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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: Final Takeaways

We’ve figured out who were the best athletes and our favourite moments of the 2018 Winter Olympics, but before closing the book for another four years, I wanted to touch on a few other topics to deliver a more comprehensive picture of what the action in PyeongChang entailed and what we can derive from it, especially on a country-by-country basis.

However, before we delve into the results, let’s award a few special mentions that could complement the previous chapters of this Winter Olympics review.

Best duel: Alina Zagitova vs Evgenia Medvedeva

Friends, training partners and compatriots, but also opponents with distinct skating styles and artistic concepts. The 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, despite her ballerina manners, is all athleticism and poise, exploding off the ice for breath-taking sequences of jumps and twists that she lands with age-defying efficiency. Three years older, Evgenia Medvedeva is eminently gracious and creative, an artisan who pours her soul into the routines and disappears into character, sublime in the technical aspects though not quite able to pull off the same physical exertion of her rival.

Standing head and shoulders above anyone else in the ladies’ figure skating competition, a mere 1.31 pts separated them in the end; Zagitova’s advantage secured with her world-record short program and controversially kept by the jury when the two teenagers scored the same total in the free skate. Superior in the choreographic and interpretative elements, the World Champion Medvedeva was left to rue her luck as Zagitova’s strategical decision to backload her act with the most difficult jumps to leverage extra points paid off. And so the fledgling prodigy beat the established star for Olympic gold, and one girl sobbed while the other smiled, still insensible to what had she had accomplished.

Russian teenagers Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova shared the podium in PyeongChang (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Similarly to gymnasts, the career of female figure skaters, particularly those that explode at such a young age, is difficult to handicap, but if Medvedeva and Zagitova can keep the flame burning, watch out. This could be a rivalry for the ages.

Eye-watering (non-sport) moment: Team Korea

We all know the world didn’t change because North and South Korean athletes and officials walked out together in the Opening Ceremony and waved the same flag, depicting a unified Korean Peninsula, but if PyeongChang is to be remembered as a miniscule step towards a political agreement that ends a decades-long stalemate, we can all agree that it was worth it. Platitude or not, sport really does have the power to unite people and nations like few else, and even the most cynical person would have to breach a smile at the sight of players from both countries battling and celebrating together on the ice while forming bonds off it.

And if, ultimately, this concerted effort by both nations’ leaders and the IOC means nothing, every person caught on that arena when Randi Heesoo Griffin scored Korea’s first goal will always have one historical moment to look back on. As will all the members of North Korea’s delegation that got to spent two weeks outside of their secluded state, including the mesmerizing “army of beauties” who trudged from venue to venue, unmistakable on their matching outfits and physical features, waving props, dancing to the beat, clapping and singing catching tunes like “Be Strong” and “Win. Win.”. Ok, the chants were bad but that’s not really what counts, is it?

Worst storyline: The brutal wind

After the mild temperatures found in Sochi 2014, the Winter Olympics were back in the appropriate environment, with freezing conditions castigating the athletes right from the Opening Ceremony, yet the Games could have been staged without the merciless gusts of wind that wrecked competitions and forced multiple delays, particularly in the first week.

Amongst all sports, the alpine skiing calendar was the most affected, with many races postponed to dictate a schedule compression that compelled star athletes (Mikaela Shiffrin, for instance) to drop events, while both biathletes and ski jumpers endured conditions that hampered their ability to shoot straight or land safely.

Course crew slide slip to the finish area after the women’s giant slalom was postponed due to high winds at the Yongpyong Alpine Center (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Nonetheless, the really problematic situations happened in the women’s snowboard slopestyle and women’s aerials (freestyle skiing) events, which shouldn’t have gone ahead because of the whipping wind. Turning the competitions into a mess or mere survival battles, the unpredictable conditions led to a parade of ugly falls and swaths of athletes restraining from attempting their riskier acrobatics, and that’s a real shame for the IOC. Athletes shouldn’t work four years with a single goal in mind, only to be forced to stake their physical well-being beyond the reasonable for the sake of a sporting competition.

Best venue atmosphere: Short track speed-skating

The Gangneung Ice Arena doubled as the figure skating venue, yet no other ticket in town was a sought-after as an invitation to the electric nights of short track, when locals regularly lost their marbles in the face of their favourite winter sport, the excitement palpable even for those watching on television.

Already one of the most action-packed, chaotic disciplines in the Winter Olympics, every short track race where the national athletes took part was an adventure on its own, with fans enthusiastically cheering name introductions, saturating the building with nervous tension, puffing at the sight of a fall and exploding in hysterics every time a South Korean moved up the pack to close on victory or contest a sprint. And let’s not even get to the outrage and rebelling raining from the stands when any home favourite got disqualified…

Local favourite Choi Min-Jeong strides to victory in the semi-final of the 1500m as two of her opponents wipe out in behind (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images)

Country-by-country roundup:

Non-traditional nations that accomplished milestones

A record 30 National Olympic Committees gained medals in PyeongChang, and among those stand out a few that reappeared on the list after long absences. For instance Hungary, one of the most decorated Summer Olympic nations, who reached a podium for the first time since 1980, and couldn’t have asked for better from their short track men’s 5000m relay team, which made the national anthem sound for the first time in a Winter Olympics. Encomiums are thus in order for Viktor Knoch, Csaba Burján and siblings Shaoang Liu and Shaolin Sandór Liu, born in Budapest to a Chinese-father and key parts of the country’s seventh Winter medal since 1924.

Meanwhile, Spain hadn’t medalled in 26-years when Regino Hernández finished the men’s snowboard cross competition in third place, and they didn’t have to wait much more for another since figure skater Javier Fernández twirled his way to a deserved bronze medal in the men’s singles event contested two days later. Although, if we’re rewarding the quickest rebound from feast to famine, New Zealand takes the cake, tripling its all-time count in Winter Olympics in a matter of minutes due to consecutive bronze medals from a pair of 16-year-olds, freestyle skier Nico Porteous (men’s halfpipe) and snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott (women’s big air), the first Winter medallists from the Pacific nation since 1992.

Javier Fernández celebrates with the Spanish flag after winning a bronze medal on the men’s singles figure skating event (David J. Phillip)

Sick of watching their northern neighbours hoard medals in speed skating, Belgium coaxed a bit of glory when Bart Swings finished second in the men’s mass start to snag the country’s first medal since 1998, whereas alpine skier Tina Weirather finally fulfilled her Olympic destiny, placing third in the women’s Super-G to reopen Liechtenstein’s account after 20 years. With Weirather’s success, now 7 of the 10 medals obtained by athletes from the tiny Principality belong to the same family since Tina’s mother, Hanni Wenzel, and uncle, Andreas Wenzel, also achieved podium positions in representation of the only country to hold medals from the Winter Olympics but not the Summer Olympic Games.

Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)

Stripped of the national flag, anthem and colours in result of a scandalous doping scheme, the Russian athletes were placed on the eye of the storm and the results they delivered in strenuous circumstances underwhelmed, with the country’s representatives falling way short of the 11 golds and 29 medals that, to this day, make the official tally from their home Games in 2014.

A total of 168 athletes were cleared by international federations to don the special OAR tracksuits in PyeongChang, however, deprived of leading figures such as short track star Viktor Ahn, biathlon’s Anton Shipulin or cross-country’s Sergey Ustiugov and Alexander Legkov, the distinctive performances amongst the group were few and far between, with the Olympic Athletes from Russia totalling 17 medals and just two golds.

While true that those came in iconic events, men’s ice hockey and women’s singles figure skating, it’s no less legitimate to affirm that discomfort from not possessing enough clean athletes to compete in team events in biathlon or speed skating was galling, and things would have looked even bleaker if not for a tremendous up-and-coming generation of cross-country athletes headlined by Aleksandr Bolshunov, Denis Spitsov and Yulia Belorukova, who amassed a surprising 8 medals, almost half of the team’s final sum.

Ice hockey delivered one of just two gold medals for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Furthermore, despite all the back spinning going on at the IOC, who seemed desperate to reinstate the Russian Olympic Committee in time for the Closing Ceremony, the OAR delegation still found a way to undermine their own chances, producing two of the four doping cases of the 2018 Olympics: the bizarre failed test of curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who had to return his mixed doubles bronze medal, and the burlesque positive of bobsleigh pilot Nadezhda Sergeyeva, who had modelled a “I Don’t Do Doping” t-shirt just days before the start of the Games.

Still, Russia’s NOC was eventually welcomed back right after the dust settled, and mediocre results slipped under the radar at home because Vladimir Putin got the last laugh and the one thing he really desired: Olympic gold hanging from the necks of his ice hockey heroes.

China

Four years before the winter sports show stops in Beijing, China got an idea of how much work it still has ahead if hopes of making waves in 2022 are to be realized. In PyeongChang, Chinese athletes collected just 9 medals, the same number of Sochi, yet only one was mined from the most valuable metal and, critically, no improvements could be discerned in most sports despite the army of foreign experts brought on board to expedite the process.

In reality, between the Nordic disciplines (alpine skiing, cross-country, biathlon and ski-jumping) and the three sliding sports (luge, skeleton and bobsleigh), the Chinese failed to place a single athlete in the top 10, and even though they picked up some honours in freestyle skiing, snowboard, figure skating and speed skating (first podium appearance), the only sport where they’re undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with remains short track speed skating, where they’ve conquered 30 of 53 all-time medals. And, naturally, China’s only title in South Korea was conquered at the Gangneung Ice Center, with 23-year-old Wu Dajing setting two world records on his way to an impressive, wire-to-wire victory in the men’s 500m.

Short track speedskater Wu Dajing was the only Chinese athlete to leave PyeongChang with a gold medal (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Japan

For only the second time, and first outside of their home soil, the Japanese reached double digits in terms of Winter Olympics honours, and the secret behind that progress were the remarkable results achieved in the Gangneung Oval by their ladies, whose rejuvenated speed skating program tabbed 6 of 13 Japanese medals, and three of the four Nipponic golds.

Accordingly, the highlight of the Japanese performance in South Korea was, arguably, the spectacular victory in the women’s team pursuit over the mighty Dutch trio, though the star of the delegation was still figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who defended his title by finishing ahead of compatriot Shoma Uno in the men’s competition despite concerns over a nagging right ankle injury. As for the less expected outcome, it would pertain the third-place obtained by the women’s curling team, which spelled a first ever medal in the sport for the country.

Japan’s Miho Takagi (left), Ayano Sato (center) and Nana Takagi race in the women’s team pursuit final en route to a gold medal. | KYODO

South Korea

The unified ice hockey team grabbed the headlines at home, particularly during the first week, and that may have been exactly what the rest of the South Korean contingent needed to shake off the nerves and deliver an outstanding fortnight, eventually ensuring that the proverbial host nation bump signified a doubling of the medal tally from Sochi (8 to 17).

As expected, most of the load fell on the speed skaters, not only in the short track (3 golds, 6 medals) but also on the longer course (1 gold, 7 medals), whereas figure skating retreated into the shadows on the wake of Yuna Kim’s retirement to cede the stage to a swath of unprecedented successes in disciplines that hold significantly less following in South Korea.

Members of the South Korean women’s curling team celebrate after their semifinal victory over Japan (Aaron Favila / AP)

The case in point would be the success of the “Iron Man” Yun Sung-bin, who tamed the Alpensia track like no other skeleton competitor, but the nice stories extended farther, comprising the four-man bobsleigh unit, who shared the podium with two German sleds, snowboarder Lee Sang-ho, who became the first Korean athlete to win a medal over snow when he finished in the runner up spot of the parallel giant slalom, and the lovely women’s curling team. Nicknamed the Garlic girls for their city of origin, they notched an incredible 8-1 record in group stage before securing silver in what was the country’s first ever participation in the sport.

Sweden

A traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse, Sweden’s delegation left PyeongChang one medal short of Sochi’s total (14 instead of 15) but, probably, in a much better mood by influence of the seven Olympic titles, which equalled the record haul of Torino 2006.

In fact, the total of 2014 was enormously dictated by cross-country (11 of the 14 medals), and while it wasn’t ideal that they got eclipsed by rivals Norway in endurance skiing this time (6 medals against 14), the Swedes found a way to compensate elsewhere, with the most unexpected news travelling from the biathlon centre, where a young team shone brightly to score four podiums and two brilliant gold medals (women’s individual and men’s relay) that bested their neighbour’s record.

Fredrik Lindström heads to the finish line in front of the Swedish crowd in the final moments of biathlon’s men’s relay (Getty Images)

Moreover, in another major battleground for Sweden, the slopes, veterans Frida Hansdotter and André Myhrer claimed a surprising sweep of the alpine skiing (individual) slalom events, while both of the nation’s curling teams played the respective finals in front of the visiting King Carl XVI Gustaf. Unfortunately, the men skipped by Niklas Edin couldn’t resist an American group on a mission, settling for silver, but Anna Hasselborg’s foursome completed the job and made up for the disappointing results in ice hockey, where both Swedish teams failed to reach the last four.

Netherlands

For the second consecutive Olympics, the Netherlands lodged inside the top-five in the final medal standings and, this time, they even showcased a bit of range, spraying some of their speed skating expertise to success in the short track, which accounted for a fifth of their twenty podiums. Including a first ever gold medal, captured by Suzanne Schulting in the 1000m, and a remarkable bronze snatched in the women’s 3000m relay after the Dutch got relegated to the B Final!

Dutch athletes Yara van Kerkhof and Lara van Ruijven rejoice after learning about their unlikely bronze medal in the women’s 3000m relay (ANP)

As for the proceedings in the Oval of Gangneung, the winners of a staggering 23 of 36 medals in Sochi 2014 garnered 16 of 42 (two mass start races added) in Pyeongchang, and 7 of 14 titles, a tally that seemed on the rise when they picked up six in the first seven speed skating events contested before falling flat. Regarding podium sweeps, after the incredible four of 2014, the Dutch swayed just one this time (women’s 3000m) and that can’t be disassociated from the decline in performance of their two legends, Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst.

The veteran duo, though, still managed to pick up medals number 9 and 11, respectively, to become the most decorated speed skaters in Olympic history, and they were not the only flying Dutch to rewrite the history books since teammate Jorien ter Mors will be immortalized as the first female to medal in two different sports at a single Olympics, winning the 1000m in the long track and bronze with the 3000m relay in the smaller ice rink a few days later.

United States of America

Ranked fourth in both the gold medal (9) and total medal (23) counts, the United States produced their worst Winter Olympics showing since Nagano 1998 because they metamorphosed into the team of the “Almost”.

Indeed, an uncharacteristic 35 American athletes finished between fourth and sixth, however the most worrying trend is another, which keeps popping up at every four year cycle: despite all the money, the USA have grown increasingly reliant on the X-Games events – added in 1992 – to keep a meaningful slice of the pie, and that is manifested in 11 of 23 medals originating from the plethora of freestyle skiing and snowboard showdowns.

17 year-old Red Gerard won the first medal for the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics (Mike Blake/Reuters)

At one point, the four Olympic titles obtained by American athletes belonged to snowboarders, with 17-year-olds Red Gerard and Chloe Kim pairing repeat Champions Jamie Anderson and Shawn White in the slopestyle and halfpipe competitions, but the final picture wind up getting a fresh coat of paint in the form of the three standout gold-medal performances amongst the entire American contingent: by the women’s ice hockey team, which ended Canada’s domination, the cross-country’s women’s sprint team, which secured the first ever Olympic title in the sport, and the men’s curling team, with John Shuster’s band of renegades charging to gold over Sweden.

Other positive surprises included a first ever singles medal in luge, courtesy of Chris Mazdzer, and the unmatched ability to generate contributions from 11 of 15 sports, though that shouldn’t disguise clear underperformance from the likes of bobsleigh, both speed skating disciplines – even if the women’s team pursuit salvaged bronze after the embarrassing goose egg in the Oval of Sochi – and figure skating, whose disastrous overall display in the women’s event was just the tip of the iceberg. In a minor level, reference to biathlon – the only Olympic sport where the USA have yet to reach the podium – and alpine skiing, which had to live with floundering men and the three medals gathered by Mikaela Shiffrin (gold and silver) and the departing Lindsey Vonn (silver).

Canada

Eight years after Vancouver, which marked a first look at the results of the “Own the Podium” program, Canada signed off from PyeongChang boasting a new record tally of medals (29) and a total of 11 golds, ranking third in both categories (and ahead of the USA, it should be noted), however these notable achievements couldn’t completely wash out the bittersweet taste left by what they missed out on.

Ice hockey and curling are Canada’s national past times and the proud holders of the four Olympic titles attributed in both sports were left to lick their wounds after relinquishing every single one of them in South Korea. They picked up the title in the novel curling mixed doubles event, but that’s small consolation since both genre’s foursomes finished off the podium, something that had never happened to Canadian men or women since the sport debuted in 1998. In addition, on the other sheet of ice, the women’s hockey team capitulated to the USA in the Final and the men had to settle for bronze in a tournament contested without NHL players.

Canada forward Meghan Agosta (2) and forward Marie-Philip Poulin (29) react after losing to the United States in the shootout of the women’s Olympic final Olympic (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On the positive side, Canada’s beloved figure skating pair won two golds in PyeongChang, with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir leading the way in the team event before recovering the ice dancing title, and to the four figure skating medals acquired, the country appended a healthy five in short track speed skating, with Kim Boutin snagging one in each individual event, as well as four golds and an admirable seven podiums in freestyle skiing, a sport where they hold the all-time lead.

Furthermore, Canada medalled for the first time in luge, with Alex Gough hitting the top-three in women’s singles and as part of the relay, Dutch-born Ted-Jan Bloemen became the first Canadian athlete to win an individual Olympic speed skating event in 34 years, and the bobsleigh two-man unit piloted by Justin Kripps stunningly tied for gold with a German sled, repeating the unusual circumstances of Nagano 1998, when Canada and Italy couldn’t be separated in the first gold medal dead heat in bobsleigh’s Olympic history.

Germany

Anointed as the pre-Olympics favourites to top the medal table, the Germans fell just short of the goal, bagging a mere 31 (the maximum are still 36 at Salt Lake City) in spite of matching Norway for a new winter record of 14 titles, nonetheless their authorities should be thrilled with the performance.

Improving massively on the haul of 8 victories and 19 podiums collected four years ago, Germany was only blanked once in 16 days of competition and managed to keep their usual strongholds, sweeping the gold medals in the Nordic Combined, including the entire top-three in the Individual large hill/10 km event, and bobsleigh, where they had been shockingly shut out in Sochi, and coming close in luge, with the fourth triumph flying wayward due to Felix Loch’s mistake.

World champion Johannes Rydzek led a German one-two-three finish in the Pyeongchang 2018 Nordic combined individual Gundersen large hill/10 kilometres event (Getty Images)

In truth, between the three sliding sports, the Germans bagged a record six golds at the Alpensia Sliding Center – more than all the other countries combined – and 11 medals, but there was much more to be excited about, from the 3 titles and 7 podiums heaped by biathletes in spite of Laura Dahlmeier’s “modest” contributions, to the four medals conquered by ski jumpers.

Regarding the rest of the contingent, a deserved reference to the gold captured by 34-year-old Aliona Savchenko (partnering Bruno Massot) in the pair’s figure skating competition of her fourth Olympics, and the surprising silver in men’s ice hockey, where the underdogs eliminated the reigning World Champions (Sweden) and Olympic Champions (Canada) on the way to a first medal since 1976.

Norway

I have no idea if Norway’s success in winter sports is based on their reticence to keep score below the age of 13, allowing the kids to fall in love without the pressure of competition, or some truth to the old adage that Norwegian children are born with skis on, however I’m convinced the future is unlikely to bring another Olympics where so many things go right at the same time for this Nordic nation.

Landing in PyeongChang with the 10th largest commission (109 athletes), the Norwegians not only blitzed past the United States’ Winter Olympics record of 37 medals (Vancouver 2010) and destroyed their previous best, totalling an unprecedented 39 after the 26 of Lillehammer and Sochi, but also matched Germany (2018) and Canada’s (2010) marks with a record 14 gold medals at a single Olympics.

Simen Hegstad Krüger waits for team-mates Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund as Norway completed a clean sweep in the men’s 15 kilometres + 15km skiathlon (Getty Images)

It’s well known that Norway’s national sport is cross-country and, unsurprisingly, their athletes drove the bus in South Korea to erase memories of a tepid performance four years ago, racking up an unparalleled 14 medals which comprised 7 golds, a podium sweep in the men’s 30km skiathlon, five metal biscuits for the legendary Marit Bjørgen, three titles for wunderkind Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and, amazingly, 0 honours for the reigning World Cup and Tour de Ski Champion Heidi Weng….

Moreover, keeping up with the best practices over two planks, ski jumpers pitched in 5 medals, including the first ever gold in the team event, biathletes contributed with 6, even with a single individual triumph from star Johannes Thingnes Bø, and the strength of their vaunted “Attacking Vikings” – which finally netted a maiden gold in the men’s downhill (Aksel Lund Svindal) – was supplemented with the first podium appearances for female alpine skiers since 1932.

Freestyler Øystein Bråten also joined the ski party by triumphing in the men’s slopestyle, and even the lack of individual medals (silver in team event) in the Nordic Combined, where the country leads the all-time standings, was eventually offset by the timely return to glory of Norway’s once-dominant speed skating team, who hadn’t won a title since 1998 before claiming the men’s 500m (Håvard Lorentzen) and men’s team pursuit in PyeongChang.

Havard Bokko, Sindre Henriksen, Simen Spieler Nilsen and Sverre Lunde Pedersen of Norway celebrate after winning the gold medal during the Speed Skating Men’s Team Pursuit Final (Dean Mouhtaropoulos /Getty Images)

Throwing the bronze medal in curling’s mixed doubles – rescued after the OAR disqualification – into the pile, 8 of the 11 sports where Norway competed chipped into the pot, and that summons their approach: capitalize on what you’re good at and leave the other chips to fall where they may.

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.

2018 Winter Olympics medal prognostications

Arriving to PyeongChang, South Korea, from all corners of the World, athletes from 15 different sports will battle for the 102 sets of medals available during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the ultimate reward for years of hard work and sacrifices in the name of a dream.

Unfortunately, this writer won’t be one of them, which means I can’t do much more than sit back, monitor the proceedings from my living room on the other side of the planet…and try to look smart doing so. But how? Well, by predicting the Olympic medal winners in advance and before the wind, unexpected temperatures, injuries, illnesses or just plain bad luck conspire to reshape the course of history.

Now, forecasting 100 different events is a lot for a single person, and since I won’t bother to trick you into thinking I have any idea who is going to take the freestyle skiing ladies’ aerials gold, let’s narrow the field to 28 events and my own Fab Four: Alpine skiing, Biathlon, Ice Hockey and Ski Jumping.

For full disclosure, the projections released by Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the statistical genius at Gracenote were consulted before publication, but the future will certainly prove my brilliance in comparison with the so-called experts and machines. Or not. Still, on a related note, can we, reasonable people with a functioning brain, agree that biathlete Laura Dahlmeier won’t leave Pyeonchang with six gold medals? Great. Let’s get down to business then.

 

Alpine Skiing

The Pyeongchang Games are expected to coronate overall World Cup leaders Marcel Hischer and Mikaela Shiffrin, but exactly how much metal can this star duo accumulate? Moreover, is Lindsey Vonn going to add a few extra Olympic honours to the 2 medals obtained in Vancouver 2010, further padding an already stellar career? Is comeback King Aksel Lund Svindal destined for greatness on his final Olympic appearance? There’s no shortage of intrigue ahead of the alpine skiing events of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

American Mikaela Shiffrin shined as an 18-year-old in Sochi 2014 and she’ll be looking for more gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics (GEPA/Mario Kneisl)

Men:

Downhill

Gold: Beat Feuz, Switzerland

Silver: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway

Bronze: Matthias Mayer, Austria

World Champion Beat Feutz leads the downhill standings this season by virtue of 3 victories and 2 runner-up finishes in 7 races, and he’s the man to beat in the fastest of the alpine disciplines. Svindal should return to the Olympic podium at age 35, making up for the disappointment of Sochi, while an Austrian always seems to sneak into the podium in these occasions. My money is on defending Champion Matthias Mayer, wildly inconsistent but someone who’s been showing signs of life recently.

 

Super-G

Gold: Max Franz, Austria

Silver: Kjetil Jansrud, Norway

Bronze: Vincent Kriechmayer, Austria

Kjetil Jansrud defends the crown from Sochi and leads the World Cup charts at the moment, but he’s going to have his hands full with the Austrian armada. Between Franz, Kriechmayer and 2015 World Champion Hannes Reichelt, the most decorated Alpine country has nice probabilities of snatching multiple medals, and I believe the 28-year-old Franz is the man to devise the perfect run.

 

Combined

Gold: Alexis Pinturault, France

Silver: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Bronze: Peter Fill, Italy

Alexis Pinturault has topped the Alpine combined standings in four of the last 5 seasons and he’s due a major title. The French will pick up gold after holding off the slalom charge of Marcel Hirscher. Veteran Peter Fill clocks the best time of the downhill run and then clings to the podium in the ensuing slalom.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Ted Ligety, United States

If you’re as much as a casual alpine skiing spectator, you probably know Hirscher has yet to win an Olympic gold medal. That will end in PyeongChang, and as occurred in many previous instances this season, Henrik Kristoffersen will fill the bridesmaid role. After a first season podium on the GS of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Ted Ligety won’t approach the top two nor impact the fight for his succession, but the American still manages to shrug away the opposition for bronze.

 

Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Luca Aerni, Switzerland

Triumphant in six of the seven slalom events he’s contested this season, Hirscher is the odds-on favourite for the Olympic crown, but Kristoffersen will, undoubtedly, be lurking around if the six-time overall World Cup Champion commits the most insignificant of mistakes. Aerni, the 24-year-old who won the Alpine Combined at the 2017 Worlds, pipes Michael Matt (Austria) for third.

 

Women:

Downhill

Gold: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Silver: Sofia Goggia, Italy

Bronze: Ragnhild Mowinckel, Norway

Vonn and Goggia starred on the final speed events ahead of the Olympics and they’ll again put their friendship on the line in South Korea, with the American prevailing to reclaim the downhill Olympic title. Mowinckel wins bronze to clinch Norway’s first ever medal for a female Alpine skier (all previous 29 were collected by men).

 

Super-G

Gold: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein

Silver: Lara Gut, Switzerland

Bronze: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Four years after crashing in a downhill training run in Sochi, Tina Weirather finally emulates her mother, Hanni Wetzel, and becomes the second Olympic Champion from Liechtenstein. Fourth in 2014, current Super-G World Cup leader Lara Gut climbs two steps to claim silver, while Nicole Schmidhofer, the reigning World Champion, is bested by Lindsey Vonn for the final podium position.

 

Combined

Gold: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Federica Brignone, Italy

Repeating the triumph of last year’s World Championships, Wendy Holdener creeps ahead of Shiffrin, the Slalom Queen, to savour her maiden Olympic title. In an all-Italian battle for third, Brignone knocks Sofia Goggia and Marta Bassino out of podium contention while Lindsey Vonn straddles a gate in the slalom to DNF.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Viktoria Rebensburg, Germany

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Tessa Worley, France

The most consistent GS competitor of the season, Rebensburg recaptures her Olympic crown four years after placing third in Sochi, therefore ending Shiffrin’s bid for 3+ titles in a single Olympics. A World Champion in 2013 and 2015, Tessa Worley makes up for the deception of missing the 2014 Olympics by rescuing the bronze medal.

 

Slalom

Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Silver: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Bronze: Frida Hansdotter, Sweden

With an advantage of over one second, Mikaela Shiffrin blows the competition apart to secure a second consecutive gold medal in her signature event. The in-form Holdener settles for second, while 32-year-old Frida Hansdotter takes advantage of Petra Vlhová’s tentative run to steal third place from the Slovak’s hands.

 

(Mixed) Team Event

Gold: Austria

Silver: Switzerland

Bronze: France

Marcel Hirscher will bookend a spectacular Winter Olympics by guiding Austria to the top of the podium on the first Team event in Olympic history. A talented Switzerland ensemble guarantees silver by upsetting the France of Pinturault, Worley and Mathieu Favre in the semis, though the French rebound to push Sweden out of the picture in the small final.

 

Biathlon

Martin Fourcade and Johannes Thingnes Bø have monopolized attentions this winter by hoarding 14 of the 15 individual competitions staged so far in the biathlon World Cup season, and their multiple clashes are bound to set alight the Alpensia Biathlon Center, nevertheless don’t sleep on the women. Laura Dahlmeier will be looking to reproduce her unconceivable five gold, six-medal performance of last year’s World Championships, and she’ll be up against a smattering of powerful opponents, including Sochi’s dominant figure, Darya Domracheva, and the current World Cup leader, Kaisa Mäkäräinen.

Johannes Thingnes Bø (L) and Martin Fourcade (R) will renew hostilities in PyeongChang (biathlon-hochfilzen.at)

Men:

10km Sprint

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Jakov Fak, Slovenia

Despite leading the sprint World Cup standings, Fourcade has only one victory to Bø’s three in this discipline in 2017-18, and the Norwegian has generally looked faster from the get-go at every World Cup stop. Therefore, we expect Johannes to take the first assault in Pyeongchang, with Martin Fourcade stopping the clock a few ticks later for silver. The steady Jacov Fak, World Champion in this discipline in 2012, concludes the podium lineup due to a clean shooting performance in a day where most of the other contenders will miss more than usual for lack of acclimation to the track and Olympic atmosphere.

 

12.5km Pursuit

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Emil Hegle Svendsen, Norway

Staying ahead of Fourcade during the Pursuit following his sprint successes hasn’t been a problem for Johannes Thingnes Bø this season, and we predict the same will happen at the Olympics. The 32-year-old Svendsen has picked up an Olympic medal in every other biathlon discipline between the 2010 and 2014 Games, and it would be neat if he managed to complete his set at the Pursuit.

 

15km Mass Start

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Bronze: Tarjei Bø, Norway

The hectic Mass start is a race that gets Fourcade’s emotions flowing like no other, and the French will outlast his Norwegian rival here, erupting to victory by a comfortable margin. For his part, Johannes may string a few misses on the day, but his magnificent skiing form should pull him out of trouble and back into medal territory. Tarjei Bø will take a ride with his younger brother and land on the last podium position.

 

20km Individual

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Erik Lesser, Germany

Bronze: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Martin Fourcade is the reigning Olympic Champion in the 20km individual and he won three consecutive World titles in this event before the third place of Hochfilzen 2017. The clear favourite since the race suits his deliberate shooting style and skiing prowess, the French will win ahead of Erik Lesser in a repeat of Sochi’s results. Meanwhile, Johannes Bø is not at his best in biathlon’s longest individual effort, but this season he tied his rival in the discipline’s standings by capturing a victory and a third place, and the Norwegian has the legs to make ground on the rest in spite of one, maybe even two, extra misses.

 

4×7.5km Relay

Gold: France

Silver: Norway

Bronze: Germany

Anchored by the two stars of the season, the men’s relay is expected to come down to the Johannes Bø – Martin Fourcade final showdown, with the French likely to start a few seconds late. In top form, a Norwegian group with Svendsen, the Bø brothers and Ole Einar Bjorndalen would be nearly unbeatable, however the legend was left off the team and Lars Helge Birkeland, while a steady athlete, doesn’t have as much international experience as the French trio supporting Martin. Simply because I’m still salty due to the absence of the greatest Winter Olympian ever, I’ll edge my bets on France.

With an experienced and reliable group, the Germans only need to avoid shooting themselves in the foot to secure third ahead of Austria, Italy and the Swedes, who recently triumphed in Oberhof. Russia, who won at home soil four years ago, couldn’t clear enough athletes to form a team for PyeongChang.

 

Women:

7.5km Sprint

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Anastasiya Kuzmina, Slovakia

Bronze: Tiril Eckhoff, Norway

Dahlmeier has yet to showcase the dominant skiing form of 2016-17, yet I sense she’ll explode off the gates in South Korea, shooting clean to overcome Anastasiya Kuzmina, the sprint Champion from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. Tiril Eckhoff is usually at her best on the sprint, and the easy shooting range combined with an up-and-down track should suit her qualities, guiding the Norwegian to a second individual medal after the Mass Sprint of Sochi.

 

10km Pursuit

Gold: Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Finland

Silver: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Bronze: Denise Herrmann, Germany

Shut out of medal contention on the last two Winter Olympics, Kaisa Mäkäräinen will break her duck on the Pursuit, bursting ahead of Dahlmeier after the standing shootout to clinch an emotional victory. Denise Herrmann, the ultimate wild card with her lightning fast skiing and erratic shooting, will enjoy a good day in the office and power up the field to take the final podium position.

 

12.5km Mass Start

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Bronze: Justine Braisaz, France

Although Dahlmeier won’t amass five gold medals like last year, she’ll still head home with a stuffed trophy case. This race will provide her with another opportunity to ascend to the highest podium level, while Domracheva, the 2014 Mass start Champion, will scamper away from the opposition with the finish line in sight to secure silver. Building back her form through the week after an untimely illness, 21-year-old Justine Braisaz will claim bronze and a first career medal.

 

15km Individual

Gold: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Silver: Dorothea Wierer, Italy

Bronze: Nadezhda Skardino, Belarus

Returning to the World Tour after a couple of lost seasons due to mononucleosis and pregnancy, Domracheva is unlikely to repeat her haul from Sochi, but she won’t leave empty-handed either. I trust the Belarussian will keep her cool on the shooting range, defend her Olympic title and be joined on the podium by her teammate Nadezhda Skardino, who will shoot clean to secure the top-three for a second consecutive Olympics. Dorothea Wierer, the winner of the last 15km individual race in Ruhpolding, showed clear progression as the Games approached, and that will merit a silver medal on the event where she’s tallied three of her four World Cup victories.

 

4x6km Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Italy

Winners of seven of the last eight women’s relays, the German ladies should lock the Olympic title without too much trouble, and that will ring true even if they opt to save their trump card, Laura Dahlmeier, after the mixed relay. Surprising Champions in Sochi amidst political turmoil back home, Ukraine returns all four athletes and they’ll be in the mix again, but I just like more the blend of experience and youth on the French team. Moreover, Italy’s relay is filled with sharp-shooters and in Dorothea Wierer they have an excellent anchor, which should be enough to drive Ukraine away from the medals.

 

Mixed Biathlon Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Norway

Swapping Tora Berger and Bjorndalen for Marte Olsbu (or Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold) and Johannes Thingnes Bø shouldn’t have a major effect on the strength of Norway’s relay compared to Sochi, yet the opposition looks stronger this time and the race difficult to handicap. Provided Martin Fourcade is in the lineup, France will exhibit a formidable unit, and Germany would be a pain to deal with if Dahlmeier checks out in front.

As the reigning World Champions, I’m picking the Germans to outlast a fierce French challenge for the title, with Norway dropping to third. Nonetheless, keep an eye on Italy, a credible threat to replicate the bronze of Sochi if Lukas Hofer and Dominik Windisch manage to keep their erratic shooting in check…

 

Ice Hockey

Canada swept the titles in the two most recent Winter Olympics, but without NHL players, they’ll be in a tough spot to emerge victorious out of the deep pool of candidates on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the women’s event should feature another North American battle between the Americans and the Canadians, and history has proven anything can happen when those two meet.

Canada beat the United States in the women’s ice hockey Final in Sochi 2014. These two teams should reconvene at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Men:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Olympic Athletes of Russia

Bronze: Canada

Youngster Rasmus Dahlin steals the show and goaltender Viktor Fasth slams the door shut on the high-powered Russians, who leave the tournament disgruntled in spite of managing their best result since 1998. The makeshift Canadian team edges the hard-working Finns in a low-scoring bronze medal game.

 

Women:

Gold: United States

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Finland

The four-time defending World Champions USA finally get the best of Canada, ending their neighbours’ run of four consecutive Olympic gold medals after yet another memorable chapter of one of world sports most underrated rivalries. Before that, Finland’s star goalkeeper Noora Räty almost steals a Final birth, but Canada eventually progresses out of the semi-final in OT, leaving the much-improved Finns to outduel Sweden for third place.

 

Ski Jumping

Kamil Stoch reigned supreme in Sochi four years ago, and the Pole’s name is again at the very top of the shortlist of favourites, but duplicating the achievement won’t be easy as his path to victory is brimming with talented Germans and Norwegians.

Kamil Sotch jumped for imortality at Sochi 2014. He’ll try to reach the same heights in South Korea (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports Eric Bolte )

Men:

Normal Hill

Gold: Kamil Stoch, Poland

Silver: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Bronze: Richard Freitag, Germany

Five weeks after an historical Four Hills Tournament sweep, Kamil Stoch defends his Normal Hill title by upstaging the dynamic German duo of Andreas Wellinger and Richard Freitag. Junshiro Kobayashi falls to fifth after posting the best mark of the first round, and he’s not the only Japanese to miss the mark since 45-year-old Noriaki Kasai also fails to follow up an excellent first attempt.

 

Large Hill

Gold: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Silver: Stefan Kraft, Austria

Bronze: Daniel-André Tande, Norway

Poland’s Kamil Stoch is pestered by difficult wind conditions on his first jump and he wastes the chance to repeat the double triumph of Sochi. The 22-year-old Andreas Wellinger flies to victory, while reigning World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft finds his stride at the right time after a difficult season start. Daniel-André Tande scores an individual medal to lead a Norwegian team that places 4 men inside the top 10.

 

Team

Gold: Norway

Silver: Germany

Bronze: Poland

The World Cup leaders from Norway extract revenge from the poor showing of Sochi by riding their balanced foursome to the Olympic title. Poland’s Kamil Stoch sets a new hill-record on his final jump to push Germany in the battle for silver, but Richard Freitag answers the call in response to limit the losses for the 2014 Champions.

 

Women:

Normal Hill

Gold: Maren Lundby, Norway

Silver: Sara Takanashi, Japan

Bronze: Katharina Althaus, Germany

Maren Lundby, the runaway World Cup leader, battles the nerves to win the second ever women’s gold medal in ski jumping. After a field-best first attempt, four-time World Cup overall winner Sara Takanashi finds redemption from the fourth-place of Sochi by securing the runner-up spot, while Katharina Althaus, second on the World Cup standings, has to settle for bronze ahead of compatriot – and defending Champion – Carina Vogt.

 

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.

 

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group B

Germany and Sweden are two of just three teams (Norway) to have won the Women’s European Championships and having been drawn into the same group are naturally prohibitive favourites to reach the Quarter-Finals. Conversely, Russia and Italy were once sides to take into account at the continental stage but are currently undergoing transitional periods that should hinder any possible challenge. Pretty straightforward, but there’s a reason they play the games…

Germany

For the past 22 years, the Germans have been the defending European Champions and there’s an excellent chance they’re going to extend their incredible run for a few more seasons despite missing many vital components of their Gold Medal winning team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, Annike Krahn, Saskia Bartusiak and Melanie Behringer retired from international football, Simone Laudehr and the multifaceted Alexandra Popp didn’t make the trip east due to injury, while head coach Silvia Neid stepped down after Rio, concluding a decorated 11-year stint behind the bench to cede the scene to former defender Steffi Jones. Nonetheless, even with such personnel turnover, Germany is still the odds-on candidate to lift the trophy.

Qualification: Group 5 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1989, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Steffi Jones

Star Player: Dzsenifer Marozsán (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The captain of Die Nationalelf has gradually established herself as the most impactful offensive midfielder in women’s football and, at age 25, the best is probably still ahead.

Germany’s captain Dzsenifer Marozsán in action during a friendly against Canada

Strongly built, exceptional in possession, masterful at controlling the rhythms of the game and changing the point of attack, the Hungarian roots of Marozsán help explain how she is football elegance personified in the way she drives forward with the ball at her feet, eyes surveying the scene before streamlining any kind of pass or shooting accurately at goal.

Wildly successful at every age category with the German national teams, her move from FFC Frankfurt to Lyon in 2016 has not only delivered the trophies she was missing at the club level, but further enhanced her overall skill set and tactical nous. So much that she’s now asked to play deeper on the field and render tasks that shouldn’t be hers. Germany would do good to not forget Maestro Marozsán is at her best free of defensive shackles, and her talent is ours to indulge on.

Player to watch: Lina Magull (SC Freiburg)

A shrewd two-year loan stint at SC Freiburg did wonders for the development of this right footed winger of immense technical resources and unexpectedly the 22-year-old arrives in the Netherlands as a probable starter for the mighty female Mannschaft.

Coming in at just 165cm tall, Lina Magull utilizes her nifty ball control to drift from the left side and invade central areas, engage defenders or provide weighted through balls that consistently push her team closer to the goal. No surprise then that after carrying modest Freiburg to surprise title contention, the Dortmund-native will return to Wolfsburg in the fall and try to leave her mark in its collection of stars. But before that, she’ll perform in front of the European audience for the first time.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): A. Schult; A. Blässe – J. Henning – B. Peter – I. Kerschowski; L. Maier – S. Däbritz – D. Marozsán (C) – L. Magull; S. Huth – A. Mittag

Regardless of Steffi Jones’ decision to structure her midfield quartet as a line stretching across the field or a narrow rhomb, Germany’s Achilles heel and major concern is the deep-lying midfield position, especially with Lena Goeßling’s lack of match fitness in 2016-17.

Sara Däbritz (#13), Tabea Kemme (#22) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (left) are in the conversation to take part of Germany’s midfield

In a curious and slightly desperate resolution, forward Alex Popp was tested there in a few preparatory matches due to her innate aggressiveness on the ball, but the Wolfsburg player picked up an injury and Germany will have to keep improvising. In the last friendly before the Euro, 22-year-old Sara Däbritz got the call to partner Marozsán, but don’t be surprised if Goeßling, central defender Kristin Demann or the adaptable Tabea Kemme also get their crack at establishing a presence. One thing is for certain, though: Marozsán, Magull and any player that finds her way into the midfield mix will have to help paper the gaps since the job will necessarily be done by commitment.

Sweden

Beaten by Germany at the 2016 Olympic Final and previously booted out of the 2015 World Cup and their “own” Euro 2013 by the same opponent, Sweden will certainly be eager to exert a bit of revenge when the two heavyweights face off in matchday one, but the Scandinavians shouldn’t lose focus of their main goal.

The Swedes know most central figures of their squad are getting up there in age and charismatic coach Pia Sundhage is about to leave, so this is a crucial and probably final opportunity to pick up a title before they’re forced to reload with younger players.

Qualification: Group 4 winners (7W 1L)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1984)

Head Coach: Pia Sundhage

Star Player: Caroline Seger (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

Sweden’s skipper may be slowing down, as her regular presences on the bench of Lyon during the 2016-17 season indicate, but Caroline Seger is still as essential as ever for a national team she represented in over 170 occasions.

Swedish captain Caroline Seger pushes the ball forward during a match against Finland

Renowned for her positioning, stamina and passing range, the 32-year-old has commanded the ball in the Swedish midfield for many years by being frequently involved in the buildup and successively engaged in 50-50 disputes. Moreover, her ball distribution skills eventually lead to perfectly timed runs to the box, where she regularly meets crosses or balls whipped in from set pieces to spread the panic on opposing defences.

As a rare, natural midfield general, Seger will be dearly missed, but maybe this last-ditch effort can land an elusive piece of silverware 12 years in the making.

Player to watch: Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich, GER)

The 23-year-old traded Swedish Champions Linköpings FC for Bayern Munich at the beginning of the year and ended up failing to find the back of the net for the rest of the campaign, however there’s still a lot to like about the young striker and the role she can play for Sweden in the near future.

Tall and elegant in the mould of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Rolfö possesses a left foot that thumps the ball and makes an effort to meander outside the box, yet she’s clearly not comfortable getting open to combine with teammates and exploring the space between and behind defenders at this stage of her development.

The rangy forward can’t reproduce Lotta Schelin’s clever movement off the ball nor the brute strength of Stina Blackstenius, and that should cost her a starting spot, but don’t discount the impact Rolfö could have off the bench.

Fridolina Rolfö impressed at the 2016 Olympic tournament and once again will be at the disposal of Sweden’s manager.

Probable Lineup (4x3x3): H. Lindahl; J. Samuelsson – N. Fischer – L. Sembrant – J. Andersson; L. Dahlkvist, C. Seger (C) – E. Rubensson; K. Asllani – S. Blackstenius – L. Schelin

Pia Sundhage has given the 4x4x2 extensive practice, prodding two out-and-out wingers serving a pair of strikers, but at the tournament she should reverse back into the battle-tested 4x3x3, which eases the burden on veteran midfielders Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger but in opposition pulls Lotta Schelin away from the net and onto the flank.

This is precisely where the injury to Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson would hurt were it not for the existence of a wildcard in Olivia Schough, a masterful set piece taker that lends options tactically. The 26-year-old can seize one of the wings, benching Blackstenius (or Schelin) in the process, or roll as a playmaker, potentially shunning Elin Rubensson.

Italy

Despite tying Norway for the record-number of appearances at the European Championships, it’s telling that the two-time Finalists arrive in the Netherlands under a shroud of doubts about their ability to keep alive their 32-year streak of last eight finishes at the event.

Soundly toppled by Switzerland in qualifying, Italy’s hopes were seriously jeopardized when playmaker Alice Parisi broke her leg during a friendly match in England, and therefore few contemplate more than a lone victory over Russia in the opening confront of Group B.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 6 (6 W, 2L), 6 pts behind Switzerland

Appearances: Eleventh

Best Performance: Finalists (1993, 1997)

Head Coach: Antonio Cabrini

Star Player: Ilaria Mauro (Fiorentina FC)

An imposing striker that seems custom made for Italy’s style of play by being able to hold the ball while their block moves up, turn towards the goal or associate with teammates, Ilaria Mauro will play a central role for her country at the Euro 2017.

Italy’s Ilaria Mauro battles with Sweden’s Nilla Fischer during a group stage match at the Euro 2013. The pair will clash again in matchday 3.

Before returning to the Women’s Serie A, where she tallied 16 times on Fiorentina’s maiden title campaign, Mauro spent three seasons in Germany and she might want to tap on those memories for self-motivation, since the markswoman isn’t bound to enjoy many opportunities to shine in the Netherlands. Still, the 29-year-old forward and partner Cristiana Girelli combined for 11 goals during the qualification round, and hitting a mere fraction of that total could make a big difference at this tournament.

Player to watch: Manuela Giugliano (AGSM Verona)

The 19-year-old Giugliano is the most dynamic young player in Italy and the natural successor to Melania Gabbiadini, the legendary 33-year-old veteran forward that should represent the Azzure for the final time in the Netherlands.

A “trequartista” with pace and boundless skill, Giugliano scored 15 goals and terrorized defenders as a teenager for Verona in 2016-17, yet that shouldn’t be enough to guarantee a position amongst Antonio Cabrini’s first options. Her time to shine will come one day though, and a few glimpses of raw potential may already be discerned if she touches the field at the Euro 2017.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): L. Giuliani; S. Gama – C. Salvai – E. Linari – E. Bartoli; A. Guagni – D. Stracchi – M. Rosucci – B. Bonansea; C. Girelli – I. Mauro

Significantly less dangerous than their male counterparts but equally disciplined tactically, don’t expect the Azzurre to deviate from their rigid 4x4x2 edifice, with Mauro and Girelli battling up front to forge something out of nothing and two banks of four holding the forth.

Defensive midfielder Daniela Stracchi is an indispensable part of Italy’s lineup

The 25-year-old Martina Rosucci, who recently returned from a long-term injury spell, should slot into the starting eleven to cover for Parisi’s absence, while Melania Gabbiadini and Daniela Sabatini will regularly come off the bench to replace Mauro and Girelli as soon as they give away signs of fatigue.

Russia

Russia hasn’t gone past the group stage on their four appearances at the European Championships, and they face an uphill battle to change course with the quality of competition in Group B. Particularly since Elena Fomina sponsored a dramatic roster shakeup over the last few months, relegating many veterans that have carried the water for years, and tossing youngsters with limited international experience to the wolves.

Members of Russia’s women’s national team will try to avoid the outcome of every previous appearance at the European Championships: an early exit.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 5 (4 W, 2 D, 2L), 10 points behind Germany

Finals Appearances: Fifth

Best Performance: Quarter-finals (1993, 1995)

Head Coach: Elena Fomina

Star Player: Elena Danilova (FK VDV Ryazan)

Leading figure in the 2005 Under-19 National team that brought Russia its first European title at any level of women’s football, Elena Danilova’s development didn’t unfold as expected with several bouts of injuries and inconsistent performances stalling a career entirely spent in the domestic leagues.

At age 30, the gifted forward gets back into the spotlight as the most talented and unpredictable player in the squad that will attack the Euro 2017, and if she remains engaged and mentally prepared to withstand large periods of time without feeling the ball, Danilova’s flair and proficiency in front of the goal could eventually power Russia past the most positive forecasts.

Player to watch: Margarita Chernomyrdina (FC Chertanovo)

The 21-year-old midfielder promises to assume an important role for Russia as the main link between a packed midfield sector and lone forward Elena Danilova.

Adroit with both feet, Chernomyrdina is capable of carrying the ball up the field and reach the edge of the box in good conditions to threaten the goal, yet she impresses the most for her intensity and predisposition to press opponents. Such urgency sometimes turns into recklessness when she gets too aggressive and concedes free kicks in dangerous positions, nevertheless that’s nothing that can’t get sorted out with time.

Russia’s Margarita Chernomyrdina (#20) fights for possession of the ball during an international friendly match against the USA.

Probable Lineup (4x4x1x1): T. Shcherbak ; T. Sheikina – E. Morozova – A. Kozhnikova – E. Ziyastinova; ; N. Smirnova – D. Makarenko – A. Cholovyaga – E. Sochneva; M. Chernomyrdina; E. Danilova

With so many players dropping out over the last few months, including goaltender Elvira Todua, right back Ekaterina Dmitrenko, center back Ksenia Tsybutovich and former captain Elena Terekhova, predicting the exact Russian lineup is a gamble, yet the overarching tactical approach shouldn’t vary, with nine field players (4+4+1) invested in defensive duties and the lone forward ostracized until the ball is recovered.

The Plan B, to execute in case Russia needs to catch up on the score, is also quite simple: swap one of the midfielders for a second forward (Nadezhda Karpova or Ekaterina Pantyukhina) and lean back to discover whether they can work some magic.

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%

Rescaling the NHL outdoor fun in five European destinations

The frenzy of competitive outdoor ice hockey games established since the turn of the century started in 2003, with the first NHL regular season game held outside, at Edmonton, in front of 57,167 spectators, and the idea quickly caught fire through the hockey world, extending to all levels of the sport in North America and most of the professional leagues in Europe.
However, the novelty has passed and today, moving beyond the local fanfare they bring, North-American audiences have become progressively tired of the concept. From the NHL’s point of view, the lack of public interest exhibited for the Stadium Series game played earlier this year at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara – the first to happen in Northern California- has to be a warning signal that something has to change and it’s time to experiment with new concepts.
While it’s undoubtedly accurate that there are still major markets (St. Louis, Minnesota, Denver, Dallas?) on the waiting line to host a “Winter Classic” type event, the concept can and should be expanded to capture new audiences and further expose the NHL brand. Therefore, isn’t it obvious? Get across the Atlantic and partner a great idea with the fans that haven’t yet been jaded by it.

Despite the big crowds at the stadiums, the outdoor ice hockey game concept has stalled in North America

Hockey’s popularity in some regions of Europe is well documented and the NHL has tried to explore it before, mainly with the NHL Premiere events, which from 2007 to 2011 brought several of the league’s premier franchises and players to dispute regular season matches on the continent at the beginning of the season. But with the next two Winter Olympic Games set to be held in Asia (Pyeongchang, 2018, Beijing/Astana, 2022) and the newly reborn World Cup scheduled for Toronto in 2016, the best players in the world won’t set foot in Europe for a long period of time.
To remedy this less than ideal situation, it’s time for the NHL to reward the dedicated fans that keep sacrificing hours of sleep day after day through 9 months to follow his favourite teams, and the return should be made in style, with a bunch of outdoors games held in the middle of the season, preferably in January or February…of 2018 or 2019.
Why this timing? The 2016-17 season is already going to start later due to World Cup and the NHL is definitely prepared to pull out of the 2018 Olympics, a decision that would certainly incite criticism and disappoint audiences worldwide. Then, is there a better way to apologize to its international fans than provide a taste of authentic, up-and-running NHL hockey (not “we’re still in pre-season hockey”) just weeks before the Olympic tournament, or, in alternative, a year later? If there is, I haven’t grasped it yet.

So, I’ve come up with five European countries to host the games, with the practical aspects sketched along these lines:

– All teams selected should leave North America, at most, mid –week in order to arrive in time to fight off jet-lag and play either Saturday or Sunday.
– The games would not coincide, with three of them scheduled for Saturday, starting at 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00 (GMT), and two more on Sunday (16:00, 19:00), thus managing to begin late enough to viewers back in North America, especially on the East Coast.
– In the case of conference matchups, the “home team” should be the one that hosted less matches between the pair in the previous season, getting the game back on the following year, and in intra-conference matchups the home side would be the Western outfit, with this team receiving both encounters on the following season.

How would the countries, hosting cities and stadiums be selected? Well, outdoor games only make sense, particularly in this scenario, if you significantly improve the number of tickets available in relation to a regular indoor game, thus facilities with a capacity for at least 30.000 were designated. That narrowed the list down in a hurry, since several relevant countries couldn’t comply with this, the most important being the Czech Republic. Also, ideally, you would like to get away from the capital cities, where the entertainment competition is enormous on the weekend, and focus on towns with a strongly built ice hockey interest, places that can properly announce the festivities and gather the local attention necessary to avoid empty seats.
Moreover, to increase the stadium experience and engage the audiences, some native talent or highly popular team/rivalry needs to be involved, with this being a decisive ingredient towards determining the teams clashing in each event. However, cautions need to be taken in order to avoid the appointment of unreasonable matchups, since some games, namely rivalries and traditional battles between division and conference foes, are too important on an economical and competitive level to believe the visited teams would support its relocation.
Preamble closed, let’s speculate.

SEL Outdoor Classic at the Ullevi in 2009

Sweden (Ullevi, Gothenburg)

One of the most important European markets can’t possibly stay out of this hockey smorgasbord. Since the NHL sent the Washington Capitals and the late Minnesota North Stars to participate in the NHL-Sweden tournament of 1980, the country has welcomed NHL teams regularly, at first for friendly matches and tournaments against local teams, and after 2008 to face counterparts in regular season games. All of the latter matches took place at Stockholm’s Globe Arena, and the Swedish capital certainly has a new state-of-the-art facility, the Friends Arena, ready to receive outdoor games. The 50,000 seats would be tough to fill, but this isn’t the reason why I selected another venue for the Swedish classic.
History has shown that if we add another layer of intrigue to these events, mainly an iconic, beloved, antique facility, there’s an extra component added and because of this I would nudge towards the 43,000 Ullevi in Gothenburg, which incidentally will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2018. In addition, the stadium has already hosted an event of this nature in 2009, when hometown Frölunda beat Färjestad at the inaugural edition of the Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic, in front of more than 31.000. Need another reason? The proximity to a pair of rapidly improving neighbours, Denmark and Norway.

Teams: The Detroit Red Wings, that have had strong Swedish connections since Nicklas Lidström debuted in the NHL at the 1990´s, and the New York Rangers of Henrik Lundqvist, which started his professional career at Frölunda, are probably the most popular NHL teams on the country, but both franchises would be too reluctant to sacrifice an home date against a fellow “Original 6” opponent to make it work. So, why not go with the Rangers and the home fans against Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators? Both teams have already played ”real games” in Sweden, the Rangers against the Kings and Ducks in 2011, and the Senators in 2009 against the Penguins, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most.
Other options to consider include the Vancouver Canucks, that have always maintained a little Swedish colony since the Sedin twins joined Mats Naslund in the early 2000’s, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former stronghold of Mats Sundin and a team which by 2018-19 should already be under the William Nylander mania.

Switzerland (Stade de Suisse, Bern)

The first professional ice hockey game held outside in Europe, on the new century, happened in Switzerland in 2007, the 100th edition of the Bern derby played at the Stade de Suisse in front of 30,000. Since that time, the NLA, the Swiss top tier hockey league, has continued to grow hand in hand with the emergence of the national team, becoming over the last few years the most attended league in Europe. Actually, SC Bern leads all Europe in average attendance, with more than 16,000 fans flocking to the arena per game, and during the last NHL lockout, several stars (John Tavares, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron…) kept in shape playing in the league, leaving a trail of admirers eager to watch more from them. Despite of this, even if teams like the New York Rangers have visited local clubs for a number of times, the NHL has never hosted a regular-season game in the country, and such mistake should be quickly corrected.

The Tatze-Derby (SCL Tigers-SC Bern) at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in 2007

Hence, from the three 30,000-plus stadiums existent in Switzerland, it’s a matter of deciding between Bern and Geneva, two of the three cities with the highest attendance rates. The previous experience with this type of events, the location inside the German part of the country, more hockey-appreciative, and the proven existing fan base lean the decision toward the Swiss capital and the Stade de Suisse.

Teams: The Nashville Predators of Roman Josi, probably the best player ever produced in the nation, are an obvious choice to appear in this event, and that turns into a complete slam-dunk if we add that the defenseman is an SC Bern home-grown- talent and a native of the Swiss capital. Plus, the Predators have already waiting on the wings another promising Swiss prospect, forward Kevin Fiala, the 11th pick of the 2014 NHL draft who might be an explosive scorer for the team by this time. On the other side of the ice, what about the San Jose Sharks, a team which is just starting to explore the defensive acumen of Mirco Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL draft, and the franchise that employs Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, both former NLA performers.

Germany (RheinEnergieStadion, Cologne)

It took some time and a lot of testing in preseason games from its constituents, but the NHL finally embraced Germany as a hockey market in 2011, holding the first regular–season game in Berlin to close the last NHL Premiere. Since then, the game has continued to make strides in the most populous nation in Eastern Europe and the Deustche Eishockey Liga is today one of the main receivers of North-American players who decide to emigrate. Moreover, to attest its recent prosperity, the German League has already organized two outdoor games and those were resounding successes.
First, on the 5th of January, 2013, the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg welcomed a crowd of 50,000, a number that would be surpassed two years later, at Düsseldorf, when the North-Rhine-Westphalia derby between Düsseldorfer EG and Kölner Haie was watched by 51,125 enthusiastic fans. In fact, most of League’s 14 squads are located on the south and eastern part of the country, so those are really the regions where an event of this magnitude should take place.
The Bavarian region is represented by four teams but hosting a game at the 75,000-seats Allianz Arena in Munich seems a bit too optimistic, consequently we must change sights for the backup plan, the highly industrialized and densely populated Rhine region, which contributes with 4 DEL teams. The Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen would be a place to contemplate, since it held the inaugural match of the 2010 World Championships in front of an European-record 77,803 fans, but we should probably set our hopes on one of the big cities with DEL teams, either Dusseldorf or Cologne. Since the former has had his chance nationally, we’ll settle for the RheinEnergyStadion, located in the fourth largest city in Germany and capable of holding 50,000 since it was renovated for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

More than 77,000 atended the 2010 IIHF World Championships Opening Game at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen

Teams: Can Leon Draisaitl, the highest drafted German player of all-time, make a name for himself in the NHL until 2018? The Edmonton Oilers certainly aren’t one of the premier franchises in the NHL and their name won’t wow the German fans poised to attend such event, but if the big, skilled center can be a recognizable figure by then, a possible match on his hometown can be a money-maker. To balance the international-appeal, I would throw in as opponents the Boston Bruins, current team of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and the franchise where Marco Sturm, the top-German scorer in NHL history, played the longest.

Great Britain (London Olympic Stadium, London)

The first visit by NHL teams to the British Islands dates back to April 1959, as part of a European exhibition tour for the NY Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and since then the League has visited London three more times, the last one in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks and the LA Kings played the first two NHL regular-season games ever held in Europe. However, the sport’s growth on the United Kingdom has been slow, with the chronic problems experienced by the local league (Elite Ice Hockey League) exemplifying that perfectly (disbandment and rebuilds, failed expansions, franchises folding).
An average attendance of less than 2,000 spectators coupled with the lack of presence on the largest English cities (London, Manchester, Newcastle) has penalized the championship and the sport at the national level, but those kind of problems weren’t impediments for recent successful ventures by the NBA and the NFL on a British sports landscape that is in constant evolution as the population changes.

Ducks and Kings faced off in 2007 at the London O2 Arena

Even if most of the EIHL teams are situated on the centre of England and in Scotland, the attraction of London is too much to consider any other town suitable to host this event. Matching the more than 80,000 fans that every year congregate at Wembley to watch NFL games it’s a lot to ask, but the NHL would certainly be happy if the locals and the several thousand expats living and working on the metropolitan area can fill the 54,000 seats available at the London Olympic Stadium, scheduled to re-open in 2016.

Teams: There are no clear-cut picks here, so the league would probably have to go with star power and/or tradition. If you select the first, wouldn’t this be a great way of introducing Connor McDavid to international stardom? Make it the “McDavid team” versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, a battle of the most recent “Next Great One’s”. If you prefer tradition, may I suggest reuniting a “lost rivalry”? London would certainly appreciate a Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings matchup.

Austria (Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

With the Helsinki Olympic Stadium set to close for renovations from 2016 to 2019, and few quality options available in more traditional countries like Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria stumbles on this list as a hub for central Europe capable of attracting fans from various neighbouring countries.

The landscape surrounding the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt

Even though the sport takes a backseat nationally for other winter activities like skiing, the Austrian ice hockey League has a history that dates back to 1923, and, since 2005, the competition innovated towards providing access to clubs from nearby nations. In fact, teams from Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic compete today in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), making it kind of a poor parented KHL. Likewise, during the first few decades, the sport was dominated in Austria by the teams from Vienna and Klagenfurt, but steadily the landscape has changed, emerging new powers from cities like Linz and Salzburg.
However, it is still on the capital of the Carinthia region that the record-holder for most championships is located and the city of Klagenfurt hasn’t left their credits in other hands, taking on the task of organizing the only two outdoor ice hockey games ever held in Austria. The modern Wörthersee Stadion received 30,000 spectators for the 2010 and 2015 Winter Classics, gathering hometown EC KAC and rivals Villacher SC, and its geographical location, right at the border with Italy and Slovenia – and close to Hungary and Slovakia- makes it ideal to host an event of this kind and benefit from the influx of visiting fans. Thus, the town of Klagenfurt trumps the sexier and riskier option, Vienna, which would host the event at the 50,000-seats Ernst-Happel Stadium.

Teams: Well, there’s a superstar center from nearby Slovenia excelling for the twice champions LA Kings, and that would be a good place to start. Moreover, Anze Kopitar deserves the recognition, his compatriots would flock to the city, and an event like these provides an international exposure that would further set his profile has a model of perseverance for aspiring youngsters from no-traditional ice hockey nations. However, for all his qualities, he’s not an Austrian, and the country lacks a true poster-boy now that Thomas Vanek has taken a step back as he enters his 30’s. Yet, not banking upon a new Austrian face emerging, Vanek’s Minnesota Wild wouldn’t be a bad opponent, especially since the lack of an event in Finland would take the team from the State of Hockey out of its favoured destination.

After the first five, could the NHL get even bolder? What about a game at the Rome Coliseum (…)? A battle between the NHL and KHL Champions at Moscow’s Red Square? Shifting gears, can Rio de Janeiro and Copacabana beach be more than a pipe dream? Will the league turn its efforts to Asia first (Japan, South Korea, China)?

An NHL European Division may be a scenario never achievable, but there’s so much to explore and to experiment in order to grow the game at other latitudes that the powerful NHL needs to lead the pack towards innovation.

European Tour of Sports – Sweden

The Basics


Population: 9.7 M
Area: 450 290 km2
Capital: Stockholm
Summer Olympic Medals: 483 (143 G-164 S-176 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 144 (50 G-40 S-54 B)
Popular sports
“Välkommen till Sverige”, a land of less than ten million people that seats on the top ten in medals conquered at both the Summer and Winter Olympics, a country that sees half of its population engaged in sports clubs, and in which one in every five persons actively participates in sports activities.
I’m repeating myself over every article of this series, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that football is right at the top of the Swede’s preferences, with the national team being a regular participant in the biggest international competitions after qualifying a total of 16 times for the World Cup and the European Championships. Although the country’s best results have come on home soil, mainly the second position at the 1958 World Cup, lost at the Räsunda Stadium against Pele’s Brazil, and the semi-final appearance at the Euro 1992, the Swedish national team is always regarded as a team to watch, as the third place finishes at the 1950 and 1994 World Cup reflect the amount of talent the Swedes have been able to produce over the years. Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordhal and Nils Liedholm, members of the team that won Gold at the 1948 Olympics, were probably the first big stars of the sport in the country, enjoying a formidable partnership over the 50’s for AC Milan and the “Blågult” (ENG: The Blue-Yellow), but later names like goaltender Thomas Ravelli and forwards Tomas Brolin and Henrik Larsson also left their mark on European football.

Tomas Brolin celebrates a goal for Sweden on the Euro 92

At the club level, despite today’s obscurity on the European scale, the fans of IFK Göteborg had the chance to celebrate two UEFA Cup wins on the 80’s, while Mälmo FF lost a European Cup final in 1979. A look over Swedish football wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the most successful Swedish coach of all-time, Mr. Sven-Göran Eriksson, who collected 17 trophies during managing stints in 9 different countries, including league-and-cup doubles for IFK Göteborg, a team that he coached to the 1982 UEFA Cup success, SL Benfica and SS Lazio.
On the women’s side, Sweden is definitely one of the continent’s main rulers, with the national team succeeding at the first edition of the European Championships, in 1984, and the best result at the World Cup happening in 2003, a loss in the final against hosts USA. However, over the last few years, they have successively fallen just short of glory, beaten on the semi or quarter-final stages of every major competition since 2007. The 1-0 loss to Germany in the semi-final of the 2013 European Championships the country organized is a perfect example of that. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Dammallsvenskan is hailed as one of the top domestic leagues in the World, with Umeå IK vaunting 2 Women’s Champions League trophies and three runner-up finishes.

Peter Forsberg on the victory lap after the Tre Kronor defeated Finland at the 2006 Turim Olympics Final

Sharing the spotlight with football on the leading sports coverage in Sweden is ice hockey, a sport where the national team, nicknamed “Tre Kronor” (ENG: Three Crowns), currently leads the World Rankings and boasts an impressive résumé. Nine World Championships, the most recent in 2013, and nine Olympic medals, including two golds, in 1994 and 2006, fill the nation’s trophy cabinet, but the Swede’s should also be proud of the amount of talent they have nurtured. Nicklas Lidström, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Börge Salming, Håkan Loob and Mats Näslund were all players that achieved great success both at home and at the NHL level, and their level of play ranks them among the best of all-time. Furthermore, the Swedish Hockey League is considered the third best in the world and even the second tier competition, the HockeyAllsvenskan, welcomes excellent attendances.
Handball is other team sport that receives plenty of attention in the country, as the Swedes can take pride on the four gold medals at the European Championships, a record, the four titles and eleven podium finishes at the World Championships, and the four silver medals gathered at the Olympic Games. The most successful period of the Swedish handball team came between 1996 and 2002, when the country reached eight consecutive major finals (Euro, World, Olympic) due to the “Bengan Boys”, that, coached by Bengt Johansson, thoroughly dominated the sport fielding star players like Staffan Olson, Magnus Wislander and Stefan Lövgren. However, since 2003, the squad has struggled to reach the same heights, with Sweden failing to get to podium positions, except for a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and occasionally not qualifying at all.
Niche team sports such as curling, bandy (a mixture of ice hockey, field hockey and football played outdoors) and floorball are also quite popular in Sweden while the national basketball team sometimes appears at the European Championships. Still, the sport has never really take off in the country even with the recent presence of two players in the NBA (Jonas Jerebko, Jeffery Taylor).

Ingemar Stenmark, the men’s Alpine Skiing World Cup record-holder with 86 wins

With an abundance of snow, Sweden as always produced great athletes in winter sports, specially skiing events. In the alpine disciplines, names like Ingemar Stenmark, the best GS and slalom racer of all-time, Pernille Wiberg and Anja Pärsson are living legends, whereas Sixten Jernberg and Gunde Svan do the same for cross-country skiing, a sport where the country has amassed 74 Olympic medals, second only to Norway. And although ski jumping has never been the most triumphant discipline for the Swedes, another winter speciality, the biathlon, had his moments over time, particularly Magdalena Forsberg’s impressive run on the turn of the century, with six consecutive World Cup titles amassed between 1997 and 2002, and six golds won in World Championships.
With a total of 81 medals collected over the years on Olympic games, Athletics has a long tradition on the country, ranging from Ernst Fast’s third place on the men’s marathon of the 1900 Paris Olympics (Sweden’s first Olympic medal) to the triple Gold success of Athens more than one hundred years later. Actually, in that 2004 edition, Christian Olson took the spoils in the triple jump and Stefan Holm confirmed the Swedish tradition on the high jump, following the footsteps of names like Patrick Sjöberg and Kajsa Bergqvist. For the ladies, the gilt light shone on Carolina Klüft, the athlete that dominated the women’s heptathlon (and pentathlon) during the first decade of the new century, conquering an unmatched three consecutive world titles and posting the second highest point total of all-time (7032 points).

Björn Borg with one of the five consecutive Wimbledon trophies he captured

From the tracks to the courts, Swedish excellence provided three former tennis number one’s, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Björn Borg, with the latter, a eleven-time Grand Slam Champion and a five-times ATP Player of the year, standing as one of the most recognizable figures in the history of the sport and probably the most popular Swedish sportsman of all-time. And we could go on, with other worldwide sports where Swedes have excelled internationally including swimming (Therese Alshammar, Emma Ingelström), golf (Hall-of-Famer Annika Sörenstam), sailing, table tennis (World and Olympic Champion Jan-Ove Waldner), canoeing (eight-times Olympic Champion Gert Fredriksson), speed skating (triple Olympic gold medallist Tomas Gustafson), horse riding and cycling (Gösta Pettersson, 1971 Giro Winner).
Yet, none of those sports can claim the lead in number of Olympic medals brought to the country, since that achievement belongs to….wrestling, with 84, the last two added at the London Olympics.
Star Athletes
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Football)
From just another tall kid of Bosnian and Croatian origins to the top of the list of most identifiable Swedes, the life of the Mälmo-born striker is worthy of a best-seller book. Growing up on a city brimming with foreign-background inhabitants, Zlatan learned to stand up by himself since his early years as a black belt in taekwondo and those lessons stayed with him over a brilliant if controversial football career. Undeniably, a stunning total of 11 national titles in 13 seasons playing for six of the biggest clubs in Europe (well, 5 plus PSG) and four top scorer awards attest the proficiency of one of the best players of his generation and an unique forward with skills and swiftness rare for a 1,95m man. Moreover, in Sweden, Ibrahimović is revered for his exploits with a national team he captains today after more than 100 games, 51 goals and appearances in two World Cups (2002, 20006) and three European Championships (2004, 2008, 2012).
Always a distinctive figure, the 33-year-old, considered nine times the best Swedish footballer of the year, was recently named the second-best sportsperson of all-time in the country and famously retorted that he should have occupied the first five positions, perfectly displaying the character and personality that has motivated several confrontations with colleagues, coaches and adversaries over the years. When his career ends, his charismatic behaviour will define his legacy in the sport as much as the fantastic executions he’s capable on the pitch (), but Zlatan wouldn’t like it any other way.

An acrobatic move by Zlatan Ibrahimović that resulted on a stunning goal against England in 2013

Henrik Lundqvist (Ice Hockey)
The man many in New York call “King Henrik” was born on a city, Åre, primarily renowned for the alpine skiing facilities. However, Henrik and his twin brother, Joel, always preferred hockey, and it wasn’t long until they got to play for their favourite team, Göteborg-based Frölunda HC. Seven years and two league titles later (2003, 2005), their paths eventually separated and, with nothing else to prove at home, the goaltender moved on to face the best game after game.
Representing the New York Rangers since 2005, after the team selected him at the 2000 NHL draft, Henrik Lundqvist has been a mainstay for the honoured franchise since his rookie season and is undoubtedly one of the best in the world on his position, boasting a Vezina Trophy (awarded to the best NHL goalie in 2012) and four other nominations. To this day, he’s still pursuing the chance to return the Stanley Cup to the Big Apple and he keeps improving his legacy and club-records as the best goalkeeper in the “blueshirts” history.
The 32-year-old has also consistently embodied his country’s efforts on the world scale since the youth levels, with his biggest accomplishment coming at the 2006 Torino Olympics where he backstopped the Swedes to the gold medal. Since the retirement of legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidström, in 2012, Lundqvist inherited the role of Sweden’s prominent ice hockey player and he led his country to a silver medal on the 2014 Olympic tournament. His performances in Sochi further increased his popularity amongst the compatriots, but he has always been a fan favourite everywhere by way of his various community and charity enterprises coupled with a calm and friendly presence on and off the ice.
Charlotte Kalla (cross-country skiing)

Charlotte Kalla during a race at the Sochi Olympic Games

Sweden’s role on cross-country’s history has always been that of party crashers, the nation that craves to surprise the successful neighbours that have historically dominated the sport. Charlotte Kalla personifies that spirit perfectly and the native of Tärendö, a small village on the far north of Sweden, has thereby managed to build an impressive career during the era of two legends of the sport, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, the most medalled female athlete in Winter Olympics’ history. The 27-year-old skier has almost 30 World Cup podiums since his debut in 2006 and a total of 5 World Championships medals, all of them gathered in team events. In fact, along with teammates Ida Ingemarsdotter, Emma Wikén and Anna Hagg, Kalla broke a fifty-four year gold medal drought for Sweden on the Women’s 4 x 5km relay event, with the team taking top honours on the competition of the 2014 Olympics through a performance that won the prize for most significant Swedish sports achievement of the year.
However, collective success aside, it was Kalla’s individual excellence that fuelled the most important results of her career, namely the gold medal in the 10km freestyle race of the 2010 Olympics, and the silver medals in the 15 km skiathlon and 10km classic races of the 2014 Sochi Games. The overall triumph at the 2007-2008 edition of the Tour de Ski, on her debut edition, is another important mark on Kalla’s résumé and, with the main rivals nearing retirement, her best years may still ahead.
Others: Lotta Schelin (Women’s Football), Jonas Jerebko (Basketball), Henrik Zetterberg (Ice Hockey), Frida Hansdotter (Alpine Skiing), Sarah Sjöström (Swimming) Johan Olsson, Marcus Hellner (cross-country skiing), Fredrik Lööf (Sailing), Lisa Nordén (Triathlon), Henrik Stenson (Golf)
Venues
Since the Stockholm Olympic Games, held in 1912, Sweden’s track record hosting top international events (European and World Championships) is truly remarkable, with the wealth spread across dozens of disciplines. Without surprise, this organizational expertise has been translated into the development of a sheer amount of modern, state-of-the-art sporting facilities that enable the populations an easy and comfortable access to high-level sport competitions year-round and country-wide.

The Ullevi during the opening ceremony of the Gothia Cup

To start, obvious emphasis on the Friends Arena, located on the municipality of Solna (Stockholm’s urban region). The new national stadium, which substituted the nearby Räsunda, host of the 1958 World Cup final, can hold up to 50,000 and has a retractable roof that can turn it into the biggest indoor venue in the Nordic countries. Opened in 2012, the arena, beyond the matches of the national football team, sees the home games of AIK, concerts and has welcomed the final of the 2013 UEFA Women’s European Championship.
The second biggest stadium in the country is the 43,000-seats Ullevi, in Gothenburg, built for the 1958 World Cup and a place that has hosted multiple football European finals as well as the European and World Athletic Championships. Nonetheless, the women’s national team and the city’s football clubs play at the 2009’ Gamla Ullevi, which was raised on the grounds of the old facility by the same name, and has 15,000 seats. Recent constructions are also the Tele2 Arena (2013), in Stockholm, the home of Djurgårdens IF and Hammarby IF with a capacity for 33,000, and the Swedbandk Stadium (2009), in Mälmo, a facility that holds 24,000.
In terms of (truly) indoor venues, the most important is the unmistakable Stockholm Globe Arena, the largest hemispherical building in the World, and a facility with up to 13,500 seats for ice hockey games. Several World Championships and other international ice hockey games have taken place at the Globe since 1989, but the Handball, Volleyball and Basketball European Championships were also held there. However, the capital’s ice hockey teams (Djurgårdens IF and AIK) usually play their home games at the adjacent Hovet, a 9,000 capacity arena. The 2008-opened Mälmo Arena comes in second-place by capacity (15,000 seats) in the country and is the home of the Mälmo Redhawks, the city’s ice hockey team.

The Stockholm Globe Arena iluminated at night

The Scandinavium, in Gothenburg, completes the podium, as the 14,000 seats venue, opened in 1972, has received over the years swimming, ice skating and athletics events, for example, while turning into the place Frölunda HC calls home. Moreover, the country’s ice hockey significance defines the existence of nine other indoor venues with over 7,000 seats, almost all built during the 2000’s. Thus, towns like Linköping, Lund, Norrköping, Kalmar, Halmstad, Helsingborg, Gävle and Karlstad commonly share the burden of hosting international events with Sweden’s three main city centres.
In respect to winter sports, the main hubs are Falun, Östersund and Åre, all situated in central Sweden. The first two cities regularly welcome World Cup events of the Nordic ski sports (cross-country, ski jumping, nordic vombined) and biathlon, respectively, and have organized the discipline’s World Championships several times over the years, while Åre takes part in the Alpine Skiing World Cup frequently.
Yearly Events
There’s no shortage of sporting events staged yearly on Sweden. Elite sport leagues like football’s Allsvenskan, running from late March to the beginning of November, and hockey’s SEL (season from September to April) provide excitement all over the country, from Mälmo, in the southeast coast, to Lulea, almost on the Arctic Circle, but there’s also the chance to attend a game of bandy (October-March) or handball (September-May). Others events to note are:
Vikingarännet, traditional long-distance ice skating race
Uppsala-Stockholm, January

The Vikingarännet, a 80 km ice skating race on the frozen Lake Mälaren linking Uppsala and Stockholm

Rally Sweden, World Rally Championships
Värmland region, February
World Cup event, Cross-Country skiing
Östersund, February
Vasaloppet, traditional long- distance (90km) cross-country ski race
Dalarna, March
World Cup event, Alpine Skiing
Åre, March
Scandinavian Masters, Golf
Mälmo, June
Stockholm Marathon, Athletics
Stockholm, June

A view of the tennis Swedish Open’s main court, in Båstad

Speedway Grand Prix of Sweden, motorcycle speedway
Målilla (Kalmar), June
Gothia Cup, youth football
Gothenburg, July
Swedish Open, Tennis
Båstad, July
Speedway Grand Prix of Scandinavia, motorcycle speedway
Solna (Friends Arena), September