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

By Chapin Landvogt –

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!