Czech Republic

2018 IIHF World Championship: Hockey impressions

If you have yet to read the previous post on my experience at the 2018 IIHF World Championship, click here.

As you might already know, I was bunked in Copenhagen for the 2018 IIHF World Championship. And even though I only watched a handful of matches in full, parts of a few more and barely anything that went down in Herning, I still want to collect a few takeaways from the tournament and each team I followed. Without further ado:

Austria

Immediately demoted following every previous top division appearance, the Austrians arrived in Copenhagen with a single goal in mind: avoid relegation at all costs. An achievement unlocked with flying colours after their resounding 4-0 triumph over Belarus in a do-or-die situation and, impressively, just 24 hours after a traumatic 2-5 loss against fellow relegation fodder France. It’s true that way back in their tournament opener Austria had surprisingly forced Switzerland to play overtime, escalating internal expectations, but more couldn’t have been asked from a team missing star forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner.

Eventually Philadelphia’s Michael Raffl showed up to infuse some NHL skill into the lineup, notching two eye-popping goals against the Czech and four in total, while veteran goalie Bernhard Starkbaum (91.79 Sv%, 2.72 GAA) authored some of the most spectacular desperation saves in the tournament, nonetheless the Austrian’s 14th place in the final standings is generally representative of their potential.

The Austrian players kneel to thank their fans for the support in the game against Belarus (new-iihf.com).

Belarus

A team in transition now that the Kostitsyn brothers and Mikhail Grabovski are being phased out, not many expected the Belarussians to bother the big nations like they’ve done at times in the past, yet their Danish nightmare went way deeper than that. Thrashed by France (6-2) between expected routs from Sweden and Russia, five days into the competition coach Dave Lewis was relieved off his duties, however the move didn’t rally the troops and the results continued to go from bad to worse, with that embarrassing defeat to Austria sealing their first relegation since 2003.

Madly inept in front of the goal, Belarus only scored 8 times in 7 games and half of those came in a washed out finale against Slovakia, where they provided their faithful with some semblance of hope, turning a 0-2 into a 4-3, before surrendering 4 straight Slovakian markers. Disastrous.

Belarus’ players react after their 7th and final loss at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Czech Republic

There was so much to like about Czech Republic’s performance in Copenhagen, so much promise, and they still headed home empty handed for the sixth consecutive year. Pushing the Swedes like few others did, and defeating Russia in a thriller, the Czech’s group prospects were eventually undone by the crucial points dropped in those early overtime encounters against Switzerland and Slovakia, forcing an extra trip to Herning and an unpredictable quarter-final with the USA decided by Patrick Kane’s genius.

Still, another last-eight exit couldn’t overshadow the confirmation of Pavel Francouz as one of Europe’s best goalies and a smart pickup by the Colorado Avalanche nor the heady play of a relatively anonymous blueline, where Detroit’s prospects Filip Hronek (20-year-old) and Libor Šulák (24) as well as newly-signed Montreal Canadien David Sklenička (21) shone. Moreover, up front, beyond the boost provide by David Pastrňák and David Krejčí, there was a lot to get Carolina Hurricanes’ fans excited about Martin Nečas (19), Vegas fans expectant about what Tomáš Hyka (25) can do in a bigger NHL spell and confidence-building performances by Dmitrij Jaškin(25) or Dominik Kubalík (22). After some bare years, the Czech revolution is underway and it’s a just a matter of time before they barge into the podium again. And how sweet looks the prospect of doing it in Slovakia next year?

Czech center Martin Nečas is chased by his teammates after scoring a late equalizer versus Slovakia.

France

After threatening to reach the quarters last year in Paris, there were natural aspirations regarding a possible second ever top-eight (2014) finish for France, however, despite a positive tournament, they never got particularly close. Hammered by Russia (0-7) in the first day, Les Bleus rebounded to handily best direct rivals Belarus (6-2) and Austria (5-2), yet they would have liked to cause more problems to the Czech (0-6) or the Swiss (1-5).

Taking into account that their two best forwards, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare and Antoine Roussel, didn’t don the sweater, Cristobal Huet is history, and the lack of alternatives to long-time mainstays such as Damien Fleury or the da Costa brothers is an inescapable reality, securing a 12th consecutive top division appearance in 2019 was not only an accomplishment but a nice way to bid adieu to retiring coach Dave Henderson.

France’s Jordann Perret reacts after scoring a goal on Belarus (Getty Images)

Russia

As I see it, you can evaluate Russia’s performance under two distinct prisms: they were without their five best players (Malkin, Kucherov, Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin) but still clinched second place in the group before falling in an hard-fought QF against Canada, which is obviously no shame and therefore qualifies Ilya Vorobyov’s first competition in charge as satisfactory. Or you could state that the Olympic Champions (…) dropped a winnable match against the Czech, were squarely beaten by Sweden and, once again, faltered in the moment of truth in a tournament they weren’t overwhelming favourites…

Not sure which option was favoured by Russian media, so I’ll just skip ahead and note that young Kirill Kaprizov put together another star-making performance in the international limelight, netting 6 goals in 8 games (Patience, Wild fans, exert patience), and together with Nikita Gusev and Pavel Datsyuk rekindled the magic of Pyeongchang to form the most dominant line seen in Copenhagen. Want another KHL player to keep tabs on? SKA St. Petersburg’s Alexander Barabanov, a skilled 23-year-old, bottom-six winger who posted 4 goals and 4 assists to turn scout’s heads aplenty.

Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk in action against Switzerland in a preliminary group match (Russian Ice Hockey Federation)

Slovakia

Just like their neighbours, Slovakia hasn’t medalled since 2012. Unlike the Czech, it’s difficult to anticipate that streak will be broken soon. Sure, the 9th place obtained in Denmark is an improvement over the disastrous 14th of 2017, but that shouldn’t be the standard for one of hockey’s traditional nations, which ought to get into the last eight regularly. Pipped to fourth place in Group A by virtue of a 0-2 defeat to the Swiss, the Slovaks showed fighting spirit against Sweden and the Czechs, failing both times in overtime, yet their well-documented struggles in graduating fresh blood into the national team setup were front and centre once again.

Goalie Marek Čiliak played decently, especially against the Czech, but he didn’t steal a game, the Slovak defence was still anchored by veteran Andrej Sekera – though it was nice to see draft-eligible Martin Fehérvary getting a test run – and the attack paced by the everlasting Ladislav Nagy, who posted 10 pts (5 against Belarus) as a 39-year-old top-line winger. With just two NHL players amongst their ranks (defenseman Christián Jaroš, from Ottawa, was the other), at least the tournament gave Tomáš Jurčo (4 goals) a chance to display some signs of life, with his raw skill sticking out from the mob.

Slovakia’s Tomáš Jurčo celebrates his goal against Austria (nhl.com)

Sweden

Preliminary round success in international play is a patented Swedish tradition and they delivered. After that, things naturally get trickier, but buoyed by the yellow wave that invaded Royal Arena, the Tre Kronor surfed high expectations in Copenhagen to end up seizing a second consecutive world title. Not that the Swedes were always overwhelming  – Latvia, Slovakia and Switzerland can attest to that – however they managed to keep their nerve while trailing, continuing to pummel the opposition until they found a way to retake control of the proceedings.

And it helped, obviously, that their roster was brimming with established NHL talent and experience, headlined by the best defence corps in the tournament (Larsson, Ekman Larsson, Klingberg and Lindholm is a sick top-four) and a top forward line that clicked immediately, as Mattias Janmark (10 pts) managed to keep pace with Mika Zibanejad and Rikard Rakell (6 goals each). In any case, if that wasn’t enough firepower for opponents to deal with, Mattias Ekholm, Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist soon disembarked directly from North America just to exacerbate the problem, and their supposed Achilles heel, the goaltending position, sorted itself out as Anders Nilsson ousted Magnus Hellberg’s competition before running away with Media All-Star honours (95.4, 1.09, 3 SO)..and the Cup.

Team Sweden listen to the national anthem after winning a match at the 2018 IIHF World Championship (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Switzerland

Who would have thought the same Swiss team that struggled to squeak past Austria in their opener would eventually shock the hockey world two weeks later? In fact, not just once, which can be attributed to luck, but almost three straight times in a span of four days, upsetting established hockey nations with relentless team effort and discipline. Looking back though, the turning point for the Swiss might have been that tough back-to-back against Russia and Sweden (12/13 of May), when their battle level wasn’t enough to erase deficits but inspired belief.

Afterwards, the Swiss stomped France to book a place in the QF, raided Finland in a four-minute second period blitz, and built a Cinderella story that deserved a happy ending. It wasn’t meant to be, nonetheless Switzerland paved the road to success for mid-level nations: extract tremendous contributions from your NHL players (Timo Meier, Nino Niederreiter and Sven Andrighetto notched a point per game, Mirco Mueller stepped up in the medal round, late-arrivals Kevin Fiala and Roman Josi added a new dimension), ride a hot goalkeeper (Leonardo Genoni was immense vs Canada and Sweden) and – not least – unearth a few hidden gems along the way. For the Swiss, that was synonymous with defenseman Ramon Untersander (3 goals, 7 points), sneaky forward Gregory Hofmann (4 goals) and the tournament’s revelation, Enzo Corvi, the 25-year-old HC Davos center who rode shotgun with Niederreiter and scored a beauty of an overtime winner against Austria.

Jubilant Swiss players get together to celebrate victory over Canada in the semi-final of the 2018 IIHF World Championship (Getty Images)

Canada

Connor McDavid is unlikely to be available for the Worlds for much of the next 15 years (right, Edmonton?) and the Canadians, to put it simple, blew away a great opportunity to level Russia’s (including Soviet Union) record tally of 27 gold medals in the competition. Evidently not due to the young phenomenon’s efforts, since he piled up the points (17 in 10 matches), scored an hat-trick on the Norwegians and an overtime winner that avoided embarrassment versus Latvia, but it’s still a fact that McDavid didn’t exactly rip the opposition to shreds in the playoff round. This in spite of the three assists against Russia, followed up by a frustrating match versus the Swiss, and the disappearing act in the team’s putrid effort on a bronze medal contest that epitomized Canada’s tournament, one with more valleys than peaks.

Still, positive grades go out to Aaron Ekblad and Colton Parayko (that cannon of a shot is a sight to behold) and all the question marks are reserved for Canada’s entire goaltending situation: a tandem of Darcy Kuemper (awful performance) and Curtis McElhinney (serviceable…)? No comments. Except we’ll take the time to report the name of Canada’s third string goalie: Michael Di Pietro. Who?

Canadians Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly and Aaron Ekblad celebrate victory over Russia at the World Championship quarter-finals (Getty Images)

Latvia

Why, Latvia? Who allowed you free reign to destroy our beautiful dream, a Sweden-Denmark quarter-final? I’ll only forgive you because Latvian hockey fans are awesome and your goalies have a penchant for creating chaos. How else can we explain the fact unheralded Kristers Gudļevskis put a scare into the Canadian hearts again? Or that Elvis Merzļikins – great name, greater numbers (94.04 Sv%, 1.50 GAA, 2 SO) – shut down Denmark, forced the USA to OT and came pretty close from doing the same to the almighty Swedes?

USA

For once the Americans didn’t tank a bronze medal game! Because they still felt the sting of their semi-final debacle? Maybe. Because they cherish every opportunity to get an upper-hand on the Canadians? A bit. But I prefer to believe they badly wanted to honour Jim Johannson, the USA Hockey mainstay and mentor who unexpectedly passed away in January at age 53.

In an emotive ceremony, John Johannson, Jim’s brother, handed out the bronze medals to the American players and, afterwards, they all expressed their profound esteem for the man, yet they should know the best way to preserve his legacy at USA Hockey is to follow Patrick Kane’s lead: show up every May with a strong, committed group and establish the Americans as a force to be reckoned at the World Championships too. This was another step, as no one scored as much as the USA (46 goals) or picked up more points than Kane (20), the tournament MVP, but to claim a World title in the future, they’ll have to clean up the type of lacklustre performances that caused Finland and Sweden to pump six goals into Keith Kinkaid’s net.

Nick Bonino of the U.S. scores a goal in the bronze-medal match (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Finland

The mystifying tales of a talented Finnish duo that was setting Herning on fire didn’t take long to reach the Danish Capital, and just as I rubbed my hands in anticipation of the incoming circus, the party was over. Forty goals in eight games, demolitions of Canada (5-1) and the USA (6-2) interspersed by head-scratching losses to Denmark and Germany. Of course, Finland would have to draw their worst version against Switzerland. Still, 18 pts for Sebastian Aho (9 goals!) and 14 (5+9) for Teuvo Teräväinen, with the Hurricanes’ duo combining for a +29 rating in just 8 games? Absurd.

Denmark

It’s fair to call Denmark’s tournament a(n on-ice) failure. Quarter-Finalists in 2010 and 2016, they were dumped out, on home soil, by tiny Latvia in a winner-takes-all preliminary finale contested days after, predictably, achieving the most difficult: overcome Olympic silver medallists Germany and steal three points from the high-flying Finns.

It’s true that Denmark’s most explosive offensive weapons, Nikolaj Ehlers and Lars Eller, were still involved in the NHL playoffs, but the hosts still boasted the majority of their stalwarts (Frans Nielsen, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mikkel Bødker, Jannik Hansen) and none could buy a single goal against Latvia. Frederik Andersen, their joker, did all he could (94.38 Sv%, 1.65 GAA) on the other end and his titanic effort still went to waste. Bah.

Goalie Frederik Andersen leads Team Denmark’s salute to the public of Herning after the victory over Finland on May 9th (Martin Rose/Getty Images Europe)

Nothing to report: Germany, Norway, North Korea

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Field Report: 2018 IIHF World Championship

They promised Heroes would come and when they finally departed, a trail of indelible memories was left behind: of on-ice feats that will ring for generations to come, of the visitors who fuelled an unprecedented party, of jam-packed arenas and rivals turned friends. Along with multiple accounts of parents and kids watching the sport for the first time, of locals inspired by vulcanized rubber and skates scratching the ice on a country that soon realized what it was missing on.

Fifteen years. That’s how long Denmark has squared off, spring after spring, with ice hockey’s powerhouse nations and how long it took to place the sport in the national conversation. A decade and a half of breakthroughs, milestones and small victories, but also of  painfully slow growth in dedicated infrastructures, number of participants, attendances and exposure. So much that every other (European) top-division regular exercised its right to host the sport’s annual showcase, the main IIHF World Championship, before the Danes took a leap of faith, believing that a country with just 27 rinks, 5000 registered players and an average turnout of 1300 spectators in the national league could rise to the challenge. With a helping hand from the hockey world, both in the stands and behind the scenes, Denmark aced the test, crushing expected attendance figures and administering an immaculate sports event whose financial and capital benefits will trickle down the national hockey edifice for a long time.

However, as much I would like to continue to pump the Danes’ tires, this is a post about my personal experience in Denmark as one of 1100 volunteers that helped stage the Ice Hockey Worlds and, necessarily, as a rabid hockey fan, so let’s get on with it. First, should I introduce you to my “working” space?

Inside and outside Royal Arena

Contested by the 16 best ice hockey nations, the IIHF World Championship Top Division is yearly held across two venues, with teams divided in two groups of eight that run concurrently before a knockout stage. For the 2018 competition, that meant the city of Herning, in the central Jutland Region and the country’s hockey hotbed, welcomed hosts Denmark and seven opponents at the impressive Jyske Bank Boxen Arena, while the remaining eight nations, including bordering Sweden, faced off in Copenhagen and the brand-new Royal Arena.

Royal Arena shining under the sun in the first day of the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Opened last year, the result of a private-public partnership that desired to bestow the Danish capital with a modern entertainment venue that could host major spectacles and sporting events, the Royal Arena is as conveniently located as any leading, non-central venue could be. Served by a regional training station that runs to the airport, the city centre or across the Øresund in a few minutes, and with two metro stations (Ørestad and Vestamager) in walking distance, the building is not only a centerpiece of Ørestad’s development into one of Copenhagen’s burgeoning residential districts, but also a state-of-the art, lustrous setting that blends glass and wooden details into an elegant, distinct Nordic style look.

Moreover, on the inside, the curvy concourses in all levels are spacious and delicately illuminated as to take advantage of the natural light when available, whereas the three-tiered stands came short of forming a full bowl since one of the sides ends in an adjustable walled area that can fit multiple purposes, including the installation of a provisional stand for the World Championship. With decent sightlines and dark seating all around, the arena might need a suitable audience to feel accommodating, yet, at near full capacity (12490 spectators for the tournament), the noise and colours popped out nicely to produce some raucous and genuinely fun atmospheres.

Still, there’s no arguing that the added magic of major, tournament-like sport events lies as much in what happens while the real action is going on as the festive environment before and after the matches, and that was definitely taken care off at the Worlds Fanzone. Conveniently located just across the street (Hannemanns Allé) from the Royal Arena, the 10.000m2 outdoor area staged a true manifestation of the friendly nature of hockey fans, with rival factions drinking, playing and, generally, hanging out together and behaving exceptionally well even as beer flowed freely.

A packed Fanzone awaits the start of the Final.

As someone much more used to the sectarian, markedly antagonistic nature of football fans – especially at the club level – I can’t exactly say that surprised described my feelings when I took a few minutes to enjoy the festival-like environment, but I was, definitely, a little proud of the sense of camaraderie emanating as game-time approached and the amicable banter that followed the on-ice battles.

Furthermore, with many activities and games fit for children and youngsters available, Copenhagen’s Fanzone was also a favourite of the natives, with the local organizers making a concerted effort to invite and provide arena access to schools for lower-profile matchups, and the kids, in turn, taking full advantage of the opportunity. Hopefully, a few of those boys and girls shooting a puck for the first time felt inspired to take on this beautiful sport (since they actually can, you know L).

Alas, I didn’t travel to Copenhagen to meander through the fanzone or sit in the stands, so what the hell was I actually doing?

At the Media Center

Media Center Assistant. Loooots of fun (”Czechoslovakia” speaker voice, please). No sporting event these days makes sense without the men and women tasked with disseminating its stories to the world, and making sure they possess all the conditions to do just that was the central mandate of our job.

In short, we’re talking about guaranteeing a functional working environment before, during and after the matches, from the early mornings (when teams held their practices) up to two hours after the end of the last game of the day (usually past midnight). That entailed, amongst others, distributing crucial tournament information to the people who needed it fast (and burning through an Amazonia-like tonnage of paper in the process), keep all the relevant updates available and easily accessible, sort out ways to help with any odd situations that may arise (baggage/equipment storing, for example) and, critically, make sure that they kept their minds sane in spite of the furious workload they’re subjected to during the fortnight. The secret?  Media Center’s own Holy Trinity: Coffee, bananas and cookies!

Honestly, I know that might not sound that exciting unless you really enjoy sifting though piles of all kinds of hockey statistics, glancing at game reports or checking roster updates every day (*raises hand*), but the job does come with manifold perks that would make anyone’s time worthwhile, namely premium access to the media stand and several short windows to follow the action and soak the arena’s in-game atmosphere.

Nonetheless, if you’re a media buff like me or simply a hockey enthusiast, the opportunity to contact, meet and chat with all kinds of accredited media, from acclaimed reporters, broadcasters and writers to the more inconspicuous cameramen and photographers hailing from all parts of the hockey world is probably enticing enough, and things might get even better as soon as you realized that journalists only form a portion of the tremendous amount of hockey people that prowl the IIHF World Championship Media Center on a daily basis.

Look, kid. That guy’s a hockey legend.

Have you heard the expression “a healthy scratch watching from the press box”? Well, if players want to observe their teammates or opponents in action, they do need to find a seat in the Media tribune. And with them come the coaches. And team officials. And honourable guests, from NHL General Managers to head coaches or scouts, who would very much like to socialize with fellow hockey people and grab a lineup to help follow the activity on ice.

So, now imagine if you get a bit star struck simply by bumping into TSN’s Darren Dreger, or having to interrupt the intermission chat of the best commentating duo in the business (Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro) to deliver a game report, and now magnify it when you notice that Nick Lidstrom is standing a few meters away seconds before jumping on air to provide analysis of Sweden’s debut. Also spotted in this bustling area during the tournament by this overexcited hockey nerd: legendary players like Alexei Yashin (Russia), Jiri Fischer (Czech Republic), Miroslav Satan (Slovakia) and Martin Brodeur (Canada), NHL GMs such as Ray Shero (New Jersey Devils) and Jim Nill (Dallas Stars) and Stanley Cup winning-coaches like Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking now. “Stop bragging, idiot! Also, big deal. A bunch of has beens. What about the (current) stars of the show?” Well…

The Mixed Zone

If you’ve ever followed a major sports event, such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, you’ve likely heard of the Mixed Zone, loosely defined as an area where athletes speak with the media after doing their thing in front of millions of spectators.

For a guy like Usain Bolt at the Olympics, the Mixed zone ritual is an interminable, energy-sapping labyrinth of international press that has to be navigated, and while the IIHF World Championships and most of its athletes obviously aren’t at the same level, hockey players have to deal with a similar kind of apparatus after every game, with all competitors funnelled right as they leave the ice to a room where they meet plenty of faces eager to get a money quote.

A looping area divided in four sections, the Mixed Zone is a tightly-run entity that offers broadcasters and official TV rights holders the first crack at the players, who subsequently move to face radio reporters, web media personal and the voracious print /online writers in this order.

The Mixed Zone room (after a practice session).

While not obliged to express their feelings, every dressed player (and head coach) is still required to do the full tour and since competition for exclusive time with star players is fierce, things are bound to get messy and confusing without some kind of proactive action. And that’s where we entered as in order to expedite and facilitate the process, we kept an eye on everyone to guarantee no regulations were broken (especially regarding illegal video recording), but also sought media requests, tried to liaison with the team media managers, and regularly helped spot and stop the most coveted athletes so that everyone would leave happy. Likewise, a similar procedure followed every practice session held on the main arena or the adjacent (and absolutely freezing) practice rink.

All in all, standing on the mixed zone, rubbing shoulders with reporters and standing centimetres apart from every hockey star in the tournament was, unequivocally, a highlight of my experience. And since I was fortunate enough to be assigned for it frequently and on a daily basis, might as well just spit out some loose (but innocuous) observations based  on what I saw and listened in there regarding the eight teams that formed group A plus Canada, transplanted from Herning for the quarter-finals.

Insights from the Mixed zone

  • Exactly where’s the separation between Belarus and Russia? I’m aware of the close political, cultural and linguistic ties, but it still took me a surprisingly long time (and a lot of accreditation double-checking) to pinpoint the breadth of the Belarussian contingent dispatched to Copenhagen as they diligently split allegiances, attention and resources through the group stage. Additionally, reference to the unpredictable scheduling of Belarus’ head coach(es) declarations, dizzyingly bouncing at will between off-days, post-practice, pre-game and post-game, in turn creating a few logistical problems, and to goalie Vitali Trus, winner of the “seriously, how old is this guy?” award by defying his pubescent looks for a full decade.
  • The Austrian’s post-victory routine with their travelling devotees was fascinating, but they were still, by far, the quietest bunch in terms of press interest. Virtually no domestic coverage, limited outside curiosity for a roster that lacked buzz, and a lot of expectant faces trekking the mixed zone and waiting for a chance to share their thoughts that rarely came.

Ice-level view of the stands.

  • How big is hockey in Czech Republic? I figured I had a good idea, but it was still impressive to notice the all-hands-on-deck coverage on every platform, from TV to web and print. Including, I was told, plenty of eminent on-air talent reporting from Denmark, and large amounts of backstage/TV production equipment on site.

In addition, the frenzy around the team noticeably piqued after the arrival of the two NHL Davids – even if one persisted in trying to skip part of his media obligations – whereas the distinct change of the guard was also evident in the mixed zone. While Tomáš Plekanec’s presence barely registered a blip, Martin Nečas prominence ratchet up by the game. Oh, and Philadelphia’s Radko Gudas is a surprisingly affable guy off the ice… or maybe his invaluable contributions to the Penguins playoff cause were simply too fresh on my memory to cloud my judgement.

  • Allez Les Blues. Putting aside the fact that I’m still bummed Stéphane da Costa somehow evaded my watchful eye, the French definitely shot up my preferences during the tournament. A rather small but polite and welcoming group of journalists, players thrilled to answer every request regardless of the origin, and our unofficial award for the finest media managing work claimed by Team France’s Valérie Thibault. Well, the free keychains/pins helped too, I guess.
  • The Russians. Ever-present in all media areas, they were clearly better left on their own unless you happened to speak the language as both players and media looked noticeably uninterested in making much of an effort to speak English. In fact, such trump card was repeatedly played by many of their KHL-based elements, which further increased the international media burden on the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Artem Anisimov (btw, we missed you, Ovi). Get ready, Mr. Kaprizov, that’s what the near future holds for you, sir. Outside of ridiculous offensive stats on the ice and female worshipping of it, of course.
  • If clinging to the past defines the current state of Slovakian hockey, shipping one of the less than a handful of radio reporters working in the tournament is its media-equivalent, right? Anyway, kudos to coach Craig Ramsay for the gracious way he handled the pressure of the Slovak media after the early exit, and to captain Andrej Sekera, also their runaway leader in the number of post-game engagements. Meanwhile, he didn’t play much, but the tournament’s youngest participant, 18-year-old Martin Fehérváry, drew his fair share of curiosity in the mixed zone.

Rikard Rakell doing extra hours in the mixed zone after one of Sweden’s early matches

  • For geographical reasons, Sweden’s media contingent was, by far, the biggest in the competition and, naturally, it just kept growing as the Tre Kronor marched to the title. Already a premium ticket for their blend of talent, recognizable faces and English proficiency, all Swedish mixed zones were wild, especially in the print media area, unbearably crowded by the end. Still, no one could ever criticize the players’ effort as the Swedish stars held court multiple times and rarely rushed out of the loop. The patience displayed by the likes of Rickard Rakell, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mika Zibanejad and the late arriving Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist was truly commendable.

On the contrary, it was disconcerting to notice that a guy like Hampus Lindholm flies as much under-the-radar at home as in the NHL and even captain Mikael Backlund’s low-profile from Calgary held up. Young Elias Pettersson broke a finger midway to cut short his tournament, but I can report his media education is going quite well (the same can’t be said of his physical maturation), such was his cordiality and generosity in repeatedly answering the same questions about Vancouver, whereas head coach Rikard Gronborg really strikes an imposing presence, his mastery in contact with the media and ability to spew out words without actually saying much the final proof that an NHL opportunity is right around the corner.

  • Not unlike their hockey team, Swiss media was hardly noticeable throughout the first week of the tournament, displaying the usual Helvetian reserve and efficiency, but as the group increased and the Eisgenossen soared, they made their presence felt. For instance, by taking over the final corner of the print section and diligently waiting for their heroes to navigate the rest of the maze, which also made our job easier. Moreover, there seemed to be a real sense of togetherness that extended from the team to the media, regardless of language differences, and that probably contributed to make Patrick Fischer’s ritual though the media zone more enjoyable, as the 42-year-old head coach steadily ploughed through all the requests in the country’s three official languages (Italian, French and German).

As for the players, there was a healthy mix of interest dispensed to both the European-based guys, especially the breakout names, and the NHL guys, but Roman Josi, unsurprisingly, proved to be on a different level, brushing aside a disappointing end of the season and all the miles logged in the last two seasons to show up in Copenhagen ready to handle almost as much off the ice as inside.

  • How can you infer that it is time to scale back your hockey-time allocation? When you can identify TSN’s Tessa Bonhomme in the flash zone area without having to check her accreditation card…Anyway, Canada relocated from Herning, and while I obviously can’t speak to their approach in the preliminary stage, their press managers definitely meant business in Copenhagen after the elimination games, escorting players from stop to stop and making sure they didn’t talk more than the absolutely necessary.

McDavid? He dutifully stopped by TSN’s place and then moved straight to the print section, where this happened: “Connor, Connor, anyone wants Connor?” – Cue pandemonium and mass migration, with reporters pushing and elbowing each other and a major scrum forming in a matter of seconds, an indistinct melee of phones, audio recorders, heads and arms. 97 fielded a pair of questions and onward he went, with whoever missed him left to grab someone else. Amongst the frontrunners I can nominate Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Colton Parayko, but it was Aaron Ekblad who drew my biggest chuckle throughout the experience at the mixed zone: A “Do you want to join too?” directed at a volunteer too animated in his attempts to not let another Canuck slip away from a web request.

Extras:

  • To Team USA’s press manager: Please return my semi-final sheet. Or, at least, next time make sure any of the inquiries is met. Tks. Also, props to Patrick Kane, the American captain who answered the call even after their embarrassing semi-final performance to honour his much-appreciated commitment to the competition.

A few American players kick a ball around before the third-place playoff.

  • The Finnish players never landed in Copenhagen, but the amount of media (and fans) that still showed up for the medal games was impressive.

Press Conferences are only held at the World Championship from the quarter-finals forward, which means I was present at just two (CAN-RUS and USA-CAN) of the six scheduled for Copenhagen, but I’ll still leave two notes.

  • The third place match really highlighted the lack of North American interest in the tournament. Outside of the TSN crew, there was one (I think) Canadian reporter looking for Bill Peters’ takes on the game. Meanwhile, the victorious American coach, Jeff Blashill, literally held a one-on-one exchange with reporter Julie Robenhymer.
  • Why ask your coach anything in English when you can just swarm him and start the deposition after the press conference is called off, right Russian media?

And that’s it for behind-the-curtain fodder I’m willing to share. A few more sections remaining in this post though.

Five favourite players to watch during the tournament

  1. Connor McDavid

The (next) best hockey player in the world performing in front of my eyes and I didn’t even had to cross the Atlantic? Pretty cool. Still, If only he hadn’t forgotten to sip his coffee before the bronze medal match…

  1. Rikard Rakell/Mika Zibanejad

They made some sweet music together on the ice, and repeatedly staying late in the mixed zone meant I could actually listen to their views on the game.

  1. David Pastrňák

The entire gulf in intensity between the NHL playoffs and the IIHF World Championship expressed in one night. Although Patrick Kane didn’t appreciate my hot take enlisting Pastrňák as the tournament’s second best player and the Czechs suffered in result.

  1. Pavel Datsyuk

A legend walking amongst the mortals.

  1. Filip Forsberg

I was on the edge of my seat (if I had one, duh) every time he received the puck in the offensive zone. A magnetic presence that deked the hell out of Sweden’s rivals.

Five memorable games

  1. CZE 4-3 RUS (OT), Group Stage

A rivalry always incensed by massive political and sporting backdrops, the temperature rose quickly at Royal Arena when the Russians opened the score early to break the game apart in front of a rowdy sellout crowd. Fuelled by the fire-branding talent of reinforcements David Krejčí and David Pastrňák, two sleepless demons who combined for 7 points on the night, the Czech should have claimed the three points in regulation, however the 3-3 scoreline was upheld until OT.

Eventually the irrepressible Pastrňák deftly banked the winner to cap an exciting extra session, but the dropped point would make all the difference to separate both teams in the final group standings.

  1. RUS 4-5 CAN (OT), Quarter Final

It’s a shame that hockey’s premier arch nemesis contested an afternoon tilt in a Royal Arena short of full capacity (9.017), but the hockey more than made up for the tepid ambience.

The vaunted Canada-Russia QF matchup

It all started with a Colton Parayko howitzer from the point, the first of three crucial powerplay goals for Canada, and after Russia rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the second, the teams went head-to-head in a wacky third period that demanded extra innings. An overtime hero in PyeongChang a few months ago, Kirill Kaprizov’s debatable penalty opened the door to Canada and Connor McDavid took advantage, threading a sweet pass that was deflected into the winner by Ryan O’Reilly. In a blink, Russia’s dream of an Olympic / World Championship double in the same calendar year went up in smoke.

  1. CAN 2-3 SUI, Semi-Final

There are few things a neutral sports fan enjoys more than a monumental upset, and even if this wasn’t the best possible Canadian team, hats off to the underdog Swiss for taking full advantage of the opportunities, mustering timely secondary scoring (Scherwey, Hofmann and Haas hit the twine) and surviving countless periods of intense Canadian pressure without capitulating or taking penalties.

With a 45-17 discrepancy in shots on goal, Switzerland’s victory was only possible because goalie Leonardo Genoni stood on his head, including a last-second desperation save on Connor McDavid, yet the way the Swiss collapsed in front of the net and kept play to the outside said a lot about the team’s mettle and validated this historical result.

  1. CZE 3-2 SVK (OT)

If someone needed a reality check on how much this tournament means for European nations, this was it. A vibrating, electric atmosphere inside a stuffed hockey arena in the second day of the tournament, a Saturday delight sponsored by a reported 7000 travelling Czech fans and a mass of boisterous Slovaks, an engaging party disguised as a hockey game  between two abutting, brotherly nations with so much in common.

On the ice, the favoured Czech carried the play, but the points belonged in full to the scrappy Slovaks until Martin Nečas found a hole on Marek Čiliak’s armour with just 10 seconds to go in the third period, blowing the roof off the building in the process. Later it fell to teammate Dmitrij Jaškin the responsibility to put an end to a wonderful contest in overtime, picking the puck off his own shot before slipping a backhand over the Slovak goalie’s leg, and outside went both sets of fans, eager to continue the festivities through the night.

  1. SWE 3-2 SUI (SO)

Going into the final day, I knew it would take a majestic decider to take that Czech Republic-Slovakia encounter off the higher perch, and even if history was millimetres away from being made in Copenhagen, the tournament’s climax ultimately delivered enough drama to nudge just ahead.

A Swiss defender lugs the puck up the ice during the Final against Sweden

Taking the lead twice to stun the mostly yellow-clad crowd, the Swiss once again relied on a spectacular Genoni to keep the Swedes in check on this reedition of the 2011 Final, yet the prohibitive tournament favourites managed to puncture the red wall enough times to level at two and force sudden-death. Then, a spine-tingling 20 minute, 4 on 4 extra session featured incredible chances for both sides, particularly Kevin Fiala’s point-blank shot denied by Anders Nilsson’s glove and Adam Larsson’s ping at the final buzzer, however destiny had reserved the abhorrent shootout format as the ultimate tiebreaker. Inching closer to an unprecedented World title, the Swiss again took the lead (Andrighetto) only to watch as Sweden responded with back-to-back conversions authored by NHL All-Stars Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Filip Forsberg. The weight of the world fell on Nino Niederreiter’s shoulders, but he failed to deceive Nilsson and assured Denmark’s maiden tournament would crown their neighbours and a repeated Champion.

Notes on Copenhagen (and Malmö)

You know the drill. This ain’t a travel blog, but I can still summon a few general thoughts on the setting, can’t I?

  • Yes, the Danish Capital is laughingly expensive. But one of the World’s most liveable cities is also absolutely gorgeous when the sun is shining, with locals (and expatriates) rushing to sprawl on the parks, streets and cafes. And boy, the glorious weather decided to bless the World Championships with delightful regularity, I’m happy to report.
  • As an advocate of the “walk-until-your-feet-hurt” city exploration method, it can’t get much better than Copenhagen’s accessibility and compactness in terms of major venues and sights. It’s a pedestrian paradise without the bustle of Amsterdam, and still brimming with canals, water and green everywhere you look.

Frederiksberg Have

  • Getting back, for a minute, to my hockey fan persona. What was up with the complete absence of outdoors publicizing the biggest sporting event in the country’s history around the city center? One banner tucked over one of the side exits of the main train station won’t cut it for the majority of tourists oblivious to the competition, much less shoddy advertisement in some peripheral metro stations on the way to Ørestad.
  • Speaking of Ørestad: if you find yourself in the area and enjoy modern architecture, take the time to admire some of the edgy residential buildings.
  • With minimum research you’ll discover the must-watch sights and tourist traps (one rhymes with idle barmaid), so I’ll leave you with my own non-hockey fanboy moment: Lingering around Christiansborg’s courtyard half-expecting Birgitte Nyborg to turn up and start whispering with political adversaries under the arcades.
  • Favourite places to walk: Frederiksberg Have, Fælledparken (admittedly because of all those football fields marked on the grass) and the lakes area (also quite good for people’s watching, if you’re into that).
  • Favourite place to Bike: Kalvebod Fælled, in Amager. A splendorous wild area of protected wetlands, forest, and lakes rich in wildlife. It’s massive, but you can reach the outer edge in ten minutes from Brygge Islands, just across the canal from the city center.
  • Finally, definitely reserve one day to visit Malmö, just across the Øresund. The views from the bridge crossing are worth the train fare, and the Swedish city has undeniably eschewed for good the bad reputation that stemmed from its industrial past, social divisions and multi-cultural makeup.

If you can tell why I framed this Malmö location, we’re friends for life.

Be aware that Malmö has a charming yet small historical centre (Gamla Staden). Blink and you might miss it coming out of the train station. Thumbs up for the tons of green spaces, the two modern sports venues (Malmö Arena and Swedbank Stadium) and the upscale Västra Hamnen district. Especially its waterfront, a stone throw away from the Turning Torso, which offers great views of the coast, the bridge and the Øresund.

Ok, now that’s really all I have for you in this post. Although not the totality of my “coverage” from the 2018 IIHF World Championship. If you care to read my hockey thoughts on the tournament, head here. If not, thanks for reading.

2018 Winter Olympics review: Best Moments

The best thing about any Olympic Games, what keeps us glued to the television after all, are the athletes and the beautiful ways they inspire the generations to come. The second best thing? The memories created along the way, from those hair-raising, spine-tingling instances that will get discussed for eternity and immortalized in video, photography or gif-form, to the less widespread occasions that resonate on a more personal level and around niche audiences.

Consequently, mobilizing the perspective to sort through the many moments that could fill this category is more challenging than it looks, yet that’s what I’m (not) paid to do, so here you go: five moments I’ll cherish from the PyeongChang Olympics, in a mixture of monumental upsets and emotional breakthroughs recounted in detail, followed by a list of others that could have easily been featured.

  1. Biathlete Hanna Öberg romps to startling 15km Individual triumph

The Individual races are biathlon’s longest solo efforts, and far from the most thrilling format when we take into account that they’re contested against the clock, with the favourites spread across the start list and competing detached of references. Still, these are also events where shooting accuracy is of paramount importance, and a clean slate can do wonders on the way to smashing surprises.

With a couple of top-seven finishes under her belt, Swedish Hannah Öberg had already shown good form in Pyeongchang when she departed for her third race of the Winter Games sporting the No. 24 of 86 competitors, however few would have fancied her chances of a medal at the time.

Positioned outside the top 50 in the 2017-18 World Cup ranks and having never medalled amongst the elite, the 22-year-old would remarkably down every single target on a day of instable weather conditions, going 20-of-20 on the range before motioning fast enough through the tracks to hold off a blazing skiing performance by Slovak Anastasyia Kuzmina (2 misses). When Öberg crossed the line to set the fastest time, she collapsed of exhaustion and soon the nerve-racking process of waiting on her luck began.

A perfect shooting performance set the stage for Hanna Öberg’s incredible triumph (REUTERS)

As the minutes trickled in, one by one the big names did just enough to fall out of contention, and realization that a medal was coming her way started to creep into Öberg’s face on the rest area as the number of athletes still to finish dwindled rapidly. Donning bib 80, double Olympic Champion Laura Dahlmeier represented the last roadblock to a major upset, yet the German flagged in the last loop around the circuit and could only clock the third best time, consummating the young Swede’s delight.

In a perfect representation of the Olympics’ magic, overnight Hanna Öberg went from complete unknown into a national star brimming with confidence, and she punctuated her breakout performance by authoring an incredible comeback in the women’s relay a few days later, vaulting Sweden from eight to second in her anchoring leg to leave PyeongChang with two medals in tow.

The unheralded Swedish biathlete scored two surprising medals in PyeongChang (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

  1. Yun Sung-bin wins historical gold for South Korea in skeleton

In an era where hosting the Olympic Games is an humongous enterprise suited only for a rotating cast of economic powerhouses, historical breakthroughs in home soil can be characterized as a thing of the past, yet it wasn’t that long ago that host nations capitalized on the ultimate Olympic honour by funnelling resources into areas of weakness in order to enjoy major strides in sports that never before formed part of the national conversation.

For South Korea, the Winter Olympics have always been about excelling in ice skating sports, namely figure skating and short track speed skating, and not in the sliding disciplines rooted in Europe and North America, however that changed when Yun Sung-bin’s triumphed in men’s skeleton. Only six years after taking the sport, and four since placing 16th in Sochi, the 23-year-old took full advantage of his familiarity with the Alpensia Sliding Center to record the largest margin of victory in Olympic skeleton history or any sliding event since 1972.

Yun Sung-bin captured the imagination of his compatriots with a dominant performance in men’s skeleton. (Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters)

Sung-bin accumulated a ludicrous 1.63 seconds less than silver medallist Nikita Tregubov by posting the best time in all four runs, and he not only became the first Asian to medal in skeleton, but the first man born outside of the two leading continents to win an Olympic sliding event. And just so the symbolism wouldn’t be lost in the Olympic daily shuffle, after breaking the track record in the final descent, Sung-bin was serenaded by a venue overflowing with beaming compatriots, the local fans flocking in a national holiday to see their new hero complete history.

  1. Jessie Diggins out-sprints Stina Nilsson to secure USA’s first ever Olympic gold in cross-country

There’s no shortage of snow, wilderness or funds that might justify the fact that the United States had never won an Olympic title in cross-country skiing, still that piece of information ringed unequivocally true. Traditionally dominated by Norway, Sweden and Russia, the only previous American honour in the sport dated back to 1976, when Bill Koch claimed silver in the men’s 30km, but that would change on February 21st and in stirring fashion.

Jessie Diggins rejoices after securing the United States first medal in cross-country skiiing in more than 40 years (Lars Baron / Getty Images)

One of the most engaging races in cross-country’s Olympic agenda, the women’s team sprint consisted of 6 by 1.25km sprints alternating between 2 teammates, and when the last exchange took place, favourites Norway, Sweden and United States had already wrapped the three podium positions, leaving only the medal distribution to hang on the efforts of American Jessica Diggins and the reigning individual sprint Champion and runner-up, Stina Nilsson (Sweden) and Maiken Caspersen Falla (Norway), respectively.

The Norwegian was the first to make a move on the final lap, but the others glued behind, leapfrogged in the descent and entered the stadium in front, with Falla lagging as Swede and American prepared for the decisive rush. In earnest, Nilsson surged ahead off the final curve, seemingly on her way to victory by way of her formidable finishing speed, but the 26-year-old Diggins jumped out of her shadow and started to erase the deficit stride by stride to arise in front at the finishing line, winning an exhilarating final sprint for Olympic immortality.

Quickly mauled by Kikkan Randall, the teammate with whom Diggins had also won the team sprint at the 2013 World Championships, disbelief and joy irradiated from the American pair’s emotional embrace, a moment that symbolized more than four decades of national frustration leading up to the United States’ first ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing.

  1. United States finally overthrows Canada for women’s ice hockey gold.

How is it possible that these two teams never disappoint? That United States vs Canada in women’s ice hockey is always synonymous of drama and chaos, enduring moments, heroic performances and everything else that makes hockey great. Four years after a bouncing piece of vulcanized rubber, a post, a soul-crushing ping and Marie-Philip Poulin denied the American players of Olympic glory in Sochi, redemption was once again in their hands, the chance to end Canada’s string of four consecutive gold medals and write a fresh chapter in a sports rivalry with so many twists and turns except when it matters the most.

Twenty years later, the tables finally turned between USA and Canada (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong)

Superior in the team’s group stage encounter in PyeongChang despite falling to Canada by 2-1, the Americans started the Olympic Final on top, scoring on a powerplay deflection by Hilary Knight in the closing seconds of the first period, but the script flipped quickly in the second, with Haley Irwin batting one home before the inevitable Poulin, who had scored the game-winning-goals in the 2010 and 2014 deciders, drove a dagger into the US heart by taking advantage of some sloppy defence. For the next 26 minutes of playing time, frenzied American pressure and superb goaltending by Canada’s Shannon Szabados hailed no changes, and just as it looked like Poulin would be the hero again, a lackadaisical line switch afforded Monique Lamoureux-Morando a breakaway that she buried for the leveller with less than 7 minutes to go in regulation.

For a second consecutive Olympics, the path for Gold would require the sudden-death, anxiety-inducing overtime, but this time Canada couldn’t convert on a late powerplay, and a delightful Final resorted to a skills competition or, as they call it, the (f*ckin) shootout.

One on one against the goalies, Gigi Marvin (USA) and Meghan Agosta (CAN) scored in consecutive attempts, Amanda Kessel (USA) rifled one to answer right after Melodie Daoust (CAN) pulled off “The Forsberg”, and then, on the sixth American shot, Justine Lamoureux-Davidson carried out the move of a lifetime, faking a backhand before dragging the puck across the body of an helpless Szabados and sliding it into the cage.

Leading 3-2 in the shootout in extra innings, all the Americans needed was a save from Maddie Rooney on Agosta, and the 20-year-old, cool as a cucumber and smiling through her mask, kicked out the final shot of the women’s tournament to end an Olympic drought that mirrored her age. At last, time had come for the tears of frustration and sadness to rain from the eyes of the woman clad in red as blue sweaters piled on top of each other a few meters away.

  1. Ester Ledecká rocks Alpine skiing world in dazzling Super-G run

“You are first. You are the winner.

Noooooooooooo.

You are!”

I can’t pinpoint the last time TV spectators were treated to a raw exchange between an athlete and the men manning the camera, yet standard procedure went out the window when the object of attention finished the race and stared slack-jawed at the pandemonium spawning, clearly failing to comprehend what the senses were communicating to the brain. The uproar, the flashes, the flabbergasted faces looking at her and, most definitely, that bright green light flaring up on the screen in front. Shock, disbelief, bewilderment and excitement blending inside Ester Ledecká’s head and invading those lucky enough to catch one of the most extraordinary moments in Olympic history.

But let’s rewind the tape. In alpine skiing, the top-10 contenders for each race are allowed to pick their starting positions, choosing odd numbers between 1 and 19. The next group of ranked athletes are assigned the gaping digits (2 to 20), and the remaining names are tucked to the end, completing their runs when the snow is much softer and irregular. Hence, the last participants are not only less qualified, but usually impaired by worse conditions, and that’s why so many declared Austrian Anna Veith, the defending Champion, as the impending winner of the Olympic Super-G shortly after her compatriot Cornelia Huetter (bib 19) clocked the 7th best time. More than half of the 45 competitors were still buying their time in the starting house, yet none had ever finished a Super-G race amongst the elite and, surely, that wouldn’t happen at the friggin’ Olympics.

Czech Ester Ledecka on her way to gold in the Super G (Getty Images)

Now, slot bib 26 into the narrative, a number that belonged to Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecká. A full-fledged snowboard star that had accumulated sporadic appearances in the Alpine skiing World Cup since 2016, she only caught the full attention of onlookers some 40 seconds into her run by speeding past the second checking point in a time 0.18s faster than Veith’s. Definitely an interesting mark, though far from unheard off since 14 others had accomplished the same and the much more relevant intermediate three loomed downhill to restore normality. Except, against all odds, it didn’t and green radiated again, this time enclosing a tiny – 0.04s.

Over the next 20 ticks, as many held their breath, Ledecká negotiated a couple of turns, tucked for a long jump, landed nervously and raced to the line, stopping the clock at 1:21.11. Just one hundred of a second better than the previous best, the minimum separation accepted in Alpine skiing, yet more than enough to turn an unassuming 22-year-old from Prague into a household name at home and abroad.

 

Also in the running:

Martin Fourcade and Simon Schemp produce closest finish in biathlon’s history at men’s mass start.

Marit Bjoergen caps her Olympic career with runaway 30km victory.

Canada and Germany tie for Bobsleigh two-man Olympic title.

Marcel Hirscher and Henrik Kristoffersen implode in the men’s slalom.

“The Rejects” get hot at the right time to earn first curling gold for the United States.

Twin sensations Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva dazzle in women’s figure skating final.

Felix Loch blows three-peat with catastrophic error in final run of men’s luge.

Shaun White uncorks back-to-back 1440s to reclaim men’s snowboard halfpipe.

The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part II)

(Continuation of Part I)

  1. Russia

Medallists in each of the preceding seven tournaments and 14 of the previous 16 editions, the Russians always seem to find a way to crash the podium at the WJC. However, national coach Valeri Bragin started the 2018 event complaining about the lack of international experience on its roster, which, keep in mind, contained only three players yet to complete their 19th birthday, and then things went south for them in a hurry, with a defeat in the tournament opener against the Czech (4-5) leading to a curbed campaign.

Unable to beat the Swedes in the final group game, the Russians were left to slow down the Americans in the QF and succumbed to the task, flying home empty-handed after capturing their last gold medal in the same arena back in 2011.

Russia players and staff look on after a 4-2 quarterfinal round loss to the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Usually a critical part of their most successful teams, goaltending was not a force for the Red Army this time, with Vladislav Sukhachyov, who replaced Alexei Melnichuk in the first game, notching a 2.74 GAA and 0.904 Sv%. Additionally, neither was their defensive unit which, orphan of a stud rear-guard in the same level of Mikhail Sergachev (2017) or Ivan Provorov (2016), had to hack it by commitment. Captain Yegor Zaitsev (NJ) and undrafted Vladislav Syomin, the point man on the man-advantage, shouldered the biggest load, but the true standouts of Team Russia laboured further up the ice, particularly the mightily impressive Klim Kostin (STL).

After a 2016-17 season derailed by injury, the 31st pick of the 2017 draft took advantage of the big stage by posting a team-leading 5 goals and 3 assists in just 5 games, his hands and powerful stride highlights in a forgettable competition for his team. Kostin was one of two under aged forwards on the Russian roster, the other being 2018 top-prospect Andrei Svechnikov (5A), and the pair was followed, in terms of performance, by a duo of Chicago Blackhawks’ picks, Artur Kayumov ( 2nd round, 2016) and Andrei Altybarmakyan (3rd, 2017).

Russia’s Klim Kostin #24 plays the puck while Sweden’s Jacob Moverare #27 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

On the negative side, reference for top center German Rubtsov (PHI), whose 4 pts exceeded his overall contributions on both sides of the puck, and Vitali Abramov (CBJ), who couldn’t replicate his lofty QMJHL point totals (150 in 96 games over the last two seasons) also due to the team’s anemic powerplay, last in the tournament (1/20, 5%) and severely hampered by the lack of right-handed options (17 of 20 skaters shot left).

  1. Czech Republic

It had become routine to see the Czech Republic ranked fifth or sixth and sent packing in the quarter-finals, when their lack of depth gets exposed by one of the big-five of international hockey, but the band sang a different tune in 2018. For just the second time in the last 11 encounters, the Czechs overcame Russia to begin their campaign in style, and after they defeated Belarus and Switzerland, second place and a winnable quarter-final against Finland loomed.

Battling back twice before prevailing in the SO (4-3), the Czechs best classification since 2005 was secured, however they couldn’t repeat the bronze of Grand Forks, ND, because Canada (7-2) and the USA (9-3) obliterated them in the medal round. Nothing that would obscure a stepping-stone event for a country in the upswing, dreaming of even bigger things in 2019 with their 11 possible returnees – including Filip Zadina, Martin Nečas and Filip Chytil – and poised to host the event in 2020.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18, Albert Michnac #29, Martin Necas #8, Martin Kaut #16 and Libor Hajek #3 celebrate at the bench after a second period goal against Sweden during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Until then, the goal has to be the return to the times when significantly more Czech teenagers were selected by NHL teams, since only six of the 23 men that competed in Buffalo have been drafted and two more signed NHL deals after being overlooked. One of latter cases, goaltender Josef Kořenář, is a San Jose Sharks prospect whose numbers (4.49 GAA, 0.879 Sv%) in Buffalo skewed significantly as a result of the two final poundings, which followed a stellar 51-save performance against the Finns.

With 34 goals allowed in seven games, defence was far from the Czechs strong suit outside of a few bright individual exceptions – beyond Hájek, we could name Vojtěch Budik (BUF) and Jakub Galvas (CHI) – but, fortunately, they could light some fireworks up front.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Chytil #21 looks for a scoring chance against Russia’s Alexei Melnichuk #1 while Nikita Makeyev #2 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

As referenced before, the duo Martin Nečas (CAR) and Filip Zadina led the way, but Filip Chytil (2+2), the Rangers first round pick, also had his moments, especially in the opener against Russia. Difficult to push off the puck, capable of executing in tight and with an edge to his game, Chytil vanished in the later rounds and took linemate Martin Kaut (2+5), a potential top-50 pick in 2018, with him, eventually leading to the rise of a few unsung heroes, including the undrafted Kristian Reichel (3+1), a heart-and-soul third line center that loves to do the grunt work, LW Daniel Kurovský (2+1), whose hard-nosed game was difficult to ignore, and right-winger Radovan Pavlík (3+3).

Bronze Medal Winners: United States of America

Afforded a golden opportunity to capture back-to-back titles for a first time, the 2018 tournament can’t be considered a success for the Americans because they failed to fulfil the objective on home ice, yet there are still a lot of positives to take from their performance. For instance, their response to the unexpected defeat against Slovakia, regrouping quickly to overcome a two-goal deficit in the outdoor game, or the dominant performance in the bronze medal game less than 24 hours after the disappointing SF loss to the Swedes.

USA players celebrating after a 4-3 shoot-out win over Canada during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

There’s a case to be made that the Americans, who scored 20 goals in the group stage (the same number as Sweden) and 35 in total (one less than Canada), were in equal footing with the two finalists, and ended up in third-place victims of the circumstances and the below-average performance of Joseph Woll (TOR), who guarded the net in every indoor game and was severely outmatched by his counterparts. While Filip Gustavsson and Carter Hart soared, Woll’s ultimate body of work fails the sniff test (0.886, 2.71 GAA) and that proved decisive.

Moreover, on paper, the American defence palled in comparison with their rivals’, but this unheralded group held his ground, with Adam Fox and the steady Dylan Samberg (WIN, 1+3, +10) anchoring the first pair, and U. Minnesota’s mainstay Ryan Lindgren (BOS) doing the heavy lifting in the second unit as 18-year-old Quinn Hughes and his refined offensive skills were increasingly phased out of the rotation as the importance of the games increased.

USA’s Riley Tufte #27 attempts a shot against Denmark’s Kasper Krog #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Still, where the Americans were truly likely to create separation, according to pre-tournament predictions, was on the quality of their offensive group and ability to rotate four lines sprinkled with first round picks. Despite the tall goal totals, that didn’t exactly turned out as expected, since at the same time Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt (BUF) thrived on the top-line alongside captain Joey Anderson (NJ, 4+3), and Kieffer Bellows’ (NYI) erupted on Ryan Poehling’s (MTR) right flank, the likes of Riley Tufte (DAL), Max Jones (ANA), Joshua Norris (SJ) and even NHL-tested Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) struggled to put points on the board in critical situations. That would be the major difference for the Swedish and Canadian forward units.

Silver Medal Winners: Sweden

44. That’s the number of consecutive wins the Swedes have amassed in group play since 2007… or 43 more than the amount of World titles they’ve secured in the same period.

Cruising through the group stage as usual (20-7 in goal differential), the Tre Kronor’s pallid exhibition against Slovakia (3-2) in the QF awoke the alarm sirens and elicited thoughts of a fourth consecutive medal-less appearance, however Sweden managed to oust the USA (4-2) for the first time in ten Final Four battles, and then came pretty close to stamp a first gold medal since 2012. Despite being assessed six minor penalties to Canada’s one, the Swedes had the better of play in the Final, and even ringed one off the post minutes before Tyler Steenbergen potted the game-winning-goal with 100 seconds to go in regulation.

Truly a shame for a team brimming with talent way beyond the likes of Rasmus Dahlin or their trio of top-ten picks at the forward ranks: sniper Elias Pettersson (VAN, 5+2), charismatic captain Lias Andersson (NYR, 6+1), whose level of play dropped after dislocating his shoulder against Russia, and the cerebral (and inconsistent) Alexander Nylander (BUF, 1+6), competing at his third WJC.

High-choices at the 2017 draft, defensemen Erik Brännström (LV) and Timothy Liljegren (TOR) are two such cases of blue-chip prospects that enjoyed great tournaments, with the former spending most of the time besides Dahlin and regularly displaying exceptional quickness and agility to skate the puck up the ice, and the latter coupling the willingness to engage opponents physically with slick skating skills and the ability to fire long, on-the tape, stretch passes to feed Sweden’s speedy forward group.

Conversely, despite being passed twice at the draft, rearguard Jesper Sellgreen stood out for combining puck-moving ability and feistiness in a modest frame, earning comparisons with Tobias Ernstrom, while the members of the lower attacking lines proved essential to, repeatedly, tip the balance in favour of Sweden with their mix of speed, forecheking expertise and grit. It was no coincidence that in Sweden’s difficult quarter-final match (3-2), the unit of Isac Lundeström (draft-eligible, 2 G), Oskar Steen (BOS, 2+2) and Tim Söderlund (CHI, 2+3) manufactured all three goals with their boundless energy, and neither was that, alongside fourth-liner Axel Jonsson Fjällby (WSH, 2+2), who dashed around the ice with long locks of air flowing out of his helmet, they proved extremely dangerous shorthanded, a situation that earned Sweden four goals during the tournament.

Sweden’s Axel Jonsson Fjallby #22 skates with the puck as Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 of Team Belarus gives chase during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

World Junior Champions: Canada

Three years without conquering gold at the WJC is too much for an hockey-mad nation like Canada, and to erase the taste of last year’s heartbreaking loss to the USA in Montreal, they could have hardly asked for better than their close to perfect tournament south of the border: best attack (39 goals) and best defense (11), the top powerplay (13 of 29) and penalty kill (22 of 25) and a 6-0-1 record only spoiled by the two-goal lead relinquished against the USA (3-4, SO).

With a roster that contained a single top-ten pick (D Cale Makar) and many feared would struggle in the absence of high-end, game-breaking talents, Team Canada’s preference for a versatile, balanced attack was right on the money, as the team rolled four lines, every forward scored, and the rest went according to expectations, with their mobile, skilled backend pushing the pace to generate scoring chances, and goaltender Carter Hart playing up to his abilities throughout the tournament.

Canadian players and staff celebrate after a 3-1 gold medal game win over Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

With such an homogeneous roster, Canada didn’t even have to rely too much on their three returning blueliners, Dante Fabbro (NSH), Jake Bean (CAR) and Kale Clague (LA), all-around rearguards that move the puck, as the trio was eventually eclipsed by the sparkling offensive instincts of Cale Makar (COL) and the superb Victor Mete (MTR) / Conor Timmins (COL) pairing, whose combined +- rating was a whopping +26 in 7 games.

As a matter of fact, when Mete was on the ice, the opposition did not score at all, his stick work and ability to drive play suffocating rivals, while Timmins emerged as the revelation of the roster, an unassuming two-way defenseman that could play shutdown hockey, make a crisp first pass, and deliver a sweet feed like the pass-shot Tyler Steenbergen (ARI) tipped to sink Sweden’s hopes in the Final.

Canada’s Tyler Steenbergen #17 scores the championship winning goal against Sweden’s Filip Gustavsson #30 during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Moreover, in attack, the conversation was much of the same, with veterans Taylor Raddysh (TBL, 2+3), Dillon Dubé (CGY, 3+2) and top-center Sam Steel (ANA, 4+5) meshing with newcomers like Jordan Kyrou (STL) and Boris Katchouk (TBL, 3+3) to form two solid, if unspectacular, scoring units and the trios of low-pedigree, mid-round wildcards that followed them out overwhelming the opposition’s depth players with tons of speed and skill. Not incidentally, it was from this bottom-six that arose the inspirational tale of the tournament, 7-goal scorer Drake Batherson (OTT), a player passed once before the Sens snapped him up on the 2017 4th round and someone that would catch fire in the three consecutive blowout victories  (DEN, SWI, CZE) that preceded the final game.

The WJC implications on the 2018 NHL Draft

It’s usually said that a good showing at the WJC can significantly boost the draft value of a prospect and examples lie everywhere – Nico Hischier, just last year, is one – however, in recent seasons, it’s been quite rare to encounter these many U-18 players leaving their mark internationally against players with an extra 2 years of development time. As much as six potential top-10 selections – and, possibly, the entire top-five – competed at the tournament held in Buffalo, many acing the audition, and that has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the wake of the event, with pre-draft rankings revised to account for the latest developments.

Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18 lets a shot go while Finland’s Otto Koivula #12 looks on during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Below, I’ll expose how the race for the top-five positions is shaping up, ranking the players in contention based on their most recent accomplishments, but always keeping in mind that a guy like Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist, who couldn’t infiltrate his country’s loaded roster, is still in the running for an early callup come late June in Dallas.

  1. Rasmus Dahlin (D)
  2. Andrei Svechnikov (RW)
  3. Brady Tkachuk (LW)
  4. Filip Zadina (LW)
  5. Quinn Hughes (D)

Since Sidney Crosby back in 2005, we haven’t seen a contest decided as early as this one. Rasmus Dahlin will be No.1 in 2018, having cemented his status as the unquestionable best player available with the performance in Buffalo, and he will also become the second ever Swede to go first overall, succeeding C Mats Sundin in 1989.

On the contrary, the guy that was touted as the main competition to Dahlin over the last while, Russian Andrei Svechnikov, is now worried about the rustle of the footsteps of two of the WJC’s brightest stars, wingers Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina.

Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was among the top draft-eligible prospects at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship (Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Svechnikov, a burgeoning power forward, had already endured wrist injury this season, and then had to battle the Russian prejudice against younger players, resulting in limited action early in the tournament. With 5 assists in 5 games, he ended up doing just fine, flashing his rare combination of skill, size and puck protection, but his impact fell way short of Zadina’s, a tournament All-Star for his electrifying offensive skills, and Tkachuk’s, whose all-around influence – on top of the physical attributes – took many observers aback. The final hierarchy of these three will very much depend on the teams holding the picks, but, for now, Svechnikov’s pedigree is still prevailing.

To round out the top-five, Quinn Hughes, a fantastic skater that turns on a dime and flies up the ice in transition, is certainly a possibility, even if the young defenseman was benched for much of the medal round games, barely seeing the ice except for the moments when the USA trailed and needed to amp the offensive pressure. Still, for the record, let’s just add that Rasmus Dahlin filled much of the same role for the Swedes in 2017…

American defenseman Quinn Hughes carries the puck in the bronze medal game against the Czech Republic (Kevin Hoffman /Getty Images)

Ranked outside of the very top of the rankings, but still worthy of attention, we encounter three European prospects that played in Buffalo. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari, a skilled center that was unfortunately casted as the 13th forward on his team and thus failed to stick his claim for a top-ten selection, Sweden’s Isac Lundeström, a lanky, speedy forward that was an integral part of his nation’s most reliable line and may go a few spots above his expected late-first round rank, and Czech Republic’s Martin Kaut, whose point-per-game pace might convince someone to take a flier within the top-30 or right after it.

The NHL pipeline update

As a prime meeting of the brightest youth prospects from around the world, the World Junior Championships are a first peek into what the future might bring for the kids at the professional levels. Therefore, it stands to reason that the tournament is also viewed on a scale that extends beyond national-team concerns and tries to predict the potential ramifications for the teams that hold their NHL rights. Fans and management alike discuss in which line that prospect might be plugged, implications on the organizational depth chart of someone’s emergence, or the best way to maximize the value of an asset, hence it’s just natural that positive exploits on the international arena also serve as a sign of the draft acumen of one’s organization and barometer of the health of its prospect base.

Sweden’s Alexander Nylander #19 fires a shot at USA’s Joseph Woll #31 during the semi-final round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In this sense, the sheer amount of drafted players competing at the tournament is important, but far from the only indicator to take into account. From the entire batch of players that exhibited their qualities in Buffalo, the biggest share belonged to the New Jersey Devils, with 7 players, whereas Arizona, Pittsburgh, Florida and Minnesota loaned a single element, yet the NHL teams that left Buffalo feeling ecstatic about their assembly of talent lie in between the two poles. We’ve identified five NHL organizations that, based on qualitative and quantitative parameters, must be marveling at their craftiness in player evaluation and development.

Buffalo Sabres (5): Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (FIN), Vojtěch Budik (CZE), Casey Mittelstadt (USA), Alexander Nylander and Marcus Davidsson (both SWE)

The Sabres are toiling in the bottom of the NHL standings, but there’s reason for hope in Buffalo based on the group that took part in this “home” tournament. Possessing the rights for Casey Mittelstadt, the tournament MVP, is the chief justification for their nomination in this space, yet the rest of the Sabres prospects also filled significant roles for their respective nations. Particularly Alex Nylander, another former 8th overall pick whose elite creativity and puck skills sooner or later will surface at the professional level, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen,  the uncontested starter for Finland.

Furthermore, despite being longer shots, Budik played some critical minutes for the Czech on their top defensive pair, while Marcus Davidsson thrived on a fourth-line that received limited minutes at five-on-five but contributed greatly for Sweden’s success on the PK.

Tampa Bay Lightning (5): Libor Hájek (CZE), Cal Foote, Brett Howden, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh (all CAN)

One of the savviest organizations breeding NHL-calibre players, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly pleased with the progress achieved by Libor Hájek over the last 18 months, the 2016 second rounder maturing into an all-situations blueliner that might slot on their lineup in a couple of seasons.

Drafted last June, Cal Foote played primarily on the third pairing for Canada and stayed out of trouble, while the three forwards proved important components of their well-oiled machine, with Brett Howden centering the productive checking line, and Katchouk and Raddysh flanking Robert Thomas on the team’s second unit.

Canada’s Callan Foote #6 get tangled up with an unknown Switzerland player during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Chicago Blackhawks (5): Henri Jokiharju (FIN), Jakub Galvas (CZE), Artur Kayumov and Andrei Altibarmakyan (both RUS), Tim Söderlund (SWE)

The only first rounder of the Hawks faction, defenseman Henri Jokiharju, didn’t perform badly but he takes a step back here since each of his lesser-known colleagues improved his inherent value for the organization. Galvas, a diminutive blueliner, battled hard in every shift and showed poise with the puck, Kayumov scored at a point-per-game clip and was always around the net, Altibarmakyan’s constant activity and skill created problems for the opposition, and Söderlund’s jet-like acceleration, high-energy level and PK prowess were second to none.

St. Louis Blues (4): Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas (both CAN), Klim Kostin (RUS), Nikolaj Kragh (DEN)

Portended as the No.1 Danish center, Krag’s tournament came to a premature end due to injury, but the other three Blues’ prospects proved extremely useful for their teams. Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin garnered accolades and were in the running for a place on the All-Star team as two of the most exciting wingers in the competition, while Thomas, an intelligent two-way pivot, kept the puck going in the right direction at all times.

Calgary Flames (6): Adam Fox (USA), Juuso Välimäki and Eeti Tuulola (FIN), Dillon Dubé (CAN), Adam Růžička (SVK), Linus Lindström (SWE)

Forwards Tuulola, Růžička and Lindström failed to hit the twine during the tournament however the other Calgary prospects make up for their futility. Adam Fox led the American blueline, Juuso Välimäki carried the “C” and emerged as a real force for the Finns from the backend, and Dillon Dubé, another player who captained his team, did the dirty work on Canada’s top-line and powerplay.

Canada’s captain Dillon Dube #9 waves the flag following his team’s victory against Sweden during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Honourable mention: Colorado Avalanche (2): Cale Makar and Conor Timmins (both CAN)

Although the Avs only sent two prospects to Buffalo, the duo reached high-levels of performance, with the roving Makar voted for the tournament’s All-Star team and Timmins’ smart, simple game shining on Canada’s shutdown pair.

The tournament’s Best Goals

A total of 216 goals were scored during the 30 games of the 2018 WJC and I’ll bring this report to its conclusion by presenting the top-three in chronological order.

First, American Casey Mittelstadt making Slovakia’s defence look silly with a neutral-zone takeaway and a finish that evokes memories of Bobby Orr’s airborne 1970 Stanley Cup clincher.

Then, just seconds later, Slovakia’s Samuel Buček returning the favour on the other end, staying with the puck after his audacious wrap-around attempt was denied to claim a famous victory for his country.

Finally, a great individual effort by Sweden’s Elias Pettersson, who deked a poor Swiss defenseman before finishing around the goaltender.

 

My crystal ball and the World Cup of hockey preliminary rosters

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey is seven and a half months away and the first names that will compete in Toronto from September, 17th to October, 1st were announced last Wednesday. Every nation (err..every Team) had to name 16 of the 23 players that would bring to the tournament, with at least two of them being goalies, and that meant that we would get to start the always entertaining game of projecting the names included, the major snubs and the potential surprises. To be clear, the subjects I consider “entertained” here are hockey nerds, hockey writers with columns to fill and people with too much time on their hands.

Anyway, in advance of the announcements, I took a couple of hours off my busy schedule to speculate on every player that would appear on the rosters’ lists (and not the ones I believed should have been selected), and then proceeded to evaluate my performance. This article describes my choices and rationales, and tries to impart into the thought-process of the management teams that actually had to do the job. I also sprinkle in a few predictions about the players that will be added until June 1st, when complete rosters have to be delivered.

A few months ago, I filed in a post about the construction of Team Europe’s roster (which you can read here and here ), so I plugged in some info from the analysis I did back then, and I am currently working on a detailed report on Team North America that will follow much of the same structure, thus refrained to share (or rehash) some ideas in this post regarding those two squads.

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey official logo

My main resource to speed up the process of compiling the potential preliminary rosters of every nation was this website , where you can sort out every NHL player that played in a season for nationality and position. It really saved up the time of scouring all NHL rosters, and I would also like to thank the European Teams for trying to restrict their players’ pool to the NHL. Especially Team Russia, who expediently announced the first 16 names would all be NHLers.

The article is naturally separated by each competing team, with each section starting with a resume of my mishaps, as OUT are players I wrongly named in my projection and IN are the ones who took their spot. I then transcribed my forecasted rosters and bolded the names I got right while expressing some ideas about every group (forwards, defenseman and goalies).

All the “real” preliminary rosters can be found here

 

Team Sweden

Out: C Carl Soderberg, G Jhonas Enroth
IN: D Niklas Kronwall (Detroit Red Wings), G Jacob Markstrom (Vancouver Canucks)

Forwards (9): Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals), Daniel Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Loui Eriksson (Boston Bruins), Alex Steen (St. Louis Blues), Henrik Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators), Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche), Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings), Carl Soderberg (Colorado Avalanche)

Sweden was the only team to name just eight forwards and they’re all pretty much unassailable, forming a formidable staple up front. I’m pretty confident Soderberg will be part of the final group of 13, with his versatility and experience playing both left wing and center, but the amount of great candidates for the other four spots is staggering.

Marcus Kruger may be an ideal checking pivot to slot behind Henrik Sedin, Zetterberg and Backstrom, but Mika Zibanejad and Mikael Backlund are also in the run, while on the wings they can mix and match with the tenacity of Patric Hornqvist, the skill of Gustav Nyquist and Jakob Silfverberg or the speed of Carl Hagelin, Rickard Rackell and Andre Burakovsky.

Defenseman (5): Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Arizona Coyotes), Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman (Tampa Bay Lightning), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks)

Erik Karlsson (L) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (R) will command Team Sweden’s defence

The Tre Kronor’s blueline is once again absolutely stacked and I did hope they would leave two spots open for the wealth of options available. Niklas Kronwall’s decorated history with the national team proved too important, and moved out, for now, John Klingberg, who, for much of the first half of the NHL season, kept pace with Erik Karlsson in terms of offensive production. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the steady Anton Stralman was recognized, and should continue to be paired with Victor Hedman, a notable absence in Sochi 2014.

If Sweden makes the mistake of leaving Klingberg home, Johnny Oduya (Chicago Blackhawks) and Mattias Ekholm (Nashville Predators) should be the next in line, even if you can’t discount Alexander Edler, who, mind-bogglingly, was selected to cover for Karlsson on the top pair in 2014. Alas, let’s just hope the new coaching staff is smarter and joins the forces of Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson, creating a delightful, mouth-watering partnership.

Goalies (2): Henrik Lundqvist (NY Rangers), Jhonas Enroth (LA Kings)

If some teams opted to name three goaltenders, Sweden probably would have liked to leave it to Lundqvist, their only NHL starter. Enroth was considered the best goalie at the 2013 World Championships the Swedes won, and I thought that would give him the edge, but Markstrom and his never-truly-realized immense potential were favoured. The third slot may be decided by a coin flip between Enroth, Eddie Lack (Carolina Hurricanes), Robin Lehner (Buffalo Sabres) and even Anders Nilsson (St. Louis Blues).

Team Finland

Out: C Joonas Kempainnen, D Jyrki Jokipakka, D Sami Lepisto
IN: C Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago Blackhawks), LW Lauri Korpikovski (Edmonton Oilers), D Esa Lindell (Dallas Stars)

Forwards (9): Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild), Jussi Jokinen, Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers), Valteri Filppula (Tampa Bay Lightning), Jori Lehtera (St. Louis Blues), Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild), Leo Komarov (Toronto Maple Leafs) , Joonas Donskoi (San Jose Sharks), Joonas Kemppainen (Boston Bruins)

Finland never possesses the flashiest attack in senior competitions and that won’t change in the World Cup, since none of the first eight forwards above is a goal scorer. Donskoi is definitely the less known commodity but he’s had a fine debut season in the NHL and his selection was expected.

Lauri Korpikoski ‘s omission from my list was in favour of 27-year-old Kemppainen, part of last year’s World Championship squad before settling in Boston, while the below-expectations season put on by the talented Teuvo Teravainen convinced me he wouldn’t make the cut. Erik Haula, the third-year Minnesota Wild centre, is also a strong candidate to be a part of the final roster.

Scoring by commitment, always the foundation of Finland’s success internationally

Defenseman (5): Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo Sabres), Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh Penguins), Sami Vatanen (Anaheim Ducks), Jyrki Jokipakka (Calgary Flames), Sami Lepisto (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, KHL)

A grand total of six Finnish defensemen have suited up for NHL teams in 2015-16, and only four have played more than 10 games. Thus, this screening process wasn’t exactly difficult, even if the youth of the group is a really big concern. Ristolainen (21 years-old), Maatta (21) and Vatanen (24) are all relatively inexperienced, even if the last two were already key components in Sochi 2014, so I searched a bit to bring up the name of Lepisto, a 31-year-old former NHLer with two Olympic bronze medals in his résumé. He’s no Kimmo Timonen, but his experience will definitely be appreciated.

The offensive-minded Esa Lindell, another 21-year-old, jumped in front of Jokipakka, who just a few days ago was his teammate on the Stars organization, despite only 4 NHL appearances against more than 90 amassed by the 24-year-old.

Goalies (2): Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators), Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins)

Rinne and Rask are studs and will battle it out for the starting spot, with Boston’s mainstay having the edge. The Dallas Stars duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi should extend their on-going confront to the national team, with the latter in advantage at this time.

Team Russia

Out: D Alexei Emelin, D Fedor Tyutin, D Evgeni Medvedev
IN: C Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Dmitry Orlov (Washington Capitals), G Andrei Vasilevski (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Forwards (9): Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals), Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov (Chicago Blackhawks), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning), Nikolai Kulemin (NY Islanders)

Six of the top 25 point producers in the NHL are Russian forwards, and you just need to look at their names to confirm that they won’t lack firepower and copious amounts of offensive skill. The nine names picked up are non-brainers and Vladislav Namestnikov is a tenth no one disputes.

Right now, the question is where two all-world talents like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov fit in, since someone has to backcheck and kill penalties on that group. Datsyuk, Kulemin and Anisimov won’t be enough, so I expect Alexander Burmistrov (Winnipeg Jets) to be one of the late picks, with Viktor Tikhonov (Arizona Coyotes) also expected to carve his spot. A final note for Russia’s depth down the middle, significantly improved with the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who joins Malkin, Datsyuk, and Anisimov.

Artemi Panarin will be one of the young Russian forwards to watch at the World Cup

Defenseman (5): Andrei Markov (Montreal Canadiens), Alexei Emelin (Montreal Canadiens), Dmitri Kulikov (Florida Panthers), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus Blue Jackets), Evgeni Medvedev (Philadelphia Flyers)

Markov and Kulikov, who was left off the 2014 Olympic Games’ roster, were easy picks but Russia’s decision to ignore all the veteran blueliners caught me off guard. After all, the 31-year-old Tyutin participated in the last three Olympics, Medvedev is a regular fixture on their World Championships representations’, and Emelin’s physical style is pretty uncommon in the rest of their defensive options. No doubt the trio has seen his best years but I fully expect to see them on the final roster.

Dmitry Orlov (Capitals) has impressed with his offensive instincts this season for the Capitals and provides some much needed puck-moving ability to the group, thus the 24-year-old was always on the radar to be one of the seven rearguards on the list. Another player that has those types of qualities is Slava Voynov (SKA Saint Petersburg, KHL) but he’s persona non-grata for the NHL and NHLPA, hence the pressure to leave him at home is significant.

Goalies (2): Semyon Varlamov (Colorado Avalanche), Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets)

With Anton Khudobin buried on Anaheim’s depth chart, there were only three regular NHL goalies to choose from, so I guess they just decided to put the subject behind their back for all. The inconsistent Varlamov and a Bobrosvky coming off a nightmarish season will square off for possession of Russia’s crease, with Andrei Vasilevsky on the lookout in case both falter.

Team Czech Republic

Out: RW Jaromir Jagr, RW Radim Vrbata, RW Jiri Hudler, D Zbynek Michalek, D Marek Zidlicky
IN: LW Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks), RW David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins), D Andrej Sustr (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Michal Kempny (Avangard Omsk, KHL), G Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg Jets)

Forwards (10) : David Krejci (Boston Bruins), Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers), Tomas Plekanec (Montreal Canadiens), Jaromir Jagr, Jiri Hudler (Florida Panthers), Martin Hanzal (Arizona Coyotes), Radim Vrbata (Vancouver Canucks), Ondrej Palat (Tampa Bay Lightning Lightning), Michael Frolik (Winnipeg Jets), Vladimir Sobotka (Avangard Omsk, KHL)

Doing this prediction on a couple of hours was bound to lead to some blunders, and indicating Jagr is among those, as the 44-year-old and the team’s brass had already agreed to wait for the legend to decide on whether he wanted to represent his country one last (more?) time.

Vrbata and Hudler also fall in a similar category, as both were bizarre and glaring exclusions from the roster on the 2014 Olympics. Two years later, Vrbata is 34-years-old and going through a tough season in Vancouver, thus I can understand where they’re coming from. However, Hudler (32) is still productive, even if at a level significantly below his 2014-15 career season, and would have helped this team. Anyway, it’s not the first time the Czech take some strange decisions in terms of roster construction, and seems now clear that neither player is on their plans.

Tomas Hertl missed the 2014 Olympics due to a knee injury, but he should in Toronto come September

Nevertheless, looking at the entire group of 16, no player is older than 30, and going with the youthful exuberance and tremendous speed of Hertl and Pastrnak, two of the few exciting talents produced by the country recently, is definitely defendable. In the end, it won’t be the vital difference between failure and success.

To round out the forward group, the energetic Vladimir Sobotka is a great pickup, and I expect to see a couple more European-based players added later. Dmitri Jaskin, the 22-year-old St. Louis Blues forward, was the odd man out when I finished my preliminary group, but I believe he’ll also be part of the 23-man roster.

Defenseman (4): Zbynek Michalek (Arizona Coyotes), Roman Polak (San Jose Sharks), Radko Gudas (Philadelphia Flyers), Marek Zidlicky (NY Islanders)

My mishaps predicting the Czech roster extended to the blueline, where the unassuming Andrej Sustr, a regular on last season’s Stanley Cup finalists, was left off my roster. Although, in my defence, I can note that the 25-year-old is a bottom-pairing guy for his team and never represented his country on senior international competitions before.

The absence of Michalek is truly surprising, as the 33-year-old is an extremely reliable defensive presence boasting a long history with the national team. Meanwhile, Zidlicky is another notable omission because, despite being 39-years-old, his powerplay prowess and passing ability aren’t approached by any other Czech rearguard.

In contrary, out of nowhere came Michal Kempny, a 25-year-old undrafted defenseman that plays on the left side… and that’s all we know about him. As for Polak and Gudas, they will use all means necessary to keep the opponents in check, so their adversaries definitely hope they’re not paired together.

Goalies (2): Petr Mrazek (Detroit Red Wings), Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia Flyers)

Just like Russia, there were only three real options to consider here, so makes sense that Pavelec’s inclusion was already taken care off. Nevertheless, at least this time, he won’t be the starter on the tournament, with the Czech hopes’ resting on the shoulders of the much more trustworthy Petr Mrazek, a star in the making.

Team Europe

Out: C Lars Eller, RW Marian Gaborik, RW Nino Niederreiter
IN: C Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers), LW Tomas Vanek (Minnesota Wild), RW Jannik Hansen (Vancouver Canucks)

Forwards (9): Anze Kopitar (LA Kings, SLO), Marian Gaborik (LA Kings, SVK), Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings, SVK), Marian Hossa (Chicago Blackhawks, SVK), Mikkel Boedker (Colorado Avalanche, DEN), Lars Eller (Montreal Canadiens, DEN), Mats Zuccarello (NY Rangers, NOR), Frans Nielsen (NY Islanders, DEN), Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota Wild, SUI)

Leon Draisaitl’s development can have a huge impact on Team Europe’s chances

The big standout from the initial roster is Leon Draisatl, the 20-year-old Oilers centre who took full-advantage of Connor McDavid’s injury to go on an offensive tear and seal his status as an NHL-ready middleman. With only Kopitar engraved as a high-end star pivot for Team Europe, the German may jump from the outside looking in right towards the 2nd line, pushing down the likes of Lars Eller and Zemgus Girgensons, who may be in direct competition for a lower-line role. Meanwhile, instead of Niederreiter, who I pencilled on the fourth-line’s right-wing, Team Europe’s management surprised by nominating Jannik Hansen, whose merits I defended ferociously on the aforementioned post.

Vanek and Gaborik were the skilled veterans on the downswing I mulled before my ninth forward indication. While I believed the Slovak’s familiarity with Kopitar made him a near sure thing, his knee injury, compounded with the 34 birthdays, probably scared some and contributed to Vanek’s appointment.

Defenseman (5): Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins, SVK), Roman Josi (Nashville Predators, SUI), Andrej Sekera (Edmonton Oilers, SVK), Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers, SUI), Dennis Seidenberg (Boston Bruins, GER)

I originally only had four defensemen on the preliminary roster, but ultimately believed that Seidenberg’s strong play as of late would erase any doubts that could exist. I was right, and now it’s up to Christian Ehrhoff to find his groove back and validate my original six. I overlooked Vancouver Canucks’ Yannick Weber before, but he’s on the race for the 6th/7th position with compatriot Luca Sbisa.

Goalies (2): Frederik Andersen (Anaheim Ducks, DEN), Jaroslav Halak (NY Islanders, SVK)

Andersen and Halak were absolute locks, but the terrible season of Calgary’s Jonas Hiller blew the door wide open for Thomas Greiss to step in, which will be a mere formality if he can maintain his lead amongst NHL goalies in Sv%.

Team North America

Out: C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, LW Boone Jenner
IN: RW JT Miller (NY Rangers), G Matt Murray (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Forwards (10): Brandon Saad (Columbus Blue Jackets, USA), Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers, CAN), Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche, CAN), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames, USA), Sean Monahan (Calgary Flames, CAN), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers, CAN), Boone Jenner (Columbus Blue Jackets, CAN), Ryan Nugent – Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers, CAN), Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings, CAN), Jake Eichel (Buffalo Sabres, USA)

I don’t want to spoil my incoming article, but I’m also still unsure where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fits in the lineup for this team. However, Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers GM, co-picked the roster and it is still complicated to see him discard one of his guys. RNH is currently nursing an injury, which muffles the subject, but Edmonton’s media will create a uproar if the snub is repeated in June.

Like Hansen on Team Europe, I’m a passionate supporter of Boone Jenner’s possible contributions to this squad, yet his name was forgotten this week in favour of JT Miller, who appeared on the radar with a breakthrough season for the Rangers but no one expected to see nominated so early. Although there was definitely a need for a right-winger with speed and decent size on the top nine, my preference went for a more polished offensive player.

Chiarelli and Stan Bowman cautioned for the necessity to watch closely the ups-and-downs experienced by rookie players, hence I was reluctant to include Eichel and Larkin on the initial roster, but, in the end, their pedigree and impeccable track record representing the USA at International tournaments pointed me in the right direction.

Defenseman (4): Ryan Murray (Columbus Blue Jackets, CAN), Seth Jones (Columbus Blue Jackets, USA), Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers, CAN), Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs, CAN)

Ryan Murra (L) and Seth Jones are forging a partnership in Columbus that should extend to Team North America.

Ekblad, Jones and Reilly comprise the trio of blueliners that will be asked to anchor the Young Guns’ defence, and Murray’s dependability, coupled with a flourishing chemistry with his Columbus’ partner, turned him into a favourite to land on the top 4. Nailing down the last three men will prove more difficult, but I’ll take my crack soon…

Goalies (2): John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks, USA), Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg Jets, USA)

Team North America’s prospects on goal look way more promising now than last summer because all three men selected have exceled this season. Gibson was invited to the NHL All-Star game, and both Hellebuyck and Matt Murray got some games under their belt against the best in the World. The Jets goaltender string more than two dozen starts, and thus held the advantage to be the second name announced, but Murray’s first four presences were so impressive that no more scouting and evaluation was deemed necessary.

Team Canada

Out: RW Corey Perry, LW Brad Marchand, D Alex Pietrangelo
IN: C Tyler Seguin (Dallas Stars), D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose Sharks), G Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks)

Forwards (10): Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars), Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand (Boston Bruins), John Tavares (NY Islanders), Jeff Carter (LA Kings)

Tyler Seguin will wear Canada’s colours for the first time on a best-on-best tournament.

Canada’s embarrassment of riches up front produces enough headaches just to trim down the group to 13 forwards, so imagine trying to pick only nine. I saw Crosby, Toews, Benn and Bergeron as locks, and Stamkos and Tavares were right behind alongside Perry, whose duo with Getzlaf is seldom broken. With so many centres in the mix and Perry’s slow start on the rear-view, his absence is head-scratching, but should be corrected in June. Getzlaf’s high standard of play over almost a decade was taken into account, while Jeff Carter was a hunch I was reasonably comfortable with. The LA Kings forward performed strongly at the 2014 Olympics on a depth role, and his speed, versatility, two-way ability and experience have always been greatly appreciated by every Canadian management group.

Tyler Seguin was overlooked in 2014 and, despite his outstanding offensive array, I thought they would overthink his selection and leave the decision for later, much in the same way it will happen with Claude Giroux. As for Marchand, his evolution from pest to one of the elite left wingers in the game has been so surprising that I wagered things would just keep going his way “off the ice”. It wasn’t meant to be and he’ll have to keep his hot streak going, because I believe he’s in direct competition with Taylor Hall for a spot.

Defenseman (4): Drew Doughty (LA Kings), Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks), Shea Weber (Nashville Predators), Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis Blues)

Doughty, Keith and Weber were seen as untouchables on Canada’s defence entering the 2014 Olympics and their importance stands, even if Weber’s slow decline has been well documented and he may no longer be an NHL top pairing D. Pietrangelo carried Jay Bouwmeester, his St. Louis Blues’ partner, to Sochi, and I thought that gave him an inside path, but it seems that Vlasic’s steadfast style caught more admires there. The Shark being a left defenseman, which balances the group of four, was also important on this equation.

Riskier options, like PK Subban, Kris Letang and Brent Burns, all righties, will have to wait a few months, while a third left-handed blueliner should be added, with Calgary’s duo of TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano in the mix.

Goalies (2): Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens), Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

The lack of details regarding Price’s mysterious injury are concerning, but at the end of the day he’s still the best goaltender in the planet, and nothing indicates there’s a chance he won’t be fully prepared to play in September. Holtby is the odds-on Vezina front-runner and the best man to backup the Canadiens’ reigning MVP, while Corey Crawford forced his way into the conversation with a stellar campaign for the Stanley Cup Champions. Even if Roberto Luongo wills the Florida Panthers to an unlikely Championship run, it won’t matter, since the Blackhawks’ goaltender convinced Team Canada’s management that he’s as essential as the other two.

Team USA

Out: C David Backes, C Brandon Dubinsky
IN: LW Justin Abdelkader (Detroit Red Wings), C Derek Stepan (NY Rangers)

Forwards (9): Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks), Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets), Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild), Ryan Kesler (Anaheim Ducks), Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens), David Backes (St. Louis Blues), Brandon Dubinsky (Columbus Blue Jackets), TJ Oshie (Washington Capitals)

Team USA’s attack also encompassed a few slam-dunks (Kane, Pavelski, Parise) and others almost no one would contemplate to leave out, namely Pacioretty, in spite of being in the middle of a frustrating season in Montreal, and Kesler, whose effectiveness has slipped slightly over the last couple of years. Wheeler, one of the NHL’s most underappreciated offensive dynamos, belongs in that group, and his rise as the second best American right-wing pressed Phil Kessel into a corner where his pure goal-scoring prowess may be left at home, a foolish cogitation not too long ago.

Will “Little Joe” Pavelski also be named Team USA’s captain?

Backes and Dubinsky are just the type of rugged, physical two-way players John Tortorella loves, but I have to disclose that their inclusion on my list had less to do with that, as I didn’t remembered who the coach was, and more with the USA’s usual fascination with that kind of players. Just remember Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan’s presence in Sochi and the unexpected call up of Justin Abdelkader, whose experience complementing top players in Detroit was brought up as a basis for the selection.

I was unsure about Oshie’s early inclusion until I realized the shootouts will be there once again, while Derek Stepan is a safe choice to provide some centre depth that can chip in regular offense, something the American’s don’t have in spades. To fill out the group, some tough decisions will be made on the wings, where, besides Kessel, stand out the candidacies of James Van Riemsdyk (who may not play another game this season), Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo and Chris Kreider.

Meanwhile, Brandon Saad and Johnny Gaudreau would have been shoe-ins on this roster, but will have to settle for Team North America.

Defenseman (4): Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild), John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Ryan McDonagh (NY Rangers), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets)

Suter, Carlson and McDonagh formed the backbone of the American defence in Sochi and their place was never in doubt. Byfuglien’s impact every time he steps over the boards is so remarkable at both ends of the ice, that he just bullied his way to a spot and no one bat an eye. He’s not yet someone Tortorella will fully trust to defend a lead late, but his cannon shot and strength cannot be ignored like happened in Sochi, when the USA could have used a catalyst of change during the showdown with Canada.

There’s also a balance between lefties and righties on this top four, and, if five blueliners were appointed, Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes) was the next man up. I’m confident the veteran Paul Martin, still playing top-line minutes in San Jose, won’t be neglected, with the seventh spot turning into a bloodbath for a plethora of names, including Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler, Erik Johnson, Matt Niskanen, Jake Gardiner, Keith Yandle..

Goalies (3): Cory Schneider (New Jersey Devils), Jonathan Quick (LA Kings), Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay Lightning)

With so many teams naming three goalies, at least it wasn’t the only one I thought would do it to buck the trend. Quick and Schneider, two goalies that interpret the position in entirely different ways, will continue to push the envelopes for their teams in hopes of securing the starting spot, while Bishop, despite being in the middle of a career-season, departs a step below. Quick, a third-string goalie in Vancouver 2010 and the leading man in Sochi 2014, may get the nod, but Schneider’s numbers are better across the board since he was elevated to top status in New Jersey.

Final Record: 105/128 ≈ 82%

Field Report: Czech Republic

Being a sports fan is not only about marvelling at watching the best do their thing. It’s not only about dreaming of reaching their level, trying to imitate them on the court, the rink, the field or a road that seems to never end. It’s also about experiencing the energy of the living organism that is a crowd during an on-going event: gasping, howling, heckling, suffering in anticipation of the worst and, yes, exploding in ecstasy at the sight of the incredible.

Taking all of this in can become an addiction and quickly spun into the search for new sensations, different environments, fresh faces and impulses. Thus, in sport, just like in life, one way you can feed the addiction is to pack your things and travel, explore and discover other spaces and perspectives.

Just to be clear, because the semantics on that paragraph seem to point to some life-altering trip, this is not what we’ll chronicle on this post. Just a slightly exaggerated preamble to indicate that the magic of traveling and the passion for sports go hand-in-hand perfectly, since there’s no better way of expanding your fandom than expressing it wherever your feet land.

Anyway, recently I had the chance to spend eight days on the Czech Republic and manage to stay level-headed enough to be able to recount some things. The timing of the visit coupled with the scheduling of sporting events (blame football’s winter break) dictated that options were limited, so I only ended up attending a couple of ice hockey games. I visited Prague and the quaint university town of Olomouc, and in this article will expose my thoughts on what I saw, felt and perceived on their respective arenas.

Additionally, even if this isn’t a travel blog, I’ll take the chance to collect some personal remarks about extra-sports aspects of the places I got to know. These two sections will be clearly delimited, should one of them be outside of your interest.

My first stop was the capital of Central Europe’s hockey hotbed (sorry, Slovakia), so I’ll start there.

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HC Sparta Praha – PSG Zlín, Wednesday, 3rd February 2016

The Tipsport Czech Extraliga is the main ice hockey division in the Czech Republic and ranks fifth in average attendance amongst its European counterparts, after the Swiss, German, Russian (KHL) and Swedish leagues, with a bit over 5000 spectators per match. I took advantage of my stay in Prague to enjoy the battle between Sparta Praha, the home side that was close to clinching a playoff spot and cruising in second place on the league standings, and a Zlín squad desperate for points to approach the sixth and final postseason berth.

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The ice hockey Olympic gold medal conquered in 1998 helped build the O2 Arena. That is represented in front of the main entrance.

Starting this season, the O2 Arena hosts the matches of Sparta’s ice hockey section, since their banner Tipsport Arena, located on the Holesovice district, is in need of significant renovations. Opened in 1962, the former home of Sparta, which hosted the Ice Hockey World Championships on four occasions and could accommodate 13,150 spectators, will be part of a complete makeover underway at Výstaviště, an extensive area with facilities used for concerts, exhibitions and other cultural and leisure activities. Some club services, like the main fan shop and youth team’s activities remain there, but all of the matches take place on Prague’s main venue, the O2 Arena, where more than 17,000 can appreciate the wonders of live hockey.

Opened in 2004, this multi-purpose building is a modern infrastructure that can be reached easily from the Cêskomorávská metro station – on the yellow metro line(line B) – a half dozen stops from the city centre, and without surprise caters to the needs of its visitors, whatever type of spectacle they’re in for. The entrance occurs swiftly despite the presence of metal detectors, the concourses are spacious to accommodate thousands during intermissions, and there’s no shortage of bathrooms, which almost completely eliminates the nuisance of queues. Meanwhile, ample seating capacity at the concessions area was also not forgotten, a must due to the impressive multitude and diversity of food stalls, which supply almost every type of food you could be expected to find on an entertainment venue, including burgers, pizzas, hot dogs and Klobásas (a thick, spicy sausage served accompanied with slices of brown bread), tacos, baguettes, sandwiches, potato pancakes (a Czech favourite), chips…

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My own submission to the “How to recognize a terrible photographer” booklet.

Nevertheless, if the arena had all the comforts necessary, I was there to watch a hockey game and was presented with an entertaining affair between a home side dressed in the classic maroon and white colours and the visitors wearing a yellow and blue outfit. Sparta managed to take the lead on three separate occasions but every time Zlín came back to tie the match, wasting a golden chance to secure the two points late in regulation after a penalty was whistled to their opponents. Then, already in the overtime period (unfortunately, not 3 on 3), the tables turned and Zlín went down two men with a pair of penalties in quick succession, but Sparta couldn’t capitalize on the 5 on 3 despite a crowd standing in anticipation of the game winning goal. The match thus drifted into a deciding shootout, where Sparta scored twice to no response from the 2013-14 Czech Champions, setting the 4-3 final score line.

As for individual standouts, you couldn’t help but notice the reaction of the audience to the heroics of 25-year-old Miroslav Forman. Sparta’s home-grown C/RW scored the opening goal and also delivered on the shootout’s first attempt with a nice deke, deserving a farewell applause to the tune of a “Miro Formaaan“ call that, more than once, caught me humming for a similarly-named star player from my own football team. No idea if Forman also disappears in big games, though.

Credit: hcsparta.cz (blame O2 Arena’s security regulations)

Meanwhile, Forman’s goaltender, Tomáš Pöpperle, was also on the spot regularly and not for the best reasons, slowly getting back into position to confront the puck on the first two goals allowed, and always looking shaky managing rebounds. He also fumbled the puck behind the net on an opportunity that didn’t end up costing dearly by miracle. Pöpperle was a 5th round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005 and played two NHL games back in 2006-07, but it’s fair to say that he was feeling the pressure provided by the recent acquisition of Danny Taylor, a 28-year-old Canadian goalie that was part of the LA Kings and Calgary Flames organizations and became one of only two non-Europeans on Sparta’s roster.

Actually, the great majority of the league’s lineups include only Czech and Slovak players, with “imports” being scarce, a different approach than seen in rival countries like Germany and Switzerland.

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Repairing the ice during the second intermission.

Still, Sparta’s roster included a few players with NHL experience, brief in the cases of defenseman Michal Barinka, a former Blackhawks prospect, and Jaroslav Hlinka, who represented the Colorado Avalanche in 2007-08, and more pronounced for 39-year-old Jan Hlavac, who amassed 436 games for 6 NHL teams from 1999 to 2004 and during a second stint in 2007-08.

As one of the most heralded Czech teams, Sparta Praha has won six national Championships since 1987, when the nation’s league was instituted, and is looking to end a drought of eight seasons in 2015-16, thus their roster includes some interesting players that I wouldn’t be surprised to see moving overseas in the near future. I liked Juraj Mikos, a 27-year-old well-rounded Slovak blueliner that Toronto selected in the 5th round in 2007 and later played three years for the Toronto Marlies, but he’s unlikely to go back. So, I would put my chips on 23-year-old skilled centre Daniel Pribyl, a Montreal Canadiens 6th rounder in 2011 who is clocking at a point-per-game pace (38 in 38 games) in the Czech League, or 25-year-old Jan Buchtele, an undrafted left winger that looked strong on the boards and unafraid to drive to the net, having obtained over 15 goals in three consecutive seasons.

Before moving on, allow me a few words on the overall atmosphere around the ice. About 7500 spectators showed up to fill the lower bowl of the arena and the atmosphere was animated, with a markedly youthful crowd (Sparta has some type of campaign to deliver a bunch of free tickets for groups of students that apply their schools) providing a colourful vibe. This also extended to the enthusiastic group of organized home supporters, which were standing in close proximity to where I was seated and were relentless in their attempts to drown out the chants and reactions of around two hundred fans that made the trip from the Eastern Moravian town. No ill-advised incitements or provocations were thrown cross-rink and both groups confined themselves to backing up their teams, which made for an enjoyable experience throughout the game.

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Jaromir Jágr’s equipment from his time at HC Kladno on display at the Czech Hockey Hall of Fame

Although the O2 Arena dominates the attentions, for hockey fans the attractions on the area don’t stop there, as the Harfa Shopping Center, located just to the right of the arena, hosts the Czech Hockey Hall of Fame. The space (entrance fee Adult: 140 CZK, ≈5.5€) presents an overview of the origins of the sport in the country, the national team’s main feats and trophies conquered – with evident focus on the Olympic Gold Medal earned in Nagano 1998 – plus the triumphs and contributions of the most successful clubs. It is also replete with memorabilia and multimedia records from the inducted members of the Hall of Fame, including esteemed NHL legends like Jaromír Jágr, Dominik Hašek, Peter Šťastný or Ivan Hlinka. If you have time, you may spend a couple of hours on the exhibition but I would say that most visitors are lured to the fun zone, where you can showcase your skills in shooting*, passing and stickhandling simulators or indulge on a game of air hockey.

Leaving the exhibition, you can also check their small shop, with a decent chunk of NHL merchandise, namely club-themed hats, beanies, water bottles, pucks and a few jerseys, but the choice is a bit limited. So, if you’re after that, head to the centre of Prague and the JB Sport – Hokej Centrum shop (address: Dlážděná 1491/3, 110 00 Praha 1-Nové Město, http://www.jbsport.cz/ ) situated not far from Prague’s main train station. It is a 300m2 paradise for hockey fans in general, and NHL fans looking for jerseys, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, among others. And no, they did not sponsor this paragraph.

*Well, if they could provide a right-handed stick fitted for a normal sized person so you can manage to wire the puck decently on the shooting gallery, it would be nice

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Time for some random considerations regarding the city of Prague, in bullet form:

– I won’t shock anyone by confirming that Prague is as picturesque, charming, full of history and (I suppose) romantic as advertised, but it’s still nice to understand that a stone-throw away from the hordes of visitors, you can find some peaceful alleyways and understated beauties. For instance, just drive off Karlova, the street that connects Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) and Charles Bridge, to explore and get lost on the maize of lanes and crannies littered with restaurants, boutique shops and courtyards the bustle does not touch.

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Just to fill the obligatory cliché pic quota..and yes, that is a light blue sky.

– As you quickly get used when you travel, the most famous tourist attractions can be extremely underwhelming. In Prague, there’s no doubt this flag is waved proudly by the spectacle put in motion every hour at the Astronomical Clock. Literally hundreds – even in the peak of the Winter season – flock to stand in front of the medieval mechanism in order to watch a handful of small figures shake, clink and barely move for what amounts to 90 lost seconds. I mean, the clock is definitely a work of art but the “show” is so trite you just leave befuddled.

– They’re pretty much conspicuous on Prague’s Old Tour but I still had to sneak in a mention of it. Do not miss the chance to taste the sweet Czech pastry by the name of Trdelník you’ll see getting roasted wrapped around sticks over a grill on street stands. This portion of rolled dough topped with cinnamon sugar is absolutely delicious, and so crispy its beehive shape fades perfectly as you eat. You can also have the inside coated with Nutella, jam or caramel to provide the perfect excuse to try it again and again.

– The Old Town Hall Tower and the Žižkov Television Tower can be climbed to experience dramatic overviews of the city, but Prague isn’t short on much more budget-conscious options to observe great panoramas of different districts. The city is defined by several hills and reaching the top won’t cost a penny, with the rewards coming in troves. One example is Petřín Hill, a major recreational area which is adorned by several interesting buildings, including a lookout tower that resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Meanwhile the Letná Park is an extensive green area ideal for a stroll, with his elevation providing great views of the historical area, just across the Vltava River. As for Vítkov Hill, home of the equestrian statue of legendary general Jan Žižka and the imposing National Monument, it is less visited but the view is equally impressive, especially towards the northern neighbourhoods of the city.

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The view from the Letná Park

– The Žižkov district (Prague 3) is a great option if you’re looking for affordable accommodation, with a wealth of mid-level hotels stationed on the quarter delimited in the north by Husitská/Koněvova street (on the foothill of Vitkov Hill) and in the south by Seifertova. The first road is served by several buses that put you on Florenc’s Metro Station (or even the city center (bus #207)) in five minutes, while Seifertova is connected by a plethora of trams that stop at the main train station and reach Wenceslas Square in less than a dozen of minutes. Additionally, Žižkov hosts a lively nightlife, with Bořivojova street, just off the Lipanská tram station, famous for the multitude of bars and restaurants. However, the atmosphere in the neighbourhood permanently feels calm and safe, even after dark.

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Sandwiched between two shifts in Prague, I headed to the town of Olomouc, in the Moravia region. As before, first the match “report”:

HC Olomouc – BK Mlada Boleslav, Sunday, 31st of January 2016

My first hockey game on Czech soil occurred on a rainy afternoon, confronting two teams in direct competition for the fifth position on the standings and trying, at the same time, to create some more breathing room above their desperate pursuers for the last playoff spot. The match was disputed at the Zimní (the Czech word for Winter) Stadion Olomouc, located just north of the city centre, on a zone where we can find a cluster with all the major sporting facilities in town, including a tennis centre, an aquatic centre, several football fields prepared for athletics and, more significantly, Sigma Olomouc’s football stadium, still proudly boasting the decorations left from the 2015 Under-21 UEFA European Championships.

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Exterior of the Zimní Stadion Olomouc, home of HC Olomouc

For this hockey match, 4830 spectators congregated in the creaky arena, built in 1948, a number right in line with last year’s average of 4745, which not only means the stadium is constantly close to the full capacity of 5,500, but also that the extensive lines formed at the only two entrances should be an integral part of the game day experience. The number of seats is around 3800, and few spots were unoccupied, with the same ringing true on the standing section that saw the home club’s “ultras” sing along, jump in unison and proudly stretch their scarfs.

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Mesmerized by the moving red in the stands.

Nevertheless, at every intermission, the fans descended into the cramped hallway to mingle and pick up food or beer, which didn’t completely congest the area under the stands because a few opt to just head outside (and I’m pretty sure their re-entrance is in no way controlled). As for the menu available, you’ve surely intuited that it is way more restricted (beer, coffee, klobasa, mulled wine) than at the O2 Arena but, at least, I can attest that my portion of fries (or hranolky, as I hastily discovered after spending a good 45 seconds furiously pointing in an effort to make my order understandable to five pairs of bemused eyes) did the job.

The packed small venue, totally in favour of the hosts, looked engaged during the entire 60 minutes of a chippy, tight affair, and the mass did their part to encourage their players forward when the opportunity arose, functioning as an extra element and controlling the anxiety on the last minutes while the visitors pressed in search of the tying goal.

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Handshake lines after regular season matches? Sure

The game had started at lightning speed, with multiple chances for the hosts on the first two minutes, but never delivered on the promise of fireworks. Both teams worked hard to gain the opposing blue lines and keep the puck deep by getting an edge on board battles, but, to put it bluntly, skill didn’t abound. The ice was finally broken by Olomouc midway through the second period, with forward Dávid Buc taking advantage of a defensive lapse, which left him with too much space on the slot to bury a goal line pass past the Mlada Boleslav goaltender. The teams kept trading chances after the 1-0, with the posts entering the equation at times, but not even a frantic late charge from the visitors, which pumped 14 shots on the final period, resulted in more goals, as the home stopper, 26-year-old Tomáš Vošvrda, stood tall to lock two key points for HC Olomouc.

The 26-year-old Vošvrda was the most prominent man on the ice, pitching a 28-saves shutout and repeatedly denying the efforts of Mlada Boleslav’s first line, which is centred by 41-year-old David Výborný, a veteran who spent seven seasons (2000-08) on the NHL playing in a scoring role (317 points in 543 games) for the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets, and now devotes the heyday of his career to receiving orders from his father and team coach, 62-year-old Frantisek Výborný. Accompanying Výborný in every shift is another former NHLer, albeit one with a less decorated career, RW Jakub Klepis, who represented the Washington Capitals from 2005 to 2007.

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Caught a Czech Hall of Famer winning a faceoff. What a thrill!

The entire roster of Mlada Boleslav is comprised of Czech players, except for Slovenian Olympic defenseman Mitja Robar, and HC Olomouc’s is not much different, mixing in a few Slovaks on a group that features just one member that can claim to have savoured the best level of competition on the planet. Pavel Skrbek, a 37-year-old defender, was a 2nd round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998 before playing a grand total of 12 games with Pittsburgh and Nashville.

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The sixth largest city in the Czech Republic is a bit more than two hours away from Prague by train, is served with direct connections pretty much every hour and can easily function as a jumping point to the region of Moravia, which occupies the South-Eastern part of the country. Brno and Ostrava, the nation’s second and third biggest cities, are 1.5h/1h away should you be craving a more metropolitan feel, but if you’re looking for a town with a large, well-preserved historical centre that has yet to be discovered by most tourists, Olomouc beats the likes of Český Krumlov or the spa town of Karlovy Vary.

As you leave Olomouc’s train station, several trams connect to the city centre, where you’ll find a wealth of attractions, in a handful of minutes. The main one is the massive Holy Trinity Column looming on the Upper Square (Horní náměstí), a baroque monument that reaches 35m in height and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there’s also an Astronomical Clock adorning the Town Hall, which almost rivals the one in Prague in beauty and sees way smaller crowds at the hour mark (conversely, the spectacle doesn’t lag behind either).

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Olomouc’s Horní náměstí. The Town Hall on the left, the Holy Trinity column and Hercules fountain on the right

Also popular among visitors is the tour of the plethora of fountains found around the city’s squares, depicting Roman Gods like Jupiter and Neptune, human motifs or mythical figures like Julius Caesar, the legendary founder of Olomouc. The town is distinctly ecclesiastic, with prominent religious buildings like Saint Wenceslas Cathedral or Saint Michael’s Church worth visiting if you’re into that kind of sightseeing.

However, there’s another facet of Olomouc that features strongly on its daily life. The Palacký University (Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci, in Czech), the second oldest in the country after being established in the XVI century, brings hordes of outsiders to join the roughly 100,000 inhabitants, whereby during the school semesters one in four residents are students.

This means that the ambiance is distinctly juvenile and there’s a notable rate of the usual services directly targeted to students, including specific bars, cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, my visit coincided with the examinations period and between-semesters down season, thus everything seemed to function at half-speed. Nevertheless, many of the different faculties, which are scattered around the urban area, occupy some of the most beautiful buildings on the historical centre, calling for a closer look inside, something facilitated when the fuss of a normal day is absent.

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“Limping in the rain”. An all-time classic to be made

Olomouc has a pleasant, compact city centre that is easily walked or cycled, with large parks on short distance and nature encircling the town, giving way to a Moravian countryside replete with castles, caves, swimming holes and natural reserves. My two days on the city weren’t enough to explore these options, but I definitely noticed that you can walk fifteen minutes from the main square in every direction and probably find yourself away from civilization.