By Ivan Tchechankov – IIHF.com
For the third time in the history of the event Australia won gold medals in a tournament of the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship program. As in the previous occasions (2004 & 2010) that happened in the Division III. The 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III was held at the Zeytinburnu Ice Rink in Istanbul, Türkiye, from 26 January to 2 February. Hoping to get back to the Division II where they played from 2011 to 2017, the Australians beat Israel 4-1 in the gold medal game.
In the first period Australia had a strong hold of their opponents and a big advantage on shots on goal (16-6). Both teams had an opportunity on a power play, but to no avail. In the start of the second, again they exchange penalties and play with man advantage. Less than a minute after Sacha Rapchuk served the Australian team’s penalty for too many players, Dmitri Kuleshov passed the puck to Justin Dixon. His first shot was saved by Israeli goalkeeper Itamar Melzer, but he got his second chance on a rebound and this time the puck redirected from Kuleshov and went into the net. Ori Segal was in the penalty box for boarding, when Lachlan Clifford scored on his second try in close range of Melzer after getting the puck from Rapchuk – 2-0 with three minutes to go in the period.
Australia captain Dixon scored 27 second into the third period to make it 3-0. He got a great backhand pass from Riley Langille, fired the puck from the slot and it found its way between the goalie’s pads. Segal cut the deficit to two goals five minutes later, but Kuleshov tallied an empty net goal for the final score 4-1.
“We really played our best game when it counted the most – in the gold medal match. I’m really happy about that. The key against Israel was that we stuck to our structure – to play simple hockey, chipped it out, got it deep in their zone, attack the net, score on our chances. It’s defence first, the priority was on all good defensive habits and we were able to shut them down. The only goal that they got was because we didn’t pummel him to the boards when we should have,” said David Ruck, the 53-year-old Canada-born head coach of Australia. He was on this position in the team’s last three U20 World Championships, where the Australians finished in second place two times (2019, 2020) and once third (2022). Last year the Division III was staged at the end of July in Queretaro, Mexico, and Australia was first in the preliminary-round Group B, won its quarter-final against Kyrgyzstan, but was upset by the host Mexico in the semis. For the bronze medal Australia beat Israel 1-0.
“We had almost the same team as in Mexico and we tried to save some money, so we only had a four-day camp before Istanbul. Short camp, but we were already half prepared from Mexico and we kept improving as we played each game,” explained Ruck.
Australia had unexpected strong opposition from Bulgaria in the semi-finals. Kuleshov scored their first goal on a power play in the end of the first period. He found the net again with a man advantage after just 41 seconds from the second and the score became 3-0 only in the middle of the third. Bulgaria responded with a goal after a clear face-off win and a shot through traffic, but Rapchuk put the stamp on the game just a minute later – 4:1.
“Bulgaria battled really hard and never gave up. They competed very well, were strong on the board battles, played super hard and we learned our lesson, which was good for us. We brought this experience with us for the final against Israel,” Ruck praised the semi-final opponent.
The format for this championship was the same as last year in Queretaro. Eight teams were divided in two groups (A – Australia, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand and Bosna and Herzegovina; B – Israel, Bulgaria, Türkiye and South Africa) and after a round robin stage all the teams went into the playoffs.
Australia was the best team in Group A with three wins and a 28-6 goal difference after beating Kyrgyzstan, 12-4, New Zealand, 6:2, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, 10-0. In Group B, Israel was Number 1 with even better stats (30-4 goal record) defeating South Africa, 16-1, Bulgaria, 8-0, and Türkiye, 6-3. In the first quarter-final, Australia had the biggest win in its 24th participation in the U20 World Championships – 28-0 over South Africa. Bulgaria defeated convincingly New Zealand, 6-2, Israel overpowered Bosnia and Herzegovina, 10-0 and the most equal quarter-final was the last one as Türkiye beat Kyrgyzstan, 3-1. In the second semi-final Israel won for the second time in four days against Türkiye. The host team tied the score two times – 1-1 and 2-2 – but then the Israelis opened a two-goal advantage and led 4-2 and 6-3 before eventually winning 6-4.
“It’s about youth. We are a young team that is developing. We have some players born in 2007 and 2006 on this team. Next year we will have much better results, because it will be almost the same roster besides the goalies. I see a good future for the team. In the final the guys gave it all. They did everything what they could on the ice. Australia is a good, strong and fast team. We had a plan, which was good, but we missed some chances and gave them few also and they scored. In my opinion a series between these two teams would be even, for example in ten games, we will win five, but unfortunately this was just one game,” said Itay Ben Tov, Israel’s assistant coach.
Speaking about youth, the biggest surprise of the tournament was Bulgaria with a roster that featured just three players, which won’t be available for the U18 World Championship in spring, and an average age of just 16.4 years. There were pessimistic opinions in the Bulgarian hockey community about the participation in Istanbul because of the lack of experience. Martin Raynov was the only one, who played in an U20 World Championship before, as Bulgaria withdrew from the event in Queretaro last July.
“We used that as kind of motivation in the locker room, for sure. Because twenty people that work together for a common goal will achieve a lot. I don’t think anyone of them overstepped the boundaries of their job and their responsibility. It was a group effort,” said Derek Eisler, who is coaching Bulgaria’s U18 and U20 national teams for a second season. On the roster for Istanbul there were five players born in 2007, six each born in 2006 and 2005.
“When you build a squad, you hopefully build it around people first and then the ability to play hockey. We just happen to find good people that can play and want to buy in what’s going on. It’s a long, long road ahead of them. This is a good thing for them to win a bronze medal in their first real championship. But if you want to win a gold medal, you got to put a little more time and effort. We believe as a staff there is still a long way to go. This is a good first step, a good start,” Eisler continued.
Bulgarian won an emotional first game with Türkiye, 5-3, and in the Bronze Medal Game had another victory against the host, 8:3. “We ran a camp in the summer time in August and we identified some core people that we want to build this kind of process around. Those core people just happened to be of younger birth years, that can play both in U18 and U20. Some of them will be able to play four to six U20 World Championships. We just have to continue to build the pieces and process around that core,” explained Eisler.