they were able to get the job done over the course of 60 minutes.”

“After that though, our confidence soared and the victories over the Scandinavians put us on track. The 2-1 win against Latvia was then pivotal. It’s just amazing to think that Austria will now be playing at the World Junior Championship next winter!”

The team’s promotion was due in no small part to Baumgartner’s efforts. Currently playing for HC Davos in Switzerland’s National League, where he has 17 points and a +10 in just 20 contests, Baumgartner proved he’s truly arriving on the international scene in a big way with five goals and 11 points in the five games played. This was good enough to be named Best Forward of the tournament.

“I was just concentrated on giving it my all and being the best version of me I could be at this tournament,” Baumgartner explained. “Fortunately, I was able to contribute on the scoring sheet as well. This achievement has been a total team effort and nothing I’ve done would have been possible without my teammates. There are a lot of good players at this tournament and many of them could be thought of as the tournament’s MVP.”

As humble as his words are, Sports Director Bader feels Baumgartner was rightfully seen as the tournament’s most outstanding forward: “He’s been playing for the Davos program in Switzerland for several years now and after playing a good third of last season for Davos in the National League last winter, he’s now broken through this year with a fantastic season on a scoring line. He’s one of the absolute best young players in the National League and has taken the steps necessary to learn how to play at the pro level and maintain a consistency there that can’t be taken for granted.”

Beating the odds

It’s safe to say that the international ice hockey community certainly wasn’t betting on Austria making its way to the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. Firstly, the country had to worry more about relegation in recent years than promotion. Then there was the fact that a heavily favoured host Belarus was coming into the tournament with a plethora of players who have either been drafted by an NHL club or seem to be a hot topic for NHL scouts – and this Team Belarus proceeded to defeat Austria 4-3 on the first day of the tournament. In addition, other opponents included Latvia and Denmark, each of whom had spent recent years playing against the world’s best on the top stage.

Then, of course, gaining promotion wasn’t necessarily Austria’s main goal heading into the tournament.

“We headed into the tournament with the goal of maintaining the class,” stated coach Marco Pewal. “As of our second victory, we started to notice that there was a shot at the top spot. I’m so proud of all of the players and all of our staff. They’ve done incredible work over the past few weeks.”

“I can’t say that was expected or even our primary goal,” stated Bader, reinforcing his coach’s sentiments. “We wanted to keep things going as planned and take the next step in our program’s long-term development. With our first victory, we really laid it all out on the ice and saw what we were capable of. This gave us the type of confidence that makes anything possible. The team just got better from game to game. We were defeating teams that had played with the world’s elite in recent World Junior Championships. After Game 1, the boys simply never stopped getting the job done. This achievement is a huge success for the Austrian Ice Hockey Association.”

Despite all that, matters were made more interesting by the absence of the country’s absolute top junior player, Marco Rossi, who wasn’t in Belarus to represent his country. Currently busy tearing things up for Ottawa in the OHL, he is felt to be a likely first-round draft pick next summer and surely more than a few NHL scouts in attendance would have loved to have seen what he could have done here.

Bader provided an explanation: “The decision to not be part of Team Austria this year was Marco’s. He and his organization, agent, and family decided it was best for him to remain in the OHL and continue helping his team there in its endeavour to be the top team in that league. We respect his decision. He’s a special player with a very promising future, but we as a team and an ice hockey association naturally concentrated on getting the job done here with the players in uniform. That’s where our focus was at as soon as we knew he wasn’t an option.”

Just missing out

Finishing four points behind Austria was Latvia, which in many ways basically lost out on promotion by one goal. And that’s rough when that one goal difference was due to a 2-1 loss to Austria in regulation time in the team’s fourth game.

Forward Janis Svanenbergs had eight points and a +7 in the tournament and led his team to a 3-1-1 record in the five games played. Janis Voris was named best goaltender with a 93.9% save percentage.

Starting things off with a solid 3-0 victory against Denmark, a 3-2 overtime win over Belarus, and then a 9-1 thrashing of Slovenia, it looked like the Latvians were well on their way to gaining promotion back into the world’s elite. The Baltic nation had even taken a 1-0 lead over Austria at the six-minute mark of the game in what became the decisive tilt of the tournament. A Luis Lindner tally for Austria in the game’s 25th minute proved to be the game winner, and Latvia had to place its hopes entirely into the hands of the Slovenians to swing things back in their favour. Those hopes were all for naught.

The 2-0 victory over Norway to conclude the tournament was too little too late as Austria had already wrapped up first place just minutes beforehand.

Norway itself entered play with few expectations. Nary a team in the tournament was entering play with so many players from its own national ranks and only but a few players who are parked in neighbouring Sweden, a factor that has often been a strength for the “Nordmen”. Nonetheless, the 6-2 win over Slovenia to open the tournament already led to maintaining the class. The 3-2 and 1-0 overtime victories against Belarus and Denmark along the way were really nothing short of sensational. 

With only two regulation losses against the teams finishing 1st and 2nd, the Norwegians can head home for the holidays feeling good about what they were able to accomplish, even if their seven points were only good for 4th place at the tournament.

Below expectations

This tournament must be seen as a disappointment for Belarus, which not only hosted the tournament, but also played in front of crowds of over 6,000 spectators, with that number exceeding 7,000 on the tourney’s final day.

It was also disappointing after the team had been the favourite in Fussen, Germany, last year at this time and couldn’t live up to expectations there. A good handful of this year’s players had brought that experience along with them.

After all, the team entered the tournament with a roster consisting of 8 players currently playing Canadian juniors, 3 playing for Dynamo Minsk’s KHL squad, and another 3 playing pro hockey elsewhere in Belarus. On top of that, centre Alexei Protas and defenceman Vladislav Kolyachonok already have NHL contracts with Washington and Florida, respectively. It’s hard to imagine this team having come out on the short end of this many close games.

Nonetheless, it finished 3rd overall. After a tight 4-3 victory over Austria in Game 1, where the team spent the last two periods overturning a 3-2 deficit, the team suffered through two straight 3-2 overtime losses to Latvia and Norway. The team’s 4-1 win against the offensively toothless Slovenes wasn’t anything to write home about and the final contest against the recently relegated Denmark sadly had no relevance whatsoever, as the tournament’s victor had long-since been decided. They nonetheless shot the frustration out of their souls with a 7-2 victory. And Ilya Solovyov earned the award as best defenceman.

Speaking of Denmark, the little engine that somehow always could surprise in recent World Juniors was even more disappointing. Missing the types of exciting players who had played starring roles in recent years, the team had little to say in an initial 3-0 loss to Latvia and then underwhelmed in defeating Slovenia 2-1 in overtime. A 4-2 loss to Austria followed by a 1-0 shootout loss to eternal rival Norway had put the nail in the coffin before the final day’s dismantling by Belarus. 

The team’s star coming in was already drafted giant Mads Sogaard, who tends goal for Medicine Hat of the WHL. Alas, he wasn’t enough to alter Denmark’s fate, despite several decent outings. Against Belarus, he allowed four goals against in the first period before being replaced to kick off the second.

On the way back down

It was a tough tournament for Slovenia, which lost decisively 6-2 to Norway in the very first game. It answered with a very impressive 2-1 overtime loss to Denmark, leading viewers to believe that the team could still have a say in this tournament. Despite another strong performance for 55 minutes against Austria in the final game, the Slovenes never recovered the 9-1 shellacking at the hands of Latvia in Game 3 of the tournament, which was then followed by a 4-1 loss to Belarus shortly thereafter.

Scoring only six goals in five games certainly didn’t help the cause and the program will need to regroup its program one rung down in alignment.

Recipe for success

It wasn’t too long ago that Austria hosted this tournament and looked pretty impressive before bowing out to a Rodrigo Abols-led Latvian side that managed to gain promotion. And the program learned from – and has reacted to – that experience.

“There are reasons for our success this year though,” states Bader. “We’ve intensified things throughout our program over the course of the past four years, in a number of ways. Our players have been facing nations like Norway, Denmark, Latvia, and Belarus since the U16 level. They’ve come to learn how to beat these teams. In addition, a number of our players have been playing in foreign countries, having profited from the style of training and level of competition there.”

The achievement is one that will be making waves in the Austrian sports scene. The Austrian association’s President Gernot Mittendorf was naturally ecstatic about what had taken place. “I must say congratulations to the entire team, both the players and the staff. This is a gigantic achievement for the sport of ice hockey in Austria. I am so very happy for our very young coaching staff, which is now enjoying this accomplishment in what is only its second year on the job. Furthermore, this is a success for everyone who is involved in Austria’s youth programs, as they too have ultimately helped make this a reality. For this, we are very thankful.”

The big question heading into next year’s World Juniors, one that many teams moving up have to face, is maintaining the level of play provided by the players who will have aged out of next year’s event, many of whom were very much responsible for gaining promotion in the first place.

“About half of this year’s team will be eligible to play in the World Junior Championship next season. Nonetheless, a very good crop of players will be moving out of this age bracket and it will be up to a new wave of players to step up to the plate. The next generation is going through the same steps this generation has, but doesn’t currently look to be as good as the group heading out. Still, there’s plenty of time and we’ll be focussed on having a competitive World Juniors team next winter, one that will be intent on remaining in the world’s top tier. This aspect is definitely part of the challenge,” says Bader.

Like was the case this past week, that’s certainly a challenge the Austrian program is more than ready to take on!

Croatia’s revenge

The Croatian players celebrate the game-winning goal against Serbia with 2:25 left in the game

By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

Croatia beat Serbia 2-1 on home ice in Sisak thanks to a late goal from Luka Mikulic. With the victory the Croats won the 2019 Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 2 Group M and advance to the third round.

“The goal was but a moment in the game. It’s a nice feeling. It was a tough game but we were better,” said Mikulic, who scored three goals in the tournament.

It was a game full of scoring chances and power plays in which Croatia outshot the Serbs 31-29. Vilim Rosandic was another key player for Croatia with 28 saves and a tournament-leading 95.35% save percentage.

Croatia vs. Serbia was the anticipated deciding game for the tournament win. The two neighbouring countries faced little resistance against Bulgaria and Turkey in their first two games and knew which game mattered the most for the tournament win.

Tournament win, neighbours, mixed history, and a lot of known faces since the best Croatian and Serbian clubs play in the same league. There was certainly no extra motivation needed for the players. Croatia historically had the upper hand in these clashes and is ranked one place better in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking, however, Serbia won its only official men’s national team game against Croatia just last April when it hosted the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A on home ice in Belgrade.

The Serbs earned the tournament win and promotion back then. The Croats perfectly avenged that loss by winning on home ice and advancing in the Olympic Qualification campaign.

Serbian repeat or Croatian revenge – both teams were looking to deliver the answer early on and had their scoring chances. It was the Croats who delivered first and last.

Tadija Miric brought the puck into the Serbian zone, dropped it to Ivo Kaleb who sent it towards the net from a sharp angle. There Miric was on the spot to open the scoring at 6:09 of the opening frame.

The Serbs were not without scoring opportunities either and opportunities knocked in the 10th minute when both Miric and Fran Srketic were in the penalty box. However, the Croats were well organized and killed that penalty without dangerous moments.

Otherwise the Croatian hosts were mostly in charge of the first period and gave Serbian goalie Arsenije Rankovic hard work.

The Serbs increased their forechecking in the second period and had two power plays but the Croats continued to defend well. Eventually their work and patience paid off with 48 seconds left in the period. In a face-off at lightning speed by Serbia’s first line, Srdijan Subotic won the puck battle in the neutral zone, passed to his right winger Mirko Dumic at the blue line who fed a breaking away Nemanja Vucurevic, who tied the game at one to the joy of the small contingent of Serbian supporters among the 989 fans at the arena in Sisak.

Serbia started with an advantage in the third frame. After Stjepan Cizmadija was sent to the sin bin for a late hit, he was soon joined by a teammate due to a penalty for too many players on the ice. The Serbs took their time-out for the 56 seconds of 5-on-3, however, the Croats also killed that penalty. After a tripping call against Mikulic, Mirko Dumic had the next opportunity for Serbia with a penalty shot but his attempt went wide.

The Croats were the next to have a two-man advantage in the eighth minute but also the Serbs did a good job killing penalties. With five minutes left in regulation time the Croats again had the chance to play more than one-and-a-half minute 5-on-3 but also these penalties remain unused.

The teams defended their nets heroicly when they were a man short, it was the more simple situations with open space that created goals. With 2:25 left Croatia’s Mikulic and Dominic Rene Canic attacked along the right board. Mikulic passed Canic, got the puck back close to the crease and slid the puck past Rankovic.

Like the four previous times, Croatia will play in the second-last round of the Olympic Qualification also for Beijing 2022.

Their venue will be known once the other groups are over and will depend on the three qualifiers for the next round and the position in the 2019 IIHF Men’s World Ranking. Possible options are traveling next door to Jesenice, Slovenia, in February or the group in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. More will be announced later on IIHF.com

Romania progress in Olympic Qualification

Romania celebrates after steamrolling past Iceland 10-1 at Olympic Qualification Group K on home ice in Brasov to move into the next round in Nottingham, Great Britain

By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com

A trip to Great Britain awaits Romania after blowing away their opponents during the 2019 Men’s Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 2 Group K playing on home ice in Brasov.

They sealed their progress to the next round after crushing Iceland 10-1 in the showdown for top-spot in the group K. With its head coach and half of the roster from Corona Brasov, the Romanian national team celebrated their victory in front of 1,200 at Olympic Ice Hall in Brasov on Sunday night. With three straight wins, 43 goals scored and only three conceded, progress was never in doubt.

Romania will next compete at the 2019 Men’s Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 3 Group J in Nottingham, Great Britain. Played between 6-9 February 2020, they will take on hosts Great Britain, Hungary and Estonia.

“We are very excited. We are always really nice to play against much better teams than yourself. I am really looking forward to it because I am pretty sure it will be a big arena and a lot of fans, British fans are also really loud, so it will be a really nice experience. It´s also a really good way to prepare for the World Championships,” said Romania´s captain Roberto Gliga.

Eight different scorers with four goals scored in power play sealed a convincing victory against Iceland in Group K. Tournament top-scorer Balazs Peter tallied 2+3. Zsombor Molnar had two goals and an assist, while blueliner Attila Goga and forward Csanad Fodor both got a goal and two assists each.

During the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Romania´s Galati, Iceland had blanked Romania in a shock 2-0 victory. Kristjan Kristinsson was one of Iceland´s scorers during that memorable win. Two and half years later, he once again faced Romania who since moved up to another level and is now in Division IA while Iceland play in Division IIB

“It was hard, really hard tonight. They are used to play a lot of games. We in Iceland play a 16-game league, so the stamina is different. Romania was really strong on the puck. They were just really good,” said Kristinsson.

Despite having scoring 33 goals against Israel and Kyrgyzstan during Olympic Qualification in Brasov, the Romanian team had been slow in getting into gear during their two previous games. Against Iceland, they had to wait until 11:11 before they got their opener. Former forward turned defenceman, Pavlo Borysenko unleashed a wrister from the blueline right at Iceland´s bench which found its way past a screened Dennis Hedstrom in the Iceland net.

Iceland´s Bjarki Johannesson was serving a two-minute minor when less than four minutes left of the frame Anton Butochnov poached in front of the net from a Fodor feed. Peter tapped home 3-0 and soon after scored his second of the evening 23 seconds before the buzzer for the first intermission. Gliga cheekily tapped the puck forward when winning the draw and hit a pass across the crease to Peter for slot home Romania´s fourth unanswered strike.

Iceland who during yesterday´s day off had paid a visit to Dracula´s castle in nearby Bran, showed little bite during the middle frame as Romania steamed ahead.

Molnar added Romania´s fifth at 22:55 before Romania converted on three straight powerplay goals. At 29:04 Goga lifted in 6-0 from the slot after Hedstrom had made the initial save. Romania´s seventh came just over two minutes later. Goalie Patrik Polc got an assist, as he picked out Peter waiting on the offensive blueline who fed the puck to Molnar who converted. Yevhen Yemelianenko then boomed home a one-timer from the top slot for number eight at 37:33.

Heading into the third period, Romania continued to win their battles and kept pressing Iceland in their own zone. Eduard Casaneanu and Balazs Gajdo both had attempts in the slot before Fodor fired home 9-0 at 45:53. Fodor then weighed up his options behind Hedstrom´s net, picked out an onrushing Vitali Kirichenko who hit home via the post for double digits at 51:16.

Iceland netted a late consolation when Kristinsson won a battle along the boards with Yemelianenko as Egill Birgisson ruined Polc´s shutout bid with 2:45 left of the game.

With an intensive league schedule ahead, Romania now keep fingers crossed that their current crop of players will stay injury-free ahead of the next round of Olympic Qualifiers. In Nottingham they also hope to be boosted by Daniel Tranca who missed the Iceland game due to illness as well as Tamas Reszegh and Szilard Rokaly, a duo who played a key role when Romania won gold at the 2019 World Championship Division IB.

For Iceland, their young team will leave Romania richer in experience as a big season continues for Icelandic hockey with both the 2020 Men´s World Championship Division IIB and the 2020 Women´s World Championship Division IIB being hosted in Iceland later on this season.

First triumph for South African women

The South African team celebrates first place in the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division III and returns to Division II play first time since 2013

By Ivan Tchechankov – IIHF.com

South Africa won the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division III in a dramatic fashion. Before the last day of play in the Winter Palace in Sofia there was a possibility for a four-way tie for first place, but the first game on Tuesday destroyed that intriguing option.

South Africa defeated Lithuania 4-2 and finished the tournament with 12 points. In the first period 16-year-old Lithuanian star Klara Miuller scored her event-leading ninth goal and tied the game at 1-1. Tarryn Keuler and Inge Marais tallied a pair in seven minutes during the second for South Africa’s 3-1 lead, but just 28 seconds before the intermission Nomeda Burneikaite stroke on a power play for the Baltic country.

Dalene Rhode had her second goal of the game in the start of the third and her team was all over the Lithuanians with four consecutive power plays and 15-2 shots advantage in the period (43-9 in the game), but the score remained 4-2.

And then the long and tense waiting began. In the last game of the tournament Romania (at that moment with 9 points) needed a regulation-time victory against Belgium (6 points) to take first place and get back to Division II Group B. The host team Bulgaria already won convincingly its last outing 5-0 over the team from the Chinese island of Hong Kong and relied on the same development to get the bronze medals with 8 points. But Belgium was playing for silver and had a great support from the South African team on the stands.

Romania had two power plays in a row and five seconds after the second one expired, Ana Voicu opened the scoring in the 14th minute. In the end of the period Femke Bosmans had the equalizer. The second period was decisive with three more goals for Belgium – two in a row by Lotte de Guchtenaere and one by Valentine Maka. Romania’s goaltender Andrea Kurko was replaced by Nadina Niciu after allowing four goals on 10 shots, but it was too late for a comeback. In the third Romania had a 14-5 shot-on-goal advantage, but there was just one goal – 49 second before the end, again scored by Voicu – 2-4. So South Africa won the division ahead of Belgium and Romania.

“We always knew that it would be a tough game for Romania because Belgium looked better as the days were going on. We are grateful for what was happening,” said Andre Marais, the smiling head coach of South Africa. His team started the tournament on the wrong side – an 11-4 loss to Romania, but then was able to turn the things around with four consecutive wins: Belgium 4-3, Hong Kong 2-1, Bulgaria 2-1, Lithuania 4-2.

“The first game was tough for us because as a team we really didn’t know what to expect. We had many games against men’s teams, but not so much against women’s teams. We haven’t had a lot of preparation for games against organized opposition. So after this bad start we had few things to address. The ladies and our team really dedicated themselves to defence. South Africa won the rugby World Cup this year and we used that as an analogy, because our defence was so good there, and I said to the girls that this has to be the model to use. And that has been our secret – stepping hard and taking the team deep into the third period, where we can snatch it,” explained 38-year-old Marais, whо played in 18 men’s World Championship tournaments (12 in a row; 2008-2019) and has been head coach of different South African teams on the world stage since 2009.

“We stayed the same all the way through and our commitment to the team was to play three lines. I don’t believe in playing 10 players, I believe in using the whole bench and I’m trying to use that to get momentum later in the game. Our goalkeeper Shaylene Swanepoel played really well, especially in the moments when we needed her. I don’t think her saves percentage shows how well she played in the minutes where we really, really needed her,” continued Marais.

Dalene Rhode scored two goals in South Africa’s deciding game against Lithuania

South Africa didn’t score a power play goal at all despite 19 chances to do so. The team was next to last in the tournament in penalty killing (72.7%) and save percentage (81.6%), on 4th place for scoring efficiency (13.5%). But they were on the top of the most important final ranking for points and earned the promotion to the Division II Group B for the 2020/2021 season.

“It’s the moments for me. The ladies believed and stuck to the game plan – to be the hardest team that they can be to play against and the chances will come to us. We don’t need always 30 shots in a game, but if we can keep the team tight and if we can tire the opposition, we can play hard hockey and then often things go your way, “said Marais, who has been the head coach of the women’s national team for a sixth season.

Four years ago it was almost the other way around. The tournament was also in Sofia and South Africa won its first game against Romania 3-2 in OT, then they defeated Bulgaria 7-3 and were closing to their first promotion, but lost 2-3 to Hong Kong in the final day. Then the Asian team had to wait the last game, hoping that Bulgaria will beat Romania. It didn’t happen – the host lost 3-8 and Romania finished in first place, Hong Kong was second, South Africa – third, Bulgaria – fourth. In the last five years Bulgaria had only one win in 18 games played on the world stage. This time the team won three of five games, but finished on fourth place once again. The star player was Veronika Metanova (7 goals), who was at Concordia University from 2013 to 2017, but the veteran players Tina Lisichkova (3+4) and Stefani Stoyanova (5 assists) had a huge impact as well.

“Bulgaria played better hockey than the last years and the team showed discipline, which was lacking before. Everyone is realizing how important is to raise your level, just to play in these championships, because teams are always coming up from bottom. Last year was Ukraine, couple a years ago was Croatia, in 2015 – Romania,” Marais described the level of the Division III.

“For us it was more that we have to improve our skills, we adopted a specific training program and we have a Swedish company that is involved with us, helping us using the off ice time and the good weather condition that we have to train outside. The ladies have never been as fit and in condition as they are now, which was shown. We dedicated ourselves to skills development, little bit less tactics, so to say lets get skill and that should help us through. We had training camps once a month from August to November and we came earlier in Sofia to get used to the ice surface, to get them in environment earlier and spend more time as a team and that’s also a big thing about this group – they are real team, they love each other, they do a lot together and having fun. It’s that commitment to each other that helps them in the times when the games are getting tough.”

This was South Africa’s 13th showing at Women’s World Championships. In the first seven years (2003-13) there were a total of 3 wins. Andre Marais took over the head coaching job in 2014 and since then the team had five third-place finishes in a row and had two wins every year except the first under him. This time South Africa was triumphant in Sofia and now the country has a top finish in each IIHF category in which it has participated.

Newcomer Lithuania, with Klara Miuller as scoring leader and best forward of the tournament and Emilie Simonsen winning the top goaltender award, moved down to fifth place on the last day with two wins from five games. South Africa’s Donne van Doesburgh was named best defender. Hong Kong, China remained winless and finished last.

Introducing Sweden

Sweden’s Philip Broberg #25 celebrates with Emil Bemstrom #10 at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.

By Organizing Committee – IIHF.com

Their program is among the most sophisticated in the world, regularly finishing among the top teams at the World Championships and sending players to the NHL in record numbers every year. For those reasons, the Swedes will be among the medal favourites in Trinec and Ostrava. At last year’s tournament in Canada, however, they were upset by Switzerland in the quarter-finals, which continued an unwelcome trend. The Swedes haven’t lost a group-stage game in more than a decade but have only won one title in that time and only one medal – a silver – in the last five years.

Ambassador’s take: Martin Hostak

“Sweden’s youth development system is different than the Czech Republic only because it has a much larger base of youth players,” explains Martin Hostak, comparing two programs that he is quite familiar with.

The former right winger, and current general manager of Czech Extraliga club Berani Zlin, knows Swedish hockey well after playing nine seasons for MODO Ornskoldsvik, Sodertalje SK and Lulea HF. That’s one of the reasons he was asked by the Organizing Committee of this World Junior Championship to take on the role of team ambassador. In this role, the long-time Czech television hockey analyst has the task of attracting fans to Trinec and Ostrava from Sweden, where the name Hostak still resonates.

Sweden has gained a reputation as a top country for developing hockey players despite a relatively small population. That’s because, says Hostak, “they just let the boys play there and then choose the best ones for the academies, where the hockey training really starts.” As for the atmosphere in Swedish dressing rooms, Hostak adds: “It’s highly competitive and the guys really work on themselves and want to get better and better.”

Historical World Junior results

A traditional hockey country, Sweden has participated in all 43 World Junior Championships so far, and its 18 medals is the fifth-highest total of any nation. After taking bronze at an unofficial championship in 1975, the Swedes won their first official medal 1978. Mats Naslund, a member of the Triple Gold Club and a Montreal Canadiens legend of the 1980s, starred for the silver-winning team in his future home city.

The was followed by two more bronzes in the next two years and then a gold medal for Sweden at the 1981 tournament in West Germany. The team’s biggest star in those years was Patrik Sundstrom, who went on to several fine seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils.

For a long time, that was the only title for the Swedes at the World Juniors. They won a silver and a bronze in the late 1980s, followed by a string of five medals in a row between 1992 and 1996, when they earned four silvers and one bronze. Among those teams were future stars Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Fredrik Modin and Mattias Ohlund.

After losing to Canada at the 1996 final in Boston, the Swedes would have to wait 12 more years to win another medal. At the 2008 tournament held in Liberec and Pardubice, the team coached by Par Marts that included Victor Hedman, Magnus Paajarvi and Patrik Berglund again took silver. Then in 2012 they won their second title after an overtime win over Russia, with Rickard Rakell, John Klingberg and Filip Forbsberg under coach Roger Ronnberg, who formed the core of the senior men’s team that won the 2017 and 2018 World Championships.

Last season

The Swedes continued their group-stage dominance in Victoria, Canada, winning all four games against Finland, Slovakia, the USA and Kazakhstan to top the group. Their winning streak was threatened in their third game when the Americans erased a 4-0 deficit in the last 11 minutes of the third period, but Adam Boqvist scored in overtime. However, success in the group stage once again failed to translate into a title as the Swedes were defeated in the quarter-finals by Switzerland 2-0, despite being heavy pre-game favourites. It was the first time since 2006 that Sweden failed to reach the semi-finals.

Team stars

Who among the Swedes could shine? “Philip Broberg and Adam Boqvist were at last year’s tournament. It is definitely worth watching them; they have the potential to become stars on the world stage in the future,” says Hostak.

Philip Broberg is among the modern style of defencemen who do not like to just take care of their own defensive zone. On the contrary, he is an extremely fast, mobile player who reads the play well and can keep his team stable. That was one of the reasons he was highly rated entering last summer’s NHL Entry Draft, where the Edmonton Oilers chose him ninth overall. However, the Orebro HK product, who also played for AIK Stockholm in the past, has not yet gone overseas. This year, he is gaining valuable experience in the SHL with Skelleftea AIK. The 18-year-old won gold at the U18 World Championship this past spring, and also played four games at the last year’s World Junior Championship. This year in Trinec, he should be called upon to play a more prominent role on the team.

Adam Boqvist is a year older than Broberg, with whom he shares a similar playing style. He is definitely not a stay-at-home defenceman. Rather, Boqvist is extremely mobile and dynamic, and hardly ever loses one-on-one battles in the neutral zone. An even bigger offensive contributor than Boberg, the 19-year-old Hedemora IK product went through the Brynas Gavle system and was picked eighth overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018. After a fantastic 2018/19 season with the OHL’s London Knights, he started this season playing professionally with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. At the end of October, he was called up to Chicago for the first time.

It will be interesting to see some members of the reigning U18 World Champions, who certainly have a chance to appear at this U20 championship. Particularly interesting is the trio of centre Karl Henriksson (Sodertalje SK), highly-rated 2020 Draft prospect Lucas Raymond (Frolunda Gothenburg) and pure goal-scorer Alexander Holtz (Djurgarden Stockholm).

Coach

The head coach of the Swedish national junior team is a position that is often referred to as the prelude to joining the men’s national team, and 41-year-old Tomas Monten is off to a good start. He started coaching at age 23 in Farjestad Karlstad’s system and then moved on to Mora IK, Djurgarden, Timra and Linkoping at the club level. This will be his fourth year at the helm of the Swedish team at the World Juniors, with a silver medal from Buffalo two years ago in his trophy case so far.

Preparing for the championship

The players will reconvene on 16 December for the start of the pre-tournament camp, where they will be joined by those from North America. Sweden will then play a pair of pre-tournament games in the Czech Republic – on 20 December in Frydek-Místek against the Czechs and against the USA two days later in nearby Cesky Tesin.

Preliminary-Round Games (times CET)

26 December 2019: Sweden – Finland 19:00
28 December 2019: Switzerland – Sweden 19:00
30 December 2019: Kazakhstan – Sweden 15:00
31 December 2019: Slovakia – Sweden 19:00

Thailand triumphs in SEA Games

The Thai players celebrate a goal against Singapore at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Thailand produced a flawless week of hockey as it powered to gold in the Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines. The Thais won all six of their games with an aggregate score of 75-3, sweeping all before them in this five-team tournament.

After cruising through the group stage, Thailand did not allow a goal in the playoffs, hammering Malaysia 15-0 before defeating surprise package Singapore 8-0 in the gold medal game. The Philippines, defending champion in this tournament, claimed bronze with a 17-1 success against Malaysia on Sunday afternoon at Mall of Asia rink in Pasay in the Manila region. The fifth team in the competition, Indonesia, failed to advance from the group after losing all four of its games. Despite that, goalie Sangga Putra had the second best save ratio in the competition after stopping 146 shots in the four games he started.

Mission: accomplished

Last time at the SEA Games, Thailand lost out in the final against a Philippines team taking its first steps on the international stage after becoming an IIHF affiliate in 2016. This time around, revenge was in the air. 

“We worked really hard since the last SEA Games to turn that loss into a win,” said defenceman Ken Kindborn, the leading scoring in this year’s tournament. “So right now I’m very proud and very happy, but also really humble.”

In 2019, teamwork made all the difference. “We really stuck to what we have to do as a team,” Kindborn added. “Everyone knows their role and everyone bought into it 100%. We had the right chemistry in everything, from how we eat, what we do off the ice, on the ice, how we warm up, even how we spend our time off.

“Everything has been amazing for the four months that we’ve been preparing for this.”

Gold medal dominance

The gold medal game went according to the form book. Thailand was dominant from the start and opened the scoring on five minutes through Papan Thannakroekkiat. But Singapore stood up well in the face of the onslaught and even withstood a 5-on-3 power play for the Thais midway through the frame. It wasn’t until the last minute of the period that the resistance faded as goals from Kindborn and Tewin Chartsuwan opened a 3-0 lead.

After that the contest was effectively over. Thailand kept the scoreboard ticking over regularly as Singapore found it hard to generate much offence. The shot count read 55-6 after 60 minutes of often one-sided play. Fittingly, Kindborn scored the eighth and final goal, taking him to 5 (2+3) points for the game and cementing his position as the tournament’s leading scorer with 28 (10+18). Swedish-born and with three seasons of experience in division two with Ulricehamns IF, the 24-year-old is a big player on the team. His play for Thailand’s second goal in the final highlighted his contribution. Collecting the puck at the point, he shaped to shoot before spotting the opportunity to advance into a more dangerous position. With the Singapore defence unsure what to expect, Kingborn cruised into position between the hashmarks before wiring a wrister into the net.

However, this is not a team built solely on players who learned their hockey abroad. Local talents like Thannakroekkiat, 24, and 18-year-old forward Phanaruj Suwachirat also had a big impact at this tournament. The former topped the scoring from the blue line with 10 (6+4) points, the latter had 14 (8+6).

This was Thailand’s second tournament of the season. Last month the kingdom came close to progressing through the opening phase of Olympic Qualifying but lost out to Chinese Taipei in the last 70 seconds of the decisive group game in Hainan, China. And, under the guidance of Finnish head coach Juhani Ijas, also noted for his work in developing the national program in the UAE before moving to Thailand in 2016, the team will contest its second world championship campaign later in the season. After a Division III qualifying campaign last term, Thailand goes to South Africa in April for the Division IIIB tournament with Kingborn hoping for more progress.

“Our goal is to move up from that stage,” he added. “We want to advance Thai hockey now. We’re on the right path, we just need to make those next steps and that’s what we’re going for. 

“It’s going to be really tough but that’s a good challenge for us. We’ve put in all this work and now it’s going to be tested over there.”

Singapore’s Cinderella run

Despite coming up short in the final, this was a great tournament for Singapore. Before the event, most expected the host nation and Thailand to dominate the conversation about the gold medal, but Singapore had other ideas. In the group phase, it pushed the Philippines all the way, eventually losing 3-5 to two goals in the last minute of a gripping encounter. 

Then, in Saturday’s semi-final, Singapore got its revenge in similarly dramatic fashion. The host nation blew a 2-0 lead and when Christopher Wong put Singapore 3-2 up in the 49th minute, the shock was very much on. EJ Sebug thought he had saved the game for the defending champion when he made it 3-3 with 60 seconds left in regulation, but this time the last-gasp winner came at the other end. James Kodrowski scored for Singapore with 21 seconds on the clock to seal the country’s first ever victory over the Philippines and guarantee the team a medal. “Nobody was expecting us to win and we knew that we had nothing to lose,” defenceman Ang Yu Jin told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Singapore’s roster is a mixture of local youth and expatriate experience. Kodrowski, who potted that semi-final winner, is a 40-year-old born in the USA. He played in the NCAA at the turn of the century and, since moving to Asia, has become a key figure on the national team. He scored heavily at last season’s Challenge Cup of Asia and was his country’s leading scorer here. Head coach Robert Martini, 31, also brings NCAA experience after captaining the University of Niagara’s team in 2011/12. The Ontario native has been coaching in Singapore since 2014/15. Among the locals, veteran defenceman Chew Wee, 40, has been on the national team since 2012/13 and plays a key role in nurturing the next generation of Singaporean talent.

And there is genuine potential among the country’s youngsters. Christopher Wong is still only 17 but has played in two CCOA events and got his first international goal here in Pasay. Bryan Lee, aged 16, was the leading scorer at last season’s CCOA and contributed 3+1 this time around. And newcomer Ethan Redden, 18, was born in Singapore but has North American experience with Nicholls School in the CISAA. His debut tournament yielded 8 (6+2) points.

Host nation takes bronze

The Philippines came into the tournament as defending champion and, with home ice advantage, was expected to be a strong contender again. However, it found life tougher than expected in the group phase, struggling to beat Singapore before losing 1-10 to Thailand and taking second place in the five-team round robin. Then came that semi-final surprise from Singapore, sending the Eagles to the bronze medal game against Malaysia. The team’s leading player, Swiss-born Steven Fuglister, admitted after the game that the Filipinos needed to be more clinical with their chances, and they certainly learned that lesson ahead of the medal game. Fuglister scored four, matched by Kenneth Stern, as Sunday’s bronze medal game ended in a 17-1 victory over Malaysia.

Fuglister, 33, is eligible to play thanks to his Filipino mother. Born in Kloten, Switzerland, he and his brother Jeffrey learned their hockey with their hometown team. Jeffrey went on to play for Switzerland at the World Juniors in 2010, while Steven spent several seasons in the top Swiss amateur league with Bulach and Winterthur before taking up a job offer in the Philippines and resuming his hockey career with the Manila Griffins and later the national team. He finished the tournament with 21 (12+9) points. Carl Montano was the leading local-born player, second in the team’s scoring with 14 (3+11). The roster also featured three teenage prospects, with 19-year-old Aro Regencia already getting game time on the first line alongside Fuglister.

Plaudits for the host

bronze medal for the Philippines in the hockey tournament helped the country to top the overall medal-table in this Olympic-style multi-sport event. And success in competition was matched by a positive response to the organization of the Games.

Kindborn summed up the efforts of the host nation: “It’s been a great tournament and the hosting has been excellent. It all worked perfectly, the hotel, the transportation. The Philippines did a really good job as host.”

The Comeback Kid: How Sam Bengzon found his way back to the hockey rink

Sam Bengzon of the Philippine men’s ice hockey team

By Philstar.com

All the ice around him was not enough to stop hockey forward Samuel James Bengzon from heating up the SM Mall of Asia skating rink, in what would be one of the best moments of his 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games run.

With less than six minutes left in the game and a Singapore goal tying it up at 2-2 just a minute ago, he found the barely open ice and went for the kill, hitting his first international competition goal to a wild response from the crowd.

“When I scored that goal, I went straight to where my family was,” he said, recounting how he skated to the glass barricade to share his triumph with his loved ones and fans.

From his composure at that moment, one could not tell that the 30-year-old was not even sure he would be in this arena this year. Go further back to two years ago, and he was not even a hockey player. 

A young start

Bengzon first found his spot on the ice when he was 10. At the time, he and his cousins were more interested in figure skating. This was until an old coach approached him and asked if he wanted to try something else.

“I already saw Mighty Ducks and I was a big fan of the movie,” he said of the 1992 Disney hockey film. “Then a few months after, I tried hockey, fell in love with it, and kept playing.”

His Disney fantasy soon became a reality when Bengzon started competing in hockey meets until high school, also becoming a varsity baseball player in the process. But just before college, he felt he wanted to have a normal balance of schoolwork and social life, which led him to leave behind his childhood sport.

Instead of picking up his club for training nights like most of his contemporaries, Bengzon spent a decade away from the puck, building a family of his own and getting into the poultry and CrossFit training businesses. Incidentally, being a fitness coach kept him ready to go back into the rink anytime, as it honed his discipline and maintained his athletic form.

“In Crossfit, everything is about trying to learn. It teaches you discipline and knowing yourself,” he said. “So I think it really helps with the hockey aspect; I know myself and I know what I need to work on.”

The comeback

What ultimately got him back in the fray was his being a dad. Last year, he and his wife were deciding which sport their four-year-old son should play. They settled on ice hockey. 

Bengzon eventually realized that the best way to get their child interested in the game was for him to have a role model to look up to. Wanting to play again either way and with the support of his wife and kid, he took a jersey and went back to the rink.

“Most of the time, [my son] would beg to watch us practice. He loves skating, he loves the ice,” he said. “My wife, she knows not to wake me up after a night of hockey, so she brings the kids out of the room just so I don’t wake up.”

It was never going to be easy coming back from a ten-year hiatus, but Bengzon caught up with invaluable help from his teammates, who were kind enough to spend extra sessions outside of their weekly routine training him on the ice. He regained his form just in time for this year’s IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, helping his team lead group A of the preliminary round and finish silver against the once 45th-ranked team in the world, Mongolia.

“It’s really nice to have Sam as part of our team, because ever since I was really young, he’s actually the one I look up to in the ice. The guy’s my idol,” said defenseman LR Lancero. Bengzon, during his first hockey run, was there when Lancero took his first step on the rink at three years old. 

He added: “He’s a guy that I trust and depend on, not just him but all of my teammates, because it’s really good to have someone behind your back to support you.” 

Now in the thick of his first SEA Games stint and with two international goals in winning games, Bengzon’s focus is to keep at it as his team faces powerhouse Thailand — which has not allowed a single goal from opposing teams.

What gives them confidence, he said, is a home court advantage like nothing any of them had seen.

“Thank you for all your support so far, the Facebook messages, the reposts. After the first win, I spent an hour before going to sleep just thanking everyone,” Bengzon said. “It really helped. Every small message like, ‘good job,’ we remember it.”

Introducing Switzerland

Switzerland’s Yannick Bruschweiler #10 celebrates with Nico Gross #16 in the game for bronze at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.

By Organizing CommitteeIIHF.com
The Swiss haven’t been among the favourites at the World Junior Championship recently. In fact, as recently as 10 years ago, they played in Division I. However, the team is coming off a successful tournament last season, reaching the semi-finals for just the fourth time ever after upsetting Sweden in the quarters. They eventually finished fourth after losing the bronze medal game to Russia.

Historic World Junior Championship results

Before the turn of the millennium, Switzerland was an “elevator team” that regularly moved up and down between the top two divisions of the World Junior Championships. However, since the expansion of the top division to 10 teams for the 1996 tournament, the Swiss have only been relegated once – that happened in 2008, and they were re-promoted the following year.

Switzerland’s only medal at the World Juniors came in 1998 in Finland, when the team built around later Colorado Avalanche netminder David Aebischer – who was later named the tournament’s Best Goalkeeper – beat the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game. Otherwise, the Swiss have finished fourth on three occasions, including 2002 in Pardubice and Hradec Kralove.

Last year

Switzerland’s latest fourth-place finish came last year. Led by forward Philipp Kurashev – who led the tournament with six goals – the team only managed to win one game in the group stage and finished fourth, but in the quarter-finals upset the favoured Swedes 2-0 on goals by Yannick Bruschweiler and Gianluca Burger and a shutout by Luca Hollenstein.

In the semi-finals, however, the Swiss had a poor start and ended up losing 6-1 to the eventual champion from Finland. In the game for third place, the Swiss stayed close for two periods, but Russia eventually pulled away and won 5-2.

Team stars

Last year’s Swiss lineup included several 2000-born players, so the Swiss will have one of the more experienced teams at this year’s tournament. The player who will receive the most attention is 19-year-old defenceman Janis Jerome Moser, who recorded two points in seven games last year. Moser also played three games for Switzerland at the senior World Championship in Slovakia before leaving due to an injury.

The Swiss defence will be further strengthened by New York Rangers draft pick Nico Gross, who was an alternate captain at last year’s tournament despite his age, and is expected to be the team’s captain this year.

Forward Valentin Nussbaumer had three points in last year’s tournament, and could lead the team in scoring this year. The Arizona Coyotes draft pick currently plays for the Shawinigan Cataractes in the QMJHL, with 19 points in 25 games so far.

The Swiss should be solid between the pipes with returning goalies Luca Hollenstein and Akira Schmid. Hollenstein currently plays for EV Zug in the country’s National League, while Schmid plays for the Omaha Lancers in the USHL. The two split duties last year in Canada, with Hollenstein getting the start in all three final-round games.

Coach

Before the tournament in Ostrava and Trinec, there were many changes to the coaching staff of the Swiss national junior team. After three years at the helm, Canadian-born Christian Wohlwend has chosen to concentrate on his duties with HC Davos. His replacement is Thierry Paterlini, an experienced youth coach who worked for the U18 team for five years, reaching the quarter-finals twice. He was an assistant coach under Wohlwend at last year’s World Juniors.

Preparing for the tournament

After a summer camp in Vierumaki, Finland, the Swiss team played in a Four Nations tournament in Piestany, Slovakia in November, where it beat Norway and Slovakia and lost to Germany. The team reconvenes under Paterlini on 10 December, and seven days later will move to Kravare, Czech Republic, where they will train until the beginning of the World Junior Championship. They will also play a pre-tournament game against Canada in Brno on 19 December.

Team schedule

26 December 2019: Switzerland – Kazakhstan (15:00)
28 December 2019: Switzerland – Sweden (19:00)
30 December 2019: Slovakia – Switzerland (19:00)
31 December 2019: Finland – Switzerland (19:00)

Introducing Russia

Grigori Denisenko will be one of the star players on the Russian team at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.

By Organizing Committee – IIHF.com

Russia’s national junior team has entered virtually every IIHF World Junior Championship as one of the medal favourites. Combined with their totals from the Soviet Union, their total of 36 medals is more than any other nation, and their 13 gold medals is second only to Canada. Amazingly, they have never gone two seasons in a row without a medal, and the bronze claimed last year in Vancouver assures that streak will continue. However, the Russians enter year’s tournament having not struck gold in eight straight tournaments – their longest ever drought. Can they return to the top of the podium this year?

Ambassador’s take: Zbynek Irgl

Three years with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and one year with Atlant Mytishi. In those four years contained many highlights in the ongoing career of the 38-year-old Irgl. Russia isn’t only a place for him to play hockey but it’s now part of his family, as his second wife Irina Pavlina comes from there. As for the World Juniors, Irgl was part of the Czech team that won the gold medal in 2000. For those reasons, he was the Organizing Committee’s obvious choice to be ambassador of the Russian team.

“The Russians will undoubtedly bring a great team and be a favourite for a medal,” Irgl says. The product of the Vitkovice Ostrava club, who now plays for HC Olomouc, will also promote the championship in Russia, where his reputation among local fans is still high. Counting his three seasons with Dynamo Minsk, he played in KHL for seven straight seasons.

What makes Russian hockey so special? “Let me give you an example. When I saw the dry-land training in Russia, I was very impressed. Every exercise was aimed at working their legs and hands together,” said the silver medallist from the 2006 World Championship. “That’s what makes hockey players in individuality skilled as the Russians are able to be. If you can combine the work of the legs and hands in today’s hockey – that is, two things at once – you’ve won.”

Russia will compete in Group B in Ostrava along with Canada, the USA, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Historic World Junior Championship results

Today’s hockey in Russia follows on the legacy of the legendary Soviet machine. Even in the junior category, the Soviets were dominant. A tough military education from an early age was a necessity because the junior program was the hatchery for future championships of the USSR men’s national team.

The Soviets dominated the early unofficial years of the tournament (1974, 1975 and 1976) and then the first four official World Junior Championships, when the team featured future hockey legends such as defencemen Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov and forwards Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. The first blotches on their record came in 1981 and 1982, when the Soviets placed behind first Sweden and then Canada. Nevertheless, by 1992, they had received nine more medals, including five golds. In 1987, the whole team was disqualified after the famous “Piestany punch-up” with the Canadians and all players from both teams were barred from international play for six months.

In the later years of the Soviet Union, Pavel Bure – nicknamed the “Russian Racket” – launched onto the world scene by scoring more goals in the World Juniors than anybody before or since. The future star of the Vancouver Canucks and Florida Panthers managed to score an impressive 27 goals in the 1989, 1990 and 1991 tournaments combined.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, successor Russia didn’t win another World Junior Championship until 1999, when a team built around Maxim Afinogenov beat host Canada in overtime. That was followed by two more golds in 2002 and 2003. Members of the latter championship team included Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Artyukhin. Ovechkin would go on to score 18 goals over three years.

The most recent Russian triumph came in Buffalo 2011, when a team including Dmitri Orlov, Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Artemi Panarin helped overcome a 3-0 deficit in the final to win 5-3. Russia took medals from each of the six following tournaments but none of them were gold. Then in 2018, the Russians couldn’t get past the quarter-finals and finished fifth.

Last year

Following their disappointing 2018 tournament, Russia was not particularly favoured in 2019. From the view of many NHL scouts, the MHL and VHL are less adept at developing young talent than in Sweden or Finland. Nonetheless, the Russians topped their group in Vancouver, beating Denmark, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Canada in succession.

The Russians continued their strong play in the quarter-finals, beating Slovakia convincingly. In the semi-finals, however, they lost a tight battle with the USA. The line-up around Alexander Romanov, Grigori Denisenko and goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov had to settle for bronze, following another win over the Swiss.

Team stars

Which of the Russians are worth watching? “Definitely Denisenko and Podkolzin,” says Irgl. What makes them so exceptional?

19-year-old winger Grigori Denisenko is one of the greatest jewels of the Russian youth program. The product of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl program is considered one of the future stars of the senior men’s team. “He is very skilled; extremely good with the puck,” says Irgl. Last year, Denisenko was drafted 15th overall by Florida, but in the last year’s World Junior Championship, he exceeded all expectations to top the tournament in scoring. In Ostrava and Trinec, he should be one of the leaders of the team.

18-year-old forward Vasili Podkolzin is another of a number of talented Russian bombers. Scouts admire his incredible complexity. “He’s a hockey player on a level who has all the tools. I think he’s going to have a great career,” Irgl believes. This year, Podkolzin was picked 10th overall by Vancouver, but for the time being he remains with SKA St. Petersburg, where he plays in KHL, VHL and MHL games. The captain of this year’s Russian U18 team already appeared at last year’s World Juniors, and that experience should prove valuable this year.

Coach

The Russian pilot is the extremely experienced, 63-year-old Valeri Bragin – an old-school practitioner who began coaching Spartak Moscow, and for a short time he was the head coach of CSKA Moscow. Otherwise, he has worked within the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. He was head coach of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship gold-medal team and since then, claimed three silvers and two bronzes for the Russian juniors. As well, he was coach of the Russian team that won gold at the 2004 U18 World Championship.

Preliminary-Round Schedule (times local/MSK)

26 December 2019: Czech Republic – Russia 15:00/17:00
28 December 2019: Russia – Canada 19:00/21:00
29 December 2019: USA – Russia 19:00/21:00
31 December 2019: Russia – Germany 15:00/17:00

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