Germany’s U20 national team celebrates promotion to the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic

By Chapin Landvogt –

Nothing is sweeter than convincingly winning a World Championship tournament on home ice. Just ask the kids playing on this winter’s edition of the German U20 national team.

Better yet, you probably wouldn’t need to if you had seen how the German team stormed the ice when the final buzzer sounded to end Germany’s last game of the tournament, a 6-1 outcome against geographical neighbour France. The team celebrated with an elation that had been building for days and the excitement will only continue to grow, as many of this year’s squad’s key players will still be eligible to play at next winter’s World Juniors. Of the 22 players, 10 were born in 2000 or later.

Finishing first was no easy task, but to do so knowing you’ll be able to take your key players with you to next year’s tournament a level higher is about the best possible outcome for any national program looking to cement itself among the world’s elite once and for all.

“This achievement is of incredible importance for German ice hockey,” explained Franz Reindl, President of the German Ice Hockey Association. “I am so happy and proud of this team and our program. First our men’s team was able to win the silver medal in PyeongChang, now our U20 team has won this tournament and gained promotion. This has been a very special year for ice hockey in Germany.”

The Germans entered Saturday’s game against France in the driver’s seat, as all they needed for advancement was to at least get the game to overtime. Things got off to a good start, but despite a 2-0 lead after one period of play, Germany swallowed a power-play goal against by Antonin Plagnat in the second period, cutting the lead to 2-1 and making things look a lot closer than they’d end up being. 

A goal by Taro Jentzsch in the 34th minute once again gave Germany the momentum, getting a team that had shown some dents in the armour back on track. It would be the first of a natural hat trick by Jentzsch, as Germany added three more goals in the third period to overwhelmingly seal their promotion to the top division. 

“This team truly, truly earned its place in next year’s WJC,” explained an ecstatic Christian Kunast, head coach of the German entry. “Five games, five victories; all done on the back of incredible team spirit. The team is completely deserving of this promotion to the next level. I am so happy for the players for this achievement.”

Germany finished the tournament with five victories in five games and 14 of 15 possible points. With that, the young team is heading to neighbouring Czech Republic for the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.

The decisive game

This promotion was largely made possible by Thursday’s tilt against Belarus, both teams having entered the game knowing that a regulation loss to the other team would all but end its chances of moving up to the world’s elite group. Eventual silver medallist Belarus had won its first three games in regulation while Germany had done the same, albeit the first one was a 3-2 shootout victory over arch rival Austria to kick off the tournament. 

In light of the dominance Belarus had shown to date, it was all that much more surprising that Germany was able to take a commanding 3-0 lead within the first 12 minutes of the game thanks to goals by Justin Schutz, Marco Bassler, and Tim Wohlgemuth. They almost ended the period with another goal on top of that, but Tim Brunnhuber failed to capitalize on a shorthanded breakaway in which he beat goaltender Nikita Tolopilo, who had just replaced starting goaltender Andrei Grishenko, but then missed the wide-open net with his shot.

As expected, Belarus came out hard and controlled the first 10 minutes of the 2nd period, eventually getting on the scoreboard with a power play goal by Ivan Drozdov, but Germany managed to catch itself and then pop in a goal just four minutes later by Yannik Valenti to regain the three-goal lead. The teams both headed into the locker room well aware that the game was anything but over, as Belarus had already come back from a 3-0 deficit to beat Norway and a 2-1 deficit to beat France 6-2 – all on the strength of dominant and goal-filled third periods.

But this was a trend Germany was determined to end, and the team did so convincingly. Belarus was never really permitted to get into a productive flow and Germany often spent considerable periods of time with puck possession, managing the game with aplomb. Finally, as Belarus did all it could to get back into the game, having even pulled their goalie for a power play with a good nine minutes to go in the game, Dominik Bokk scored one of the tournament’s most beautiful goals on a solo effort in the 57th minute, letting there be no doubt who was taking these three points.

“Today we took the next step in our team’s development and the realization of our goals. The boys delivered an absolutely incredible performance against one of the tournament’s top favourites and with that, clearly earned this victory”, explained coach Kunast.

The team was celebrated after the game by roughly 1,700 spectators in Fussen and awards were handed out by Konrad Abelthauser, a Red Bull Munich defenceman who has won the DEL championship three years in row and who himself had also been an integral member of the 2013 U20 team, which like this year’s edition managed to gain promotion at a U20 World Championship Division I held in Bavaria (Garmisch-Partenkirchen). And with that, Germany has swept away three straight years of disappointment at this tournament, namely in Vienna, Bremerhaven, and Meribel and Courchevel, to finally gain promotion back into the age group’s top circuit.

“We wanted to show the hockey world that it was a mistake that we were relegated last year, that we belong in the top group”, explained disappointed Belarusian captain Maxim Sushko. “We wanted to use this tournament to give the next generation the opportunity to play at the highest level.”

“We were ready and rested. We watched videos and even had plan B, which we had used the third period of the previous game to practice. We knew what was coming and we went into the game confident that we could win, knowing it’d be a hard and fun game that, was, well, an end game.”

For Belarus, which came into to the tournament as the top-seeded team to gain promotion, things had started out with three straight regulation victories, beating Norway 5-3, France 6-2, and Austria 5-0. This left little doubt that there’d be no promotion for any other team without the Belarusians having a say in the matter. The loss to Germany then sucked the life out of them. Getting down 3-0 early was only enhanced by a plethora of poor passes and a bevy of missed opportunities. That trend continued throughout the game, and into the next one. Belarus ended the tournament with a 3-1 loss to Latvia. Nonetheless, Belarus did finish second overall in the final standings.

The rest

The tournament kicked off with Belarus, Latvia, and Germany being the odds favourites. In fact, it was hard to tell which of these teams would have the upper hand and it was looking like quite the battle royale coming in. But that all changed in the very first game, when Latvia was stunned by France, losing 3-1 to “les bleus”. They appeared to have recovered from that upset when they took down Austria 4-1, but then host Germany came along and ended hopes of promotion with a 4-1 win of its own against the Latvians, who wound up finishing 4th overall.

Ultimately, third place was locked up by Norway, which was the “newcomer” in the group after gaining promotion at last year’s Division I Group B on the strength of an overtime victory over Poland. The traditional Scandinavian mainstay in Group A had ups and downs throughout the tournament, kicking things off with a 5-3 loss to Belarus and a 4-0 shellacking against Germany. The team looked a lot better on the ice than those scores indicated, and proved what it could do by beating France 5-0 and then knocking off Latvia 4-2, before settling things with a 3-2 overtime victory over Austria. 

This turnaround surely had much to do with the arrival of the team’s star Mathias Emelio Pettersen, who missed the first game while flying halfway across the world from Denver, Colorado, where he had played several college games with the Denver Pioneers just last weekend before hopping on the plane. He did play against Germany, pretty much heading into the game straight from the airport after roughly a day of travel, but proceeded to put up three goals and six points in the final three games of the tournament. That begs to question what might have been, if the team’s already drafted star had been fresh and ready to go right from the beginning?

In addition to France, Austria can be anything but happy about this tournament. Unlike France, it did manage to avoid relegation with a hard-fought and concentrated 3-2 OT loss to Norway on the final day of play. Things began well for the Austrians as the came back to force Germany to overtime on the first day of the tournament. It then lost its next two games convincingly in regulation, before beating France 4-2 in a game that had the look of a do-or-die relegation event. With a win and two overtime losses, the Austrians live to fight again at next year’s event, one in which several strong 2002-born players should be on the team and leading the way.

After doing the top teams a favour by beating Latvia on the first day of the tournament, France wasn’t able to gain even one more point the rest of the week, struggling mightily to create any offence whatsoever. When all was said and done, the team only managing to score eight goals in five games and has been relegated in what is an unfortunate step back for a program that had looked to be very much at home in this class in recent years. 

Special talents of note

For the scouting community – and indeed various NHL, European, and junior club scouts were in attendance – this tournament featured a number of players in just the type of pressure situation they wanted to see them in. Particularly Germany’s captain Moritz Seider was under the microscope right from the get-go and he didn’t disappoint. He not only ate up gobs of ice time in all possible situations and scenarios, he also chipped in a goal and six assists while going +8 throughout the tournament. Almost more impressive was his astounding ability to calm down and control hectic situations with the poise of a player much older and experienced than he is while setting the physical tone with every opportunity. Moritz won’t even turn 18 until next April and already gets somewhat regular ice time playing for the DEL’s first-place team, Adler Mannheim.

He’s expected to be a top-50 pick in this summer’s NHL draft.

Also of great interest were the performances at this level of a number of players who have already been drafted, including Germany’s Dominik Bokk, Leon Gawanke, and Justin Schutz, Belarus’ Maxim Sushko and Vladislav Yeryomenko, and Norway’s Mathias Pettersen and Kristian Marthinsen. As a first rounder for the St. Louis Blues in last summer’s draft and a forward who has already been getting somewhat regular power play time this season for SHL powerhouse Vaxjo Lakers, much was expected of Dominik Bokk at this tournament and it was clear to him that no player had higher expectations to live up to. 

Although there were plenty of instances where he held onto the puck too long or tried to do too much on his own, he nonetheless led the tournament in scoring and flashed the kind of innate skill that nary a player at this tournament, much less whatsoever in his age group, possesses. Cool, calm, collective, and confident, he often put on a show and one could argue that if he were playing with a few more guys with a similar skill level, he might have had upwards of 15 assists at this tournament.

Of players who were looking to use this tournament to make a bigger name for themselves internationally, Belarus’s Ivan Drozdov did just that in leading the team’s attack to the tune of four goals and six points and earned the Best Forward award. Already a regular for Dynamo Minsk in the KHL at age 19, many in the scouting community have looked to see more out of him on a bigger stage and this tournament apparently was just the right tonic for a kid who has wanted to show what he’s capable of.

Likewise, Norwegian right winger Samuel Solem led his team in scoring and was one of the tournament’s top goal scorers with four tallies and six points. He has played for SHL team Brynas’ junior club in recent years and has even suited up for six SHL games this season. His performance was crucial for his team and exactly what experts had expected to see out of him. 

Things were unfortunate for several youngsters who were expected to play a huge role in helping their team gain promotion. German 16-year old winger Tim Stutzle came into the event looking to make sure that his name was finally engraved in the notebook of any and every scout out there. Already committed to the University of New Hampshire as of the 2020/21 season, the multifaceted forward is felt to be the most dynamic German prospect since Leon Draisaitl, Bokk included. Unfortunately, he was injured in the warm-ups to the game against Norway and missed the rest of the tournament. He could only support his team from the sidelines, but rest assured that he’ll play a huge role for Team Germany in next year’s World Juniors.

More unfortunate however were the hopes of Austria’s top youngster, Marco Rossi, who was looked at to lead the way for Austria if there’d be any hopes of gaining promotion. Playing for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, for whom he’s already collected 27 points in 23 games this season, the 17-year-old who is first eligible for the 2020 NHL draft sustained an injury shortly before the tournament began and, as was then seen over the course of the week, could not be compensated for as Austria spent more time battling against relegation than finding a way to move up the totem pole. Sadly, this also means that local hockey fans missed out on seeing one of the finest young phenomena Austria has ever produced. 

Of course, no team felt the absence of its best possible player more than France, who showed up without Alexandre Texier, its best prospect in decades. Despite looking outstanding for the first 127 minutes of the tournament, the roof crashed in on the French once the Belarusians popped in four third-period goals against them in game 2. The team failed to gain a point after that. 

Texier surely could have been an immense help in swaying the French’s fate in another direction, as this would have been his third U20 World Championship event. In addition, the all-round forward has been a mainstay for Liiga team KaiPa Kuopio in Finland, for whom he currently has 15 points after putting up 13 goals and 22 points last season. There’s absolutely no telling what he could have meant to this French side, as he’s clearly this generation’s leader and would have been the most experienced professional player at this tournament. Alas, KaiPa wasn’t willing to release him to attend.

As a side note, although all six participating nations hail from Europe, roughly 20 of the players who participated in the tournament had to cross the Atlantic from North America to get here. Alone 10 of them hailed from Belarus’ roster.

Happy hosts

The German Ice Hockey Association (DEB) showed itself to be quite happy with not only the outcome of the tournament, but also the numbers in attendance. With the exception of the weekday games against Norway and Latvia, to which roughly 1,100 people pilgrimed into the arena, all of Germany’s games were attended by over 1,600 spectators, with the final game against France seeing a good 2,000 in attendance. 

Robert Schutt of the DEB summed up the organization’s overall feeling about hosting this event: “We are very satisfied with the tournament, with how many people came to see the games, with the atmosphere they created in cheering on no less than the home team, and of course with the fact that Germany gained promotion by finishing first overall. The National Center for Performance and Competition, which hosted the games in Fussen, proved to be a great host site for the event and all of the teams have expressed how happy they were with the overall organization and accommodations.”

Tops in the tournament

  • The top goaltender of the tournament was Germany’s Hendrik Hane, who had four victories, a 94.9 save percentage, and an outstanding 0.98 goals against average.
  • The top defenceman of the tournament was Germany’s captain Moritz Seider, who finished third overall in scoring with one goal and seven points while going +8.
  • The top forward of the tournament was Belarus’ Ivan Drozdov, who led his team in scoring with four goals and six points.
  • The tournament’s top scorer was Dominik Bokk with one goal and eight points, accompanied by a +5 rating.