Still sporting a set of Ravens goalie pads, Allie Lehmann hoisted a championship trophy in an empty Switzerland arena. She had just completed back-to-back shutouts in the finals to win the Swiss Women’s Ice Hockey Championship.
The former Carleton women’s hockey goaltender played two years as a Raven before turning pro in the summer of 2020. In August of that year, Lehmann travelled from her home in northern British Columbia to Lugano, Switzerland, where she joined the HC Ladies Lugano of the Swiss National Women’s League.
Even though Lehmann has Swiss citizenship, playing professionally in Europe brought a set of new experiences and challenges that many would find daunting.
Adapting on and off the ice
For Lehmann, the first challenge was the language barrier.Over 80 per centof Switzerland speaks either German or French, but in Lugano—which sits on Switzerland’s southern border with Italy—most people speak Italian. This included most of Lehmann’s new teammates and coaches.
“The first few meetings with the team were very different,” she said. Lehmann added as she got to know her teammates, she realized many could speak other languages.
“It took me a while to figure out who spoke English, but thankfully several teammates could translate when the coach spoke to the team or drew up plays and drills,” Lehmann said.
The second challenge was adapting to the European game of hockey. Not only does the style of play differ from North American hockey, but European hockey rinks are15 feet wider. This changes the pace of the game and, crucially, a goalie’s perspective on the ice.
European hockey is more possession-based; players hold onto the puck and pass for long periods of time before shooting. On the contrary, North American hockey is focused on taking as many shots as possible. As a goalie, Lehmann saw this change as an exercise in patience.
“One of my teammates called them social passes, as if the forwards had to pass the puck around a hundred times to say hi to their linemates,” Lehmann said. “There were a few times where a player would have a wide-open net, but choose to make another pass.”
Finding ways to thrive
Andrea Odermatt, a forward on last year’s Lugano team with Lehmann, described Lehmann as a motivational presence on and off the ice.
“The team trusted [Lehmann] in the net … What stood out the most is her understanding and implementation of goalie techniques in practice that reflected in the games,” Odermatt said.
Odermatt, who has played hockey in leagues across three continents, applauded Lehmann’s ability to make an impact despite the adversity of moving across the world.
The challenges weren’t any detriment to her play. Lehmann started the season off hot, debuting in Lugano’s second game with a 3-0 shutout win over Neuchâtel. Through the regular season, she split playing time with goalie partner Giulia Mazzocchi. Lehmann played nine games with three shutouts and a 1.34 Goals Against Average (GAA)—placing her second overall in the league.
Lugano is located in southern Switzerland
As the season progressed, Lehmann had to focus on more than just hockey: she was balancing the online course load of a third-year neuroscience student at Carleton. With evening practices and games on the weekend, Lehmann also took time to focus on herself.
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hard to manage my time between hockey and school compared to when I was a student athlete [at Carleton],” Lehmann said. “We had a few practices late in the evening to accommodate players’ work schedules. I found I had a lot more free time.”
Lehmann took up yoga and regularly hiked her way around Lugano landscapes, featuring green mountains, quaint towns and expansive views of Lake Lugano.
The hard work paid off
HC Ladies Lugano entered the postseason as the second overall seed, and because of her regular season performance, Lehmann was the sole starting goalie for the playoffs.
The semi-finals were a hard-fought battle against Thurgau, which followed Lugano closely in the standings all season. Thurgau’s top scorers, Phoebe Staenz and Simona Studentova, put on an offensive show but with key saves from Lehmann and an offensive push from Lugano, the team squeaked by in four games.
Allie Lehmann (right) and teammate Andrea Odermatt (left) after winning the championship
In the finals, Lugano opposed their league rivals, the number-one seeded Zurich Lions. Unlike the offensive spectacle of the previous round, this matchup was set to be low-scoring. Zurich was a defensively-strong team, backed by French goaltender Caroline Baldin, the backbone of Zurich’s success. But at the other end stood Lehmann and a powerful Lugano offense led by Michelle Karvinen, who scored at a goal-per-game pace in the regular season.
Zurich and Lugano split the first two games in the five-game series. In game three, Lehmann and Lugano took a dominant 2-0 lead in the second period and withstood eight minutes of penalties in the third period to complete the shutout. Lugano took a 2-1 series lead.
After the game, Lehmann said she focused only on the next game and not what would happen if Lugano won.
“I tried really hard not to think about the possibility of winning a championship,” Lehmann said. After a nearly three-hour drive home from Zurich, she said her focus was on resting.
“Together, we altered my approach to playing big games and acknowledging the emotional side of the game,” Lehmann said. “If I focused on staying present and competing, then the performance would take care of itself.”
Throughout the first two periods, Lehmann said she focused on each shift and play, allowing her nerves to fuel her performance.
With Zurich goaltender Baldin at one end of the ice and Lehmann at the other, the game remained tied through the first two periods. It wasn’t until eight minutes left in the third period that Lugano’s Karvinen scored to give the team a narrow edge.
“After we scored, I felt the most calm. I kept my focus … and tried not to watch the clock,” Lehmann said.
Despite Zurich’s best efforts in the final minutes, Lehmann kept her cool in net and the HC Ladies Lugano won the Swiss Women’s Championship.
Allie Lehmann (left) holds the championship trophy with teammate Michelle Karvinen
The season ended with little pomp and circumstance. The team lifted the championship trophy in an empty arena and received their medals without any handshakes. After weeks of COVID-19 tests and quarantine, Lehmann returned home to British Columbia, just in time for spring chores at her family farm.
Next year, Lehmann said she will return to Switzerland for another season in net and hopes to also train with the Swiss national team for a shot at playing in international tournaments.
Kristen Campbell always dreamed of being part of Canada’s defence.
Just not necessarily the last line of defence.
“When I was a little girl, I started out on the blue-line,” Campbell said. “I actually idolized Cassie Campbell. I wore No. 77 because of her, and I’d always watch all the national-team games.
“And then I ended up switching to goalie. My brother was a forward, so he threw me in the net. And once he threw me in, I basically never came out.”
That way-back-when switch from the blue-line to the blue paint proved to be a wise move for Campbell, who is emerging as one of the best in her business.
In fact, the 23-year-old — a proud member of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) — was thrilled to learn earlier this month that she will be one of the three goaltenders on Canada’s centralized roster for the upcoming season, the short-listed candidates to represent the country at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“It’s an honour to be named to that roster and it’s a goal of mine that I’ve had now for my entire life,” Campbell said. “It’s something I’ve been craving — to get into that competitive, high-performance environment of centralization. I think the news has started to kind of set in now, and I can’t wait to get things going with that group.”
Originally from Brandon, Man., Campbell has been playing the waiting game again this week with the stars of the PWHPA gathered in Calgary for a Secret Dream Gap Tour stop.
She tends twine for Team Scotiabank but because the locals have such a crowded crease, she’s yet to be tabbed for a start. That should change in Friday’s clash at the Saddledome against Team Bauer, still perched atop the standings despite Thursday’s 4-3 loss to Team Sonnet.
That means Campbell will be staring down a dynamic cast that is led by the likes of Marie-Philip Poulin and Laura Stacey.
It’s been a tough go for Team Scotiabank, on the wrong end of two lopsided losses so far at this three-team showcase, although that shouldn’t come as a major surprise since the Calgary-based training group hasn’t been able to practise in several months due to public health measures. They’re playing games and playing catch-up at the same time.
Although Campbell moved to the city last summer, determining after a standout collegiate career with the University of Wisconsin Badgers that it would be ideal to be close to Hockey Canada’s resources and training facilities, she admitted during pre-tournament quarantine that she still hadn’t met a lot of her Scotiabank sidekicks.
“I want to be in that team environment again, just get to know people better,” she said. “And then when I do get a chance to play, give my team the best chance to win. That’s my goal.”
For Campbell, the prep work certainly hasn’t stopped because practice time has been so scarce during the pandemic. She has been able to knock off some of the rust at Hockey Canada camps, including try-outs for a world championship that was postponed on startlingly short notice.
“There are a lot of little things that I do on a daily basis to keep myself ready. It all starts with what you do as a part of your routine,” Campbell explained. “I do a lot of visualization and a lot of vision training off the ice, just things that are going to keep me ready for whenever the puck does drop for a game. And I’ve been able to get a sprinkle of action this year with the camps. So just getting back in those (scrimmages), it doesn’t feel like it’s been a year since I’d actually played a game due to the prep that you do off the ice.
“I’ve worked with a sports psychologist now for five or six years and we do a lot of visualization even for practice. So even though you’re not getting the game reps in, it’s making sure that you’re making the most of those practice sessions so that you can trust you’ve fully put in all the work when you do get to the games. Just visualizing certain things that I want to work on, even if I don’t get to be on the ice — like sitting there and going through those drills and those reps in my head. And then obviously there’s visualization for games, so going through different situations that will come at you and visualizing the environment that you’ll be in and trying to make it as clear as you can, even without being in that exact moment.”
Back when it was more daydreaming than a mental training exercise, Campbell had visions of being a defensive stalwart for Team Canada.
She could, come February in Beijing, be standing in the crease instead.
“People are always like, ‘Oh, why would you want to be a goalie?’ I’ve heard that so many times,” she said with a chuckle. “But I just love the pressure, honestly. And you get used to it, too. It’s not even pressure anymore. It’s just fun.”
Finland’s 2021 IIHF World Championship roster features a whopping 14 rookies. For some countries, that amount of inexperience would spell doom. Yet for the defending champions under head coach Jukka Jalonen, this is not necessarily a problem.
The Finns, who have won this tournament three times (1995, 2011, 2019), famously tend to overachieve when they don’t bring a roster laden with NHL talent. In 2019 in Slovakia, their commitment to team defence, coupled with a marvellous transition game, yielded three monster playoff upsets over stacked opponents, even they only had two active NHLers in forward Juho Lammikko and defenceman Henri Jokiharju. Finland topped Sweden 5-4 in overtime in the quarter-final, Russia 1-0 in the semi-final, and Canada 3-1 in the final.
After an extended two-year wait due to the global pandemic, the road to gold begins anew for the Finns in Group B in Riga. In 2006, the previous time the tournament took place in the Latvian capital, Suomi earned the bronze medal by beating Canada 5-0. Let’s take a closer look at the weapons Jalonen has in his 2021 arsenal – including eight returnees from Slovakia.
In 2019, a 25-year-old Kevin Lankinen – fresh off paying his dues as an AHL rookie with the Rockford IceHogs – outplayed Henrik Lundqvist, Andrei Vasilevski, and Matt Murray in the medal round. That sets the bar high for the two experienced KHL netminders vying for crease time in 2021.
Harri Sateri has the edge in terms of experience. The 31-year-old former San Jose Sharks prospect was Finland’s starter in both 2017 and 2018, totalling an impressive 1.85 GAA and 92.6 win percentage in 11 World Championship games. However, Sateri also came home emptyhanded both times. This season, the Sibir Novosibirsk starter amassed a 2.27 GAA and 92.2 save percentage in 47 games, but that didn’t stop his club from missing the KHL playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
If Jalonen wants to ride the hot hand, Juho Olkinuora, 30, may be his best bet. In 2019, the 190-cm, 91-kg Olkinuora made 12 saves for a 5-0 shutout versus Great Britain in his lone Worlds appearance, but you can’t read too much into that. More importantly, the 2018 CHL champion with JYP put up some of the KHL’s best regular-season numbers this season with Metallurg Magnitogorsk (1.90 GAA, 93.5 save percentage). Olkinuora led his team into the second round of the playoffs before falling to eventual champion Avangard Omsk in a six-game series.
Should third goalie Janne Juvonen (Leksands IF) get to play, it’ll be the 26-year-old’s first IIHF game since an 8-0 relegation-round win over Germany at the 2013 World Juniors.
Olli Maatta, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016, 2017), is hoping to recapture some of that winning feeling. The 26-year-old defenceman had a difficult season with the Los Angeles Kings. Maatta hit a career-low in average time on ice (16:38) on the third pairing and missed nine games after suffering an upper-body injury against Vegas on 21 March. Nonetheless, this Jyvaskyla native knows all about performing in big games.
Oliwer Kaski and Ville Pokka bring plenty of good vibes after helping Avangard Omsk take its first KHL title ever in April. Kaski, who spent 2019-20 with Detroit and Carolina’s AHL affiliates, is well-known for his hard shot, but the biggest of his 10 playoff points came when he fed Sergei Tolchinski for the 1-0 winner versus CSKA Moscow in Game Six of the final. Another freshly minted champion is 30-year-old veteran Miika Koivisto, who helped Vaxjo Lakers capture their third SHL title. Koivisto joins Kaski, Atte Ohtamaa (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl), and Petteri Lindbohm (ECH Biel) among 2019 blueline returnees.
Overall, don’t expect a ton of scoring from this group, but Jalonen should spread the minutes out smartly to maximize its potential.
Despite the unavailability of most Finnish NHL forwards and the top Salavat Yulaev Ufa trio of Teemu Hartikainen, Markus Granlund, and Sakari Manninen, the Finns will likely find ways to score by putting lots of pucks on net.
Among the nine newcomers at forward, the most eagerly anticipated debut surely belongs to Anton Lundell. The 2020 first-round pick of the Florida Panthers captained Finland to bronze at this year’s World Juniors in Edmonton with 10 points (6+4=10) in seven games. Lundell, a heady 19-year-old centre who also owns a 2019 World Junior gold medal and wore an “A” with HIFK, could be an impact player under Jalonen, whether or not he contributes offensively the way, say, an 18-year-old Sebastian Aho did in his 2016 Worlds debut (3+4=7 in 10 games).
Notching six points (1+5=6) in 17 games with the Buffalo Sabres, 23-year-old NHL rookie Arttu Ruotsalainen made a positive impression amid tough circumstances with the last-place club. The Oulu-born forward, who also racked up 27 points in just 19 games with Ilves this year, will look to fit in with a solid two-way game in his first Worlds. And winger Jere Karjalainen (HK Sochi), making his Worlds debut at age 28, led the Finns with four points at the just-concluded Czech Hockey Games. Shining in Riga would be a nice bonus for Karjalainen, since he’ll join Dinamo Riga in 2021-22.
Meanwhile, Petri Kontiola’s return to the Worlds after a six-year absence will be keenly scrutinized. The playmaking centre owns two Worlds silver medals (2007, 2014) and an Olympic bronze medal (2014) and last faced IIHF competition at the 2018 Olympics. The 36-year-old Kontiola led Liiga with 55 points (14+41=55) for HPK this season, and 29 of those points came on the power play, which is encouraging. Still, it’s hard to expect Kontiola to live up to his 2013 peak when he led the Worlds in scoring (8+8=16).
But never mind that: what can Marko “Morko” Anttila possibly do for an encore after his 2019 playoff run? Scoring the late equalizer against Sweden and the winners against Russia and Canada is an act that’ll be tough to follow for the 203-cm, 104-kg folk hero, who captained Jokerit this year. All we can say for sure is that anything is possible.
Over the last 10 years, Jukka Jalonen’s two gold medals (2011, 2019) as a head coach have only been matched by Sweden’s Rikard Gronborg (2017, 2018). The 58-year-old, whose resume also includes 2016 World Junior gold and KHL stints with SKA St. Petersburg and Jokerit, has long been touted as a potential NHL coaching candidate, and winning another championship could springboard him across the Atlantic.
After 2019’s triumph, Jalonen told The Coaches Site that creating a positive atmosphere where the players feel respected is essential for team spirit. That’s certainly reflected in the on-ice compete level of his teams. Karpat head coach Mikko Manner returns for the fourth straight time as a Worlds assistant coach, while Assat’s Ari-Pekka Selin, who served as Kazakhstan’s bench boss at his last Worlds in 2014, is a new assistant for Jalonen.
With recent success not just at the Olympics and Worlds, but also at the U18 and U20 levels, the Finns now expect to medal – if not win – at every tournament. Despite a lack of big names, they could certainly top Group B, especially if Canada and the U.S. struggle to come together.
Both goaltending and defence should be solid, so medal round success will likely hinge on Finland’s ability to generate sufficient and timely scoring. Sometimes that’s a problem. Veterans like Anttila and Koivisto were there in 2018 when the Finns fell 1-0 to Canada in the Olympic quarter-final and 3-2 to Switzerland in the World Championship quarter-final. However, if they can avoid those kinds of pitfalls, repeating as champions isn’t out of the question.
Denmark enters the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga in search of its first quarter-final berth since 2016 and third all-time. While that’s certainly a long shot, anything is possible in this season like no other.
This isn’t the strongest team ever iced by the Danes, who currently sit 12th in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking, but they’re a tight-knit group. If all the pieces come together like a LEGO model of Copenhagen’s Amalienborg Palace, the Danes might have something to smile about in early June.
Sebastian Dahm has served as Denmark’s number one netminder at four out of the last five Worlds. The exception was 2018, when Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs took over for the 10th-place home-ice finish in Herning. Dahm was just named the ICEHL’s MVP after backstopping Klagenfurter AC to its second straight championship. The 34-year-old Copenhagen native provided more reason for optimism on 29 April, as he led the Danes to a 3-2 exhibition win over Sweden, who outshot their opponents 34-8.
Youngsters like the 25-year-old George Sorensen (Aalborg Pirates) and Frederik Dichow (Odense Bulldogs) round out the netminding trio, but this load is Dahm’s to carry. At the 2019 Worlds, he recorded a sparkling 1.95 GAA and 92.7 save percentage, and he’ll see plenty of rubber again.
Malmo has played a big role in recent IIHF history, from hosting the 2014 World Juniors and 2015 Women’s Worlds to sending a wave of Swedish fans across the Oresund to attend the 2018 Worlds in Copenhagen. This year, Denmark’s blue line owes another debt of gratitude to southern Sweden’s biggest city.
Five defencemen on the Danish roster suited up in 2020-21 for the Malmo Redhawks. Who are some noteworthy names?
No Dane played more minutes in Kosice in 2019 than Jesper Jensen Aabo, who averaged 25:32 per game, and is heading into his 11th Worlds in Riga. Markus Lauridsen, who led Danish blueliners in 2019 in points (1+3=4), equalled Jensen Aabo’s 14 points with Malmo this season.
And even though finishing ninth in the SHL after getting swept by Farjestad Karlstad in a best-of-three placement series wasn’t optimal for Malmo, Danish fans hope Matias Lassen keeps showing the unexpected offensive flair he showed with two goals in the final 5-4 overtime loss. Everybody needs to step up.
There are challenges up front, starting on the leadership side. Two-time Worlds captain Peter Regin, who just jumped from Jokerit Helsinki to HC Ambri-Piotta, is out due to injury, and 37-year-old Danish NHL trailblazer Frans Nielsen (Detroit Red Wings) has declined to play after a tough season.
Winger Oliver Bjorkstrand posted career-best numbers with the Columbus Blue Jackets (18+26=44) in this abbreviated NHL season, but unfortunately, the 26-year-old forward won’t be making the trip to Riga. With Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets and Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals both questing for the Stanley Cup, who will put the puck in the net for the Danes?
At 31, Mikkel Boedker is unlikely to return to the NHL, but as a newly minted assistant captain with Lugano, the swift-skating winger enjoyed a solid Swiss NL season (18+17=35 in 51 games). Boedker tied Eller for Denmark’s points lead in 2019 (1+4=5), and he’s looking for redemption after going pointless in four Swiss playoff games.
Nicklas Jensen led Denmark in scoring (5+2=7) en route to the 2016 quarter-finals, and the 28-year-old Herning-born forward is coming off his fourth straight strong season with Jokerit (18+13=31 in 51 games), so he’ll be expected to chip in as well.
Morten Madsen’s best offensive days are behind him at age 34, but the Timra assistant captain continues to make history as Denmark’s active leader in World Championship games played (90). Madsen, like Norway’s Jonas Holos, will amazingly appear in his 15th Worlds this year, second all-time only to Switzerland’s Andres Ambuhl (active) and Mathias Seger (retired).
Heinz Ehlers, the father of Nikolaj Ehlers, earned an 11th-place finish in his 2019 Worlds debut as head coach. This 55-year-old member of the Danish Hockey Hall of Fame, who coached in Switzerland for many years, needs to make sure his team maintains good structure, with every man trusting his partners. The effort will be there.
Inculcating strong defensive play is key, as only four teams tallied fewer goals than Denmark (18) in 2019. The Danish PK also struggled in Kosice at 73.9 percent. That’s an area where new assistant coach Andreas Lilja – a 45-year-old Swede who played 580 NHL games and won the 2008 Stanley Cup on defence with Detroit – could provide valuable input.
Denmark has avoided relegation since reaching the top division in 2003, and even though there’s no relegation this year, it’s fair to predict Ehlers’ men won’t finish 15th or 16th. Their Group A schedule starts off as a grind, with uphill battles against Sweden (22 May) and Switzerland (23 May) before a should-win date with Great Britain (26 May).
The Danes have never defeated their next opponent, Russia (26 May), in 10 World Championship meetings. So likely, they’ll need to win their last three group games to advance: Belarus (28 May), Slovakia (29 May), and the Czech Republic (31 May). It’s possible, but finishing somewhere between tenth and 13th place is more realistic.
Even with the national team’s Olympic prospects looking bleak, China’s ice hockey administrators remain committed to boosting the niche sport’s popularity beyond 2022.
Less than nine months out from the Beijing Winter Olympics, the priority for China’s men’s hockey team is merely to avoid blowout defeats against the sport’s powerhouses at the 12-team Games.
But in the wake of the team’s poor preparations, even that appears to be a long shot, with the squad severely hindered by stagnant player development and a lack of quality competition.
In a shocking decision revealed on Tuesday, China’s national team players will skip the upcoming national championship, which could have acted as an important tuneup for the Olympics, and instead remain at their base in Shenyang, Liaoning province, to continue a training camp which has already lasted 10 months.
The championship, which will take place from May 25-June 1 in Beijing’s Yanqing district, would usually see all of China’s top players in action for their respective provincial teams or clubs.
With no international warm-ups scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national team’s development, currently overseen by the General Administration of Sport of China, remains something of a mystery, with barely any details of its progress or plans released to the public.
In 2017, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA) launched a talent recruitment process, aiming to draft foreign-born－mostly North America-based－players with Chinese heritage to bolster the Olympic program.
However, that appears not to have panned out as anticipated, with none of the targeted overseas players making it onto the national team’s training roster.
Having been granted special wild-card entries to the Olympics by the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has targeted an unlikely medal in the 10-team women’s competition, and is simply aiming not be embarrassed in the men’s tournament.
However, drawn with heavyweights the United States, Canada and Germany in Group A, the Chinese team, coached by former NHL player Curt Fraser, looks poised for heavy defeats at the Games.
Now the GASC, China’s central sports governing body, and the CIHA are looking beyond the Games by focusing on building a solid foundation for the future.
“The championship this year will see no national camp players involved,” Si Liang, deputy secretary-general of the CIHA, confirmed at a media conference on Tuesday to launch this year’s tournament.
“It’s up to the GASC to get the national team ready for the Olympics, while we are committed to growing the sport at the grassroots level and strengthening the base of talent development.”
With hockey gaining popularity among Chinese children, particularly from middle-class families, this year’s national championship sees a wider geographical spread of teams joining the sport’s traditionally strong northeastern provinces.
Squads from Macao, Shanghai, Chongqing and Beijing Sport University feature in this year’s nine-team tournament, bearing witness to rising participation rates across the country’s southern and western regions.
“It says a lot about hockey’s progress at grassroots level and it means that the game’s popularity has extended beyond the country’s climatic limits to reach a wider area,” said Si.
“Although we are not scouting players directly for the national team at this tournament this year, we will keep an eye on any outstanding performers for future national programs.”
With hockey officials seemingly resigned to the fact that little can now be done to significantly improve the national team for the home Olympics, which open on Feb 4 next year in Beijing, the CIHA has set its sights on building a stronger foundation by organizing a series of domestic league competitions, from junior to adult level, on both the men’s and women’s sides.
A domestic men’s club league will return in July from its pandemic-enforced shutdown, involving at least eight teams in a tournament format at three stops in Beijing and the Heilongjiang province cities of Qiqihar and Harbin, through October.
A similar women’s league will take place in Chengdu, Sichuan province and Harbin, and is expected to feature seven teams.
The CIHA will also work with the China Sport School Federation to run a six-leg junior hockey series from June 19-Oct 19 as a youth talent evaluation program.
It’s an unfamiliar Russian line-up at this championship, with just 10 of the players named on Valeri Bragin’s roster having experience at this level. That leaves 16 debutants, and two as yet unnamed additions for the Red Machine.
There is less NHL representation than usual, as well. At the time of writing, just seven places on the team go to players based across the Atlantic. The two vacant roster spots are being held in the hope that the likes of Sergei Bobrovski, Nikita Gusev, Andrei Vasilevski or Kirill Kaprizov might become available after the first round of the Stanley Cup play-offs, but the backbone of the team comes from the KHL. As such, it’s a chance to assess the depth of Russia’s program in the last major tournament before the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Goaltending is a sore point for Russia this year. At present, the Red Machine has nominated just two goalies and hopes to add a player from the NHL once the first round of the play-offs is done. However, Igor Shestyorkin and Anton Khudobin are both unavailable despite neither the Rangers nor the Stars making it to post season.
Domestic commentators noted with alarm that none of the teams that got to the final stages of the KHL play-offs had a Russian netminder as first choice, with only SKA’s Alexander Samonov seeing action in the final four. He was largely an understudy to Sweden’s Magnus Hellberg, and his team did not progress to the final. The 25-year-old looks set to be Russia’s first choice, at least at the start of the competition, as he makes his World Championship debut. Ivan Fedotov, who recently sealed a move to CSKA Moscow, is the second choice. The 24-year-old helped Traktor Chelyabinsk reach the play-offs this season and made his debut for Russia’s senior team during the Euro Hockey Tour.
The third spot might go to Dynamo Moscow’s Ivan Bocharov, currently in Riga awaiting a possible call-up. However, the progress of the Tampa Bay vs Florida series could open the door for either Andrei Vasilevski or Sergei Bobrovski to join the team. Similarly, Ilya Sorokin could sneak through the door before the May 26 deadline if his Islanders fall to Pittsburgh in the first round (series currently tied at 1-1). However, as things stand Riga 2021 represents the chance of a lifetime for an emerging Russian goaltending talent to establish himself as a leader for the national team.
Traditionally, Russian rosters are stacked with NHL forwards and rely on KHL defencemen. This year, though, it’s the other way round. Five of the seven NHLers confirmed on Russia’s roster ply their trade on the blue line, while neither Mikhail Grigorenko nor Alexander Barabanov would be widely recognised as the biggest stars in Russia’s hockey firmament.
There is a wealth of international experience from the NHL contingent, with three of them – Vladislav Gavrikov, Nikita Nesterov and Artyom Zub –featuring in the gold medal roster at the 2018 Olympics. Gavrikov and Zub took the opportunity to build on that success with a move across the Atlantic, Nesterov returned to the NHL this term after two further seasons and a Gagarin Cup win with CSKA.
Two further NHLers, by contrast, have played almost all their careers in North America. Ivan Provorov is back at a World Championship for the first time since 2017, when he won a bronze medal in Cologne. Philadelphia’s Nikita Zadorov, who graduated the Lokomotiv school and played one season in Russia’s Junior Hockey League before he too crossed the Atlantic. His first World Championship appearance came in 2019 with a bronze in Bratislava.
On a strikingly young team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s Alexei Marchenko is the oldest player on the D. The 29-year-old played in North America from 2013-2017, mostly within the Red Wings organisation but returned home in time to join the Russian Olympic roster in 2018. After winning a Gagarin Cup with CSKA in 2019, he moved on to Lokomotiv and enjoyed his most productive season with 24 (7+17) points in 2020/21. Marchenko’s Lokomotiv team-mate Rushan Rafikov is one of many World Championship debutants on the roster.
The other KHLers on the team are Metallurg’s 23-year-old Grigori Dronov, who makes his senior international debut here, and Igor Ozhiganov, 28, who earned his first championship call after playing under Bragin at SKA this season.
At the time of writing, Russia has just two NHL forwards on the books, although there is a free space on the roster should the likes of Gusev or Kaprizov become available. Both Alexander Barabanov and Mikhail Grigorenko have Olympic gold, but the two have had rather different experiences this season. Grigorenko returned for a second look at the show after previously spending three seasons with Buffalo and Colorado. However, a single season in Columbus did not promise great things and there is strong talk that he will return to CSKA in the summer. Barabanov, meanwhile, made his NHL debut with Toronto but struggled to make an impact and was traded to San Jose. Life with the Sharks seems to suit him better – he had 7 (3+4) points in nine games before the end of the season.
That strong finish is likely to give Barabanov a spot on the first line for Russia alongside two key players from CSKA Moscow. Konstantin Okulov and Maxim Shalunov were big players in the Army Men’s run to the Gagarin Cup final. Okulov tied Avangard’s Sergei Tolchinski in the post season scoring race with 20 (6+14) points, while Shalunov’s 12 goals made him the top sniper in the play-offs. They’re set to form the first line alongside Barabanov.
Grigorenko has also been working with CSKA players in practice, lining up alongside team captain Anton Slepyshev and World Championship rookie Pavel Karnaukhov.
Two other lines have a strong Petersburg accent. Emil Galimov, Ivan Morozov and Anton Burdasov, all primed for their World Championship debuts, played together consistently for SKA last season, while Artyom Shvets-Rogovoi and Vladislav Kamenev are established team-mates for club and country. They were expected to be joined by Yevgeni Timkin, but his injury problems mean Ak Bars’ 20-year-old talent Dmitri Voronkov is likely to complete the combination in the first games of the championship.
At present, Tolchinski seems to be held in reserve despite his post-season prowess with Avangard. There are also questions about Timkin’s fitness after he was injured in Euro Tour action last week. Another SKA prospect, Vasili Podkolzin, is with the team but has not been officially added to the roster pending the results from the first round of the NHL play-offs.
Valeri Bragin has ample experience of international competition after a decade behind the bench for Russia’s U20s at the World Juniors. His record at that level is more than respectable – gold in 2011, four silvers and a bronze, plus one more silver as assistant in 2005 and gold at the U18s in 2004. Along the way, he has worked with many of these players at the start of their international careers. In addition, as head coach of SKA St. Petersburg this season, Bragin has been in charge of several of the Russian team on a day-to-day basis.
However, the 62-year-old’s record in adult hockey is not overwhelming. He had a short, unimpressive spell behind the bench at CSKA Moscow in 2012 before returning to the Juniors, and his SKA team this season seldom looked like a big contender for honours. Moreover, Bragin’s experience as head coach of the senior national team was also limited. He took charge of two of the four stages of the Euro Hockey Tour, sharing the workload with Igor Larionov as the U20s used the Karjala Cup to prepare for their World Championship. With that Olympic defence less than a year away, Russia’s hockey chiefs will be hoping that Bragin shows enough to reassure everyone that he is the man to lead the team in Beijing.
Normally, the question for Russia is what colour medal it will win. This time, though, there is uncertainty. Heavy losses to the Finns and the Czechs in the last games of the Eurotour have sewn doubts about the strength of this roster, with the goaltending a particular concern. Moreover, the usual reassuring influx of NHL names is not happening this year, contributing to a sense of unease among Russian fans. It’s clear there is plenty of talent on this roster, but it’s less obvious that the players on display have the big-tournament nous to thrive when the pressure builds up.
On the other hand, every country at the championship has its own question marks after a season of tough challenges to keep the games on the ice. Russia has an advantage over many European nations in that its national championship was played in full and without interruption – and at a high standard. After unprecedented worldwide disruption at both club and international level, a full KHL season could be a decisive factor in steering the Red Machine through any turbulence in Riga. The bookmakers rate Russia as the favourite to lift the cup, and it’s certainly reasonable to expect this team to have a big say in where the prizes go.
Canada is at the top of the IIHF’s Men’s World Ranking and has won a medal in four of the last five years, missing out only in 2018 after a 4-1 loss to the U.S. in the bronze-medal game. A multi-faceted mix of a roster will be a challenge for coach Gerard Gallant to coordinate, but the talent is there.
Two of Canada’s three goalies know each other very well from the NHL. Canada’s likely starter will by Darcy Kuemper, who played on Canada’s 2018 team and who has been with the Arizona Coyotes for several years. He was the team’s number-one goalie this past season, posting a record of 10-11-3 and a GAA of 2.56. His backup in Arizona is Adin Hill, who will be representing his country for the first time. Hill played in 19 games with a 9-9-1 record and a save percentage of .913 in Arizona. The third goalie will be Michael DiPietro who played at the 2019 World Juniors when Canada finished a disappointing sixth.
What an incredibly diverse and interesting aggregation of talent Canada has on the blue line this year from veteran players to Owen Power, who is considered by many to be the number one prospect for the upcoming NHL draft. The 18-year-old played this past season for the University of Michigan, which wouldn’t release him to Canada for the World Juniors this past year. Playing in Riga will be great for his development, and great for fans to watch a young talent as it emerges.
Jacob Bernard-Docker helped Canada win gold at the 2020 World Juniors, and played most of this past season with the University of North Dakota. The 20-year-old also played five games for the Ottawa Senators. Another youngster is 19-year-old Braden Schneider of the Brandon Wheat Kings, who played for Canada once previously, at the 2019 U18s.
Several others will be making their first appearance for Canada, including Colin Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, Sean Walker, of the L.A. Kings, and Nicolas Beaudin of Chicago. Mario Ferraro (no relation to Ray) will also be on the team. The 22-year-old has played for San Jose the past two seasons.
The forwards have plenty of experience either in the NHL, the international game, or both. Again, youth is well served in the lineup, but perhaps the most intriguing name is Cole Perfetti. The 19-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2020 and helped Canada win silver at this past World Juniors.
But the most impressive name might well by Connor Brown, who saw a resurgence in his career with Ottawa this year. He had 21 goals in 56 games and at 27 years old is ready to help the Senators in the long term. He’ll be wearing the maple leaf for the first time in Riga. Brandon Pirri is 30 and has had a career both in the NHL and the minors, most recently with Chicago and Rockford.
The most senior member is Anaheim Ducks forward Adam Henrique. The 31-year-old is the elder statesman of the team and has 710 NHL games to his credit. He also won two silver medals for Canada, one in 2010 at the World Juniors and another nine years later at the senior Worlds.
Canada often adds one outlier to its lineup, and this year that player is Justin Danforth. He hasn’t played in the NHL but has played extensively in the AHL before moving to Europe to continue in Finland and, this past season, with the Czech team HC Vityaz in the KHL. Nick Paul is another player who has been with the Senators since 2015, and in the last two seasons has really established himself as a bona fide NHLer. Not flashy, he is a solid two-way player who will help coach Gallant in whatever role is asked of him.
Two young forwards with the L.A. Kings are Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Gabriel Vilardi. Anderson-Dolan has played at both the U18 and U20, while Vilardi was an 11th overall selection by the Kings in 2017. Both are just starting to come into their own in L.A. Max Comtois is the most experienced player on the team for IIHF competition, but it has all been at the junior level so far. He played in two U18s and two World Juniors, winning gold at the 2018 U20.
Andrew Mangiapane is here because of his fine season with the Calgary Flames, while other young players hoping to contribute and develop include Liam Foudy, who won gold at the 2020 U20; Dillon Dube, also from Calgary and silver and gold medallist at the World Juniors; and, Brandon Hagel and Michael Bunting.
A silver medallist with Canada’s 1989 World Championship team as a player, Gerard Gallant took the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup finals in 2018 in their first season. He was fired midway through the 2019-20 season, thus making him available for this assignment, his first behind a Team Canada bench.
Chemistry is the key word for Canada this year. How will all these parts from so many places in so many leagues and at such a variety of ages all fit together? Gallant will have a good deal to say about that, as well as the players’ ability to gel quickly during the few practises and warmup games they will have at their disposal. But this is a very talented group and is perfectly capable of getting to the final weekend. After that, chemistry will decide Canada’s fate, medal or no medal – and if medal, what colour?
Although much of the German program has seen a dip in recent years before recovering more recently, the senior men’s national team was resurrected under coach Marco Sturm and is getting further impetus from Toni Soderholm. It has qualified for the playoffs in three of the last four years and finished 6th in 2019, the best placing in a decade.
The Germans will have the two goalies who took them to a spot in the quarter-finals two years ago – starter Mathias Niederberger and backup Niklas Treutle. The third goalie will be 30-year-old Felix Bruckmann, who last played for Germany at the 2008 U18. Niederberger was an excellent 3-0-1 in 2019 and also played once in the 2018 Worlds as well, a year when positions were flipped and Treutle was the number-one man. Treutle also played at the 2011 World Juniors.
There is a good blend of experience and youth on the German blue line this year. At the top end, Moritz Muller at 34 is the senior man, playing in his 9th World Championship. He also helped the country win an historic silver medal at the 2018 Olympics. Korbinian Holzer, 33, played in the KHL last year and is in his 6th WM, and is the only player from the 2010 Olympics on the team.
Jonas Muller also has plenty of time with the national team and is the only player to have appeared in all four levels of IIHF play since 2013—U18, U20, WM, and OG. His Olympics was also in 2018, winning silver. Moritz Seider is 20 and one of the bright stars of the future for the Germans. He played at the U18 two years ago and the World Juniors a year later. Marco Nowak was a teammate with Bruckmann at the 2008 U18, and Fabio Wagner has plenty of junior experience but will making his senior debut, as will Leon Gawanke, who played for the Manitoba Moose this past season, and Dominik Bittner (Grizzlys Wolfsburg).
Long-time NHLer Tobias Rieder brings instant respect to the team and will be a leader in Riga. He is the only member of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey team here (Team Europe) and is in his 5th World Championship. The only other player with NHL experience is 21-year-old Lean Bergmann, who has been playing in the San Jose Sharks system for the last two years. He played at the 2019 Worlds, as did Adler Mannheim’s Stefan Loibl.
Matthias Plachta is in his 6th World Championship and is a teammate of Loibl in Mannheim. Plachta also played on that 2018 Olympic team. Two other Adler Mannheim forward are here as well: Nicolas Krammer, making his third WM appearance, and the veteran Markus Eisenschmid, who has played in two U18s, two World Juniors, and two senior Worlds.
Eisbaren Berlin is also contributing three important forwards. Lukas Reichel is only 19 and played at the 2020 World Juniors. He should bring some speed and offence to the group. The 27-year-old Leonhard Pfoderl played at both the 2018 Olympics and 2019 Worlds. And, Marcel Noebels, 29, is in his 6th WM.
Tom Kuhnhackl, the son of legendary Erich, last played at the 2011 U20 and has been in the AHL with Bridgeport the last three seasons since being acquired by the New York Islanders. He was a Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017.
Maximilian Kastner will be making his debut with Germany, and John Peterka, 19, is another young gun to watch out for. Drafted 34th by Buffalo in 2020, Peterka is the only member of the team who played at the recent World Juniors in Edmonton where Germany finished 6th after a narrow 2-1 loss to Russia in the quarter-finals. Peterka and Tim Stutzle led the team in scoring with 10 points each this past January.
Other forwards include Frederik Tiffels, in his fourth straight WM, and another player who has waited patiently to represent his country again, Daniel Fischbuch. He last played at the U18 in 2011. As well, Andreas Eder has a good deal of junior experience but will be making his senior debut with Germany.
After a distinguished playing career in his native Finland, mostly with HIFK, Toni Soderholm turned to coaching, in Germany. He has been with the national team since 2019’s World Championship, where the team finished a very respectable 6th thanks to a 5-0-2 record in the preliminary round that year. That included a huge 4-2 win over Finland on the last day of the round robin.
Soderholm has plenty of talent but also has high expectations, and spots are getting tougher and tougher to come by in the quarter-finals. Germany will be looking for wins over Italy, Norway, Kazakhstan, and Latvia and hoping for a strong showing against Canada, Finland, and the U.S. in the hopes of accumulating enough points to make the final eight.
The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was bittersweet for the Slovaks. They played on their home ice in Kosice – the hometown for several of the players. It was the swan song of Ladislav Nagy’s career. They opened with a win over the USA but their tournament got derailed by a couple of late collapses against Canada and Germany that cost them points that would have put them in the quarter-finals.
Fast forward a couple of years and some things have changed. Seven players are returning, as is most of the coaching staff, but with a big restriction on the number of NHL players available, some players will be expected to take on more prominent roles and other spots for young players will open up. Will that allow Slovakia to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2013?
Julius Hudacek has been on the Slovak roster for six previous World Championships and been the starter twice, so it would seem to be his crease to lose. The 32-year-old puckstopper has played the last four seasons in the KHL, the last three for Spartak Moscow, and selected to three all-star games. Back in 2014/15, he was the top goaltender and MVP of the SHL while playing for Orebo HK.
Behind him, Branislav Konrad is the veteran. Now 33, he has been a mainstay in net for HC Olomouc in the Czech Extraliga for the past six seasons. He played two games at the 2016 World Championship and two more at the 2018 Winter Olympics. If the Slovaks choose to go the younger route, 24-year-old Adam Huska appears ready. He has been based in the United States since he was 17, first in the USHL, then the NCAA, and now for the AHL’s Harftord Wolfpack in the New York Rangers system.
The Slovak team does have a pair of experienced defencemen, namely Marek Daloga and Adam Janosik, who both currently play in the Czech Extraliga. Daloga is a 32-year-old journeyman defenceman who next season will suit up for Kometa Brno, his ninth team (in four different leagues) in seven years. He has played in five previous World Championships and also the 2018 Winter Olympics. This will be Janosik’s fourth World Championship.
The only other two internationally-tested d-men are Martin Gernat and Mario Grman, but it’s been a few years for both. Gernat’s previous appearance was back in 2017, but he’s coming off a big season where he helped Ocelari Trinec repeat as Czech champions and led Extraliga defencemen in scoring with 41 points in 50 games, so he might help the Slovak offence from the back end. Grman’s previous appearance was in 2018 when he was only 20; he’s played the last two seasons in Finland for SaiPa Lappeenranta.
Rounding out the presumptive top six are Daniel Gachulinec and Mislav Rosandic, but there are four youngsters that will also vie for ice time: 21-year-olds Martin Bucko and Michal Ivan, 18-year-old Samuel Knazko, who plays in the Finnish junior league, and talented 17-year-old Simon Nemec, who registered four assists in five games at this year’s World Juniors and is used to being the youngest player on his team.
Slovakia’s group of forwards is not as top-heavy in experience as the defence. Leading the way are a pair who play in the Finnish Liiga: giant 25-year-old Pavol Skalicky from champion Lukko Rauma, who was a depth player in three previous World Championships but will be expected to take a more prominent role this time, and diminutive 27-year-old Michal Kristian of Karpat Oulu, who’s played in two Worlds and an Olympics. The oldest player on the roster is 34-year-old David Buc, who is a bit of a late bloomer in that he didn’t play in his first World Championship until he was 31.
The only NHLer on the Slovak roster is 22-year-old right winger Marian Studenic, who played eight games with the New Jersey Devils along with 22 for the AHL’s Binghamton Devils. From the AHL is 25-year-old Robert Lantosi of the Providence Bruins, and from the KHL is 21-year-old Adam Liska of Severstal Cherepovets, who performed well for the Slovaks at the U18 and U20 elite levels. Other notable names are 25-year-olds Peter Cehlarik, Kristian Pospisil and Matus Sukel, while other young players include 21-year-old Milos Roman and 20-year-old Martin Fasko-Rudas, who both had solid junior careers in recent memory.
This will be the third World Championship and fourth major tournament – including the 2018 Winter Olympics – with Craig Ramsay at the helm. In each of the two previous tournaments, the Slovaks barely missed the quarter-finals, with the home tournament two years ago being particularly disappointing. But Ramsay has a much different team to work with this time and the make-up of a lot of the other teams is also different, so what matters is that he can get this mixture of veterans and youngsters to all work as a cohesive unit. Assistants Michal Handzus and Andrej Podkonicky were on the staff in 2019, while Jan Pardavy is new, but all are experienced players internationally.
Prior to joining Hockey Slovakia in 2017, Ramsay was a long-time NHL coach – mostly an assistant – with several teams, briefly heading the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. He previously played 14 seasons with the Sabres.
As mentioned, Slovakia has suffered heartbreak in the past two tournaments, just missing out on the quarter-finals, and the path this year isn’t easy. The Slovaks are certainly in a tough group with Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, so if they’re going to make it into the top four, they’ll have to knock one of those teams out – most likely one of the latter two. The game against the Czechs – always one with a lot of emotion – is the last of the group stage for both teams, so we’ll see if it has extra meaning. But first things first… they open up with games against Belarus and Great Britain, so they want to make sure they don’t leave any points from those games on the table before the schedule gets more difficult.
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