Switzerland

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

Advertisements

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.

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

For most intents and purposes, the IIHF U-20 World Championship (WJC) is the only best-on-best international hockey tournament on a yearly basis and a tremendous showcase of the sport at its most frantic nature due to its singular blend of unbridled youth passion and devotion to the national cause. For the second time in seven years, the event took place at the turn of the calendar year (December 26th to January 5th) in the gloomy American city of Buffalo, NY, and there is a lot to discuss after the 10 top-division countries duelled for global supremacy in front of large TV audiences*, swaths of empty seats and, in the case of the USA – Canada game, the 44 592 die-hard fans that braved an inclement snowstorm.

While the trophy was eventually handed out to the Canadian team, who beat Sweden in a fantastic Final to secure a 17th U-20 World title (in a total of 42 editions), for a neutral like me the most exciting part of this event is getting familiarized with the players that, one day, will star for the senior national representations and the different NHL teams, and that’s precisely what led me to consolidate the notes and observations gleaned during the event into this report.

USA’s Jake Oettinger #30 watches Canada’s Sam Steel #23 chase the puck during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

This piece is divided into four sections, and in the first I’ll introduce and discuss the best players in the tournament, as selected by the IIHF directorate, the media (All-Star Team I) and …me (All Star Team II). Afterwards, I’ll scan through the ten teams in the competition (from last-place to the gold medal winner) looking to analyse their results and ramble a bit on a few significant players that caught my eye, before pivoting back to the individual sphere as I take stock of the fluctuations experienced at the top of the draft rankings ahead of the upcoming 2018 NHL draft. To cap it off, I’ll appoint the NHL organizations that rejoiced with the encouraging performances of their prospects in Buffalo, and nominate the three best goals of the tournament.

And (somewhere) along the way we’ll split this text in two posts, because I don’t want my reader(s) to get lost while scrolling down. Anyway, on to the cream of this year’s tournament.

* for a competition featuring largely unknown teenagers

 

IIHF Directorate Awards

Top Forward: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

Playing in the arena that he will call home in a near future, Mittelstadt, the Buffalo Sabres 8th overall pick in 2017, put on a show through the 10 days of competition, often times looking like a man amongst boys for his dominance of the puck and ability to control the tempo of the game.

USA’s Casey Mittelstadt #11 scores a third period game-tying goal against Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In fact, at 6’1 and 200 lbs, the Edina, MIN native doesn’t impose fear in the opposition for his physical traits, as he’s neither overly big, powerful, explosive or quick, nonetheless Mittelstadt is really difficult to knock off the puck and possesses creativity and top-end vision in spades, which results in nifty dishes and short passes against the run of play that take defenders by surprise. More of a playmaker than a scorer, Mittelstadt is dangerous off the rush for his ability to change speeds and draw defenders before distributing the puck, and his poise and wizardry in possession reminded many of Clayton Keller, the focal point of the American offense in 2017.

Unlike Keller, though, Mittelstadt’s 4 goals and 7 points weren’t enough to reach the Final – much less lift the trophy – even if his line with Brady Tkachuk and Joey Anderson was the most effective of the tournament, cycling the puck on the boards and driving possession like no other, and the 19-year-old put together, probably, the most exceptional individual performance of the tournament (3A), outdoors, not less, with the blizzard and piles of snow being no match for a star pivot determined to will the USA back from a two-goal deficit to Canada.

The tournament’s point-leader, Mittelstadt relished and demanded the puck in the big-moments, never shying away from the responsibility of leading his team, and that’s something that should excite Sabres fans, poised to have a formidable one-two punch down the middle when Mittelstadt joins forces with compatriot Jack Eichel in Buffalo.

Top Defenseman: Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden)

Talk about living up to the hype.

The putative 1st overall pick in next June’s NHL draft became the first U-18 to deserve top defenseman honours against players up to two years older than him, and such feat was only possible because the HC Frolunda wunderkind is, undoubtedly, the total package.

Most hockey fans had already seen videos of Dahlin’s offensive incursions: chin up, eyes surveying the scene, puck stuck to his blade, a courageous kid evading multiple forecheckers and not afraid to dangle through set defences and create something out of nothing. There was a whole lot of it in Buffalo, but what doesn’t make most highlight-reels is everything else he already does at silly levels. Not only the pinpoint, threading passes in the offensive zone, or his vision and patience as he selects the perfect outlet when skating it out is not the best option, but the effortless skating for a broad-shouldered 6’2’’ (and growing..) man-child that dances on his edges and changes directions with absurd ease.

With 6 assists in the tournament, Dahlin was, as expected, an impact player offensively for the Swedes, however, in the medal round, the defensive side of his game really stood out:  the defensive reads and ability to anticipate where the puck is going, the improved stick work, how he angles before stealing the puck cleanly, the disposition to use the body in the boards or to dish hits on open-ice.

The 17-year-old was entrusted with a lot of ice time against top opposition and thrived, yet, for all the fine-tuning that’s already a hallmark of his game at a tender age, if I’m allowed some nit-picking here…can’t really say I came away impressed with his work on the man-advantage, particularly after the unit set up in the OZ. Although Dahlin manned the top of the umbrella and shot a lot (25 times in 7 games), a few too many attempts were blocked or deflected and, sometimes, he looked tentative about which option to choose. This is not exactly a knock on him but, well…it’s good to know that even a prodigy like Dahlin might still need to polish a part of his game.

Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin in action at ther 2018 World Junior Championships (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

One thing is certain, though. His compatriots Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman weren’t even close to Dahlin’s level at age 17, and the youngster possesses all the tools to become a franchise icon and, maybe, one of the best of all-time.

Top Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (Sweden)

Separating the goaltenders of the two tournament finalists is not unlike splitting hairs, but since the picks were in before the end of the Final and Gustavsson recorded better numbers than Carter Hart until Canada’s winning goal – in which he was, in no way, at fault – this selection is quite understandable.

Having a difficult time at home this season (3.04 GAA, 0.887 Sv% in 10 games for Lulea HF), the Pittsburgh Penguins second rounder (2016) embraced the challenge of backstopping a stacked Swedish ensemble in Buffalo and finished the tournament with a 0.924 Sv% and 1.81 GAA, performing at the highest level in every critical game for his team. He limited the Czech to a goal in the group stage, shut down the Slovaks late in the QF (3-2), denied the USA’s late flurry in the semi-finals (4-2), and stood tall against Canada in the decider despite facing their red-hot man-advantage in six occasions. Gustavsson’s shakiest start came against Russia (4-3), when he let in the equalizer after coughing up a bad rebound, but he responded to it with a couple of sublime saves in overtime and the shootout to snatch the victory.

The 19-year-old netminder will continue to work on swallowing pucks with his body and challenging opponents more, however his game is already at a good level, as he’s able to seal the ice quite well with his pads, push side-to-side quickly with his strong base, and use his glove effectively. Despite being a couple of years away from pushing for an NHL spot, it’s clear the current Stanley Cup Champions are blessed with a clogged goaltending pipeline since Filip Gustavsson belongs to the same organization that employs fellow youngsters Matt Murray (23 years old) and Tristan Jarry (22).

 

The 2018 All-tournament team (as selected by the media):

G: Filip Gustavsson (SWE)

(see above)

D: LD Rasmus Dahlin (SWE); RD: Cale Makar (CAN)

Despite tying for the tournament lead in goals (3) and points (8) from defensemen, Cale Makar’s selection for the All-Star team took many by surprise because of his highly-specific usage under coach Dominique Ducharme. In fact, on Canada’s two most evenly-matched encounters, versus the USA and Sweden, Makar saw less than 10 minutes of ice time in each and seldom cracked the regular 5-on-5 pairings, eventually finishing the tournament as the least-used blueliner on the winning roster. Still, when he did touch the ice or, more explicitly, hopped the boards to quarterback the powerplay, Makar showed why he was the highest drafted player (4th overall in 2017) in the team.

A special talent selected by the Colorado Avalanche out of Junior A hockey last June, Cale Makar is absolutely electric with the puck on his stick, rushing up the ice at dizzying speeds while constantly assessing his options, using his great stick-handing ability to slither through the neutral zone and gain the blue line, and then distributing the puck with aplomb or wiring it to the net. Due to his propensity to walk the line, Makar’s shots are rarely blocked and usually carry the perfect velocity and weight to be tipped in front or find its way past the maze of defenders, therefore standing as no surprise that he accrues points with such ease.

When the Calgary-native eventually reaches the NHL, he’ll need to be physically and mentally able to withstand the grind of a long season, but there’s no doubt the Avalanche have a gem of a defender on their hands, a supremely-gifted blueliner with shades of Erik Karlsson’s flash.

F: LW Filip Zadina (CZE); C Casey Mittelstadt (USA); RW Kieffer Bellows (USA)

A top-ranked prospect that completed 18 years of age barely a month ago, Filip Zadina’s name gained steam after he burst out of the gate strong (24 G, 46 pts in 32 games) in his rookie season in Halifax (QMJHL), however few expected him to be such a difference-maker at the World Juniors and turn into the first Czech on the All-Star team since Petr Mrázek in 2012. Playing alongside Martin Nečas on one of the Czech’s scoring lines, and on the opposite halfwall on the powerplay set up, the left winger was one of the most dynamic players around, a true force on both ends, always trying to invent, make plays and manufacture scoring changes and never afraid to mix it up with bigger, stronger players.

When Zadina had the puck, you knew he would try something different and due to his speed, skill and offensive flair, opponents soon started respecting his ability to beat them. An adept shooter (37 SOG in 7 games) with a wealth of offensive resources, Zadina scored four of his seven goals on the man-advantage, but his paramount moment came at even strength in the semi-finals, turning Canadian defenseman Kale Clague inside out before rifling one over Carter Hart’s shoulder.

Always active and smelling blood, the man likened to a shark by his coach saw his draft stock explode for his tenacity away from the puck and ability to step up and score on the clutch on the other end, and there remain few doubts he’ll be a top-five pick at the 2018 NHL draft.

The tournament top goal-scorer with 9 tallies (+ 1A), American Kieffer Bellows grabbed a spot on the All-Star team by virtue of his stellar feats in the knockout rounds, where he scored five times in three games, including the corrosive bullet that served as the go-ahead goal in the third period of the quarter-final matchup with Russia. Thickly-built, Bellows maintains his balance as he bulldozes his way to the net, yet he also got the hands to go around the defenders before unleash his devastating shot. Indeed, an NHL- calibre release is the 19-year-old’s calling card, a heavy shot that blasts off his stick and which, naturally, he’s not shy of using constantly, as the tournament-high 38 shots on goal clocked in Buffalo attest.

Smart exploring soft spots in coverage, especially on the PP, and possessing the rare instinct of elite finishers, Bellows surpassed the USA single-tournament record of eight goals set by Jeremy Roenick in 1989, but he still needs to improve his footwork so that he can adjust to the higher pace at the professional ranks. If he can take that next step, the NY Islanders pick (19th overall, 2016) will torment at lot of goalies at the NHL level and, one day, might even approach the 485 goals gobbled by his father, Brian Bellows.

Tournament MVP: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

With no player clearly distancing himself from the rest on Canada’s roster, the Most Valuable Player award, voted by the members of the media, probably came down to Rasmus Dahlin or Casey Mittelstadt.

Had the Swedish star managed to found the back of the net throughout the tournament, or increase his point total in the knockout rounds, we might be having a different conversation, but Dahlin was busy excelling in other areas, and the leading scorer usually has the inside track in these kind of awards… Undeniably the top forward in the competition, Casey Mittelstadt is a worthy recipient of the MVP distinction, succeeding Canada’s Thomas Chabot.

 

Alternative All-Star team

A kind of Second All-Star team composed of the players snubbed by the media in their election.

G: Carter Hart (Canada)

For the first time in many, many years, Canada did not enter the World Junior tournament with question marks hanging over their goaltending as Hart returned for his second appearance supported by a magnificent 0.961 Sv% and 1.31 GAA in 17 WHL games. Actually, a case can be made that the Philadelphia Flyers prospect (2nd round, 2016) was Canada’s trump card in the race for the title, and he justified the lofty credentials by pacing all goaltenders in Buffalo with a 1.81 GAA and 0.930 Sv%.

Canada’s Carter Hart #31 looks on during preliminary round action against the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Calm and seemingly always in control of the situation around, Carter Hart displays above-average athleticism and technical fundaments, yet what really sets him apart is the sound positioning and how he is quick to square to the shooter before every shot. Have the Flyers finally found the answer to their incessant calls for a permanent crease solution? Sure looks like it.

D: LD Libor Hájek (Czech Republic); RD Adam Fox (USA)

The lynchpin of the Czech defence, Libor Hájek, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, was wildly impressive from start to finish in Buffalo. A two-way, minute-munching blueliner without whom the Europeans couldn’t have survived, Hájek played in the top powerplay and penalty killing units, formed the go-to shutdown pair with Vojtěch Budik, and chipped in offensively frequently, tying Canada’s Cale Makar for most points amongst rear guards with 8 (1+7).

Czech Republic defenseman Libor Hajek controls the puck during the second period against Canada in a semifinal in the IIHF world junior hockey championships Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Strapping but not highly physical, Hájek moves well and has the stamina to handle a large workload, takes pride in taking care of business in his own zone, and is then proactive with the puck, making crisp outlet passes and pinching to keep the attack going. He was, arguably, the most influential defender in the entire tournament and, definitely, the best outside of the top-three rosters.

Wearing an “A” on his second participation at the WJC, Harvard’s Adam Fox took the reins of the American defence from Charlie McAvoy, last year’s All-Star, and mustered a hell of an impersonation. With slick puck skills and the eagerness to jump into the rush and follow the action deep into the offensive zone, the Calgary Flames third rounder (2016) was the catalyst of many odd-man rushes and in one of those was rewarded with the game-winning goal that downed Finland.

No slouch in the other side of the puck either, with the mobility, anticipation, quickness and feistiness of Fox and partner Dylan Samberg accelerating interceptions, puck recoveries and the succeeding breakouts, the native of Jericho, NY, might do well, though, to use his remaining two years of college eligibility to bulk up, gain strength and round out his game before turning pro.

Honourable mention: Conor Timmins (Canada)

F: LW Brady Tkachuk (USA); C Martin Nečas (Czech Republic), RW Jordan Kyrou (Canada)

With illustrious bloodlines, Brady Tkachuk’s presence at the 2018 tournament was assumed to be a growing experience before he could dominate in 2019, but there’s a non-negligible chance that he may not be available next year due to NHL duties. Standing at 6’3’’, it’s almost a requirement for a Tkachuk to love throwing the body around and play a menacing, “power-forward“ type game, but Brady doesn’t go out of his way looking for hits and already displays a much-more well-rounded game than expected.

USA’s Brady Tkachuk #7 scores a shootout goal against Canada’s Carter Hart #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Versatile and smart enough to play in all-situations, including critical defensive moments, Tkachuk boasts a heavy shot, a really nice set of hands in tight to pair his big frame, and an attitude that exudes passion and commitment in every shift. The 3 goals and 9 pts obtained at the World Juniors as an 18-year-old are, seemingly, just the tip of his immense potential.

After making the Carolina Hurricanes out of training camp and enjoying a sip of NHL action in anticipation of a loan back to HC Kometa Brno, Martin Nečas featured as one of the must-watch players in the tournament and he didn’t disappoint. It’s not usual that a player from the Czech Republic ties for the tournament lead in scoring, but Nečas’ 11 pts (3 goals) matched Casey Mittelstadt’s total, and he could have racked up even more if not for the need to sacrifice offense to attend other needs, including some penalty killing work and defensive zone assignments.

With the puck on his stick, though, Nečas also excelled, especially off the rush, with the 2017 12th overall pick showing an appetite for dropping deep to gather the puck in full flight, speed through the neutral zone and distribute or fire on goal. Capable of executing at top speed, Nečas high-skill level and creativity jump out, and he’s also an elegant skater with impressive agility and ability to change directions in full stride. The jury is still out on whether he’ll grow into the star center the Canes desperately need but, at worst, he should evolve into an impact top-six middleman.

Rumoured as a potential option for a Canadian Olympic roster that could use high-end skill in the absence of NHL players, Jordan Kyrou made clear at the World Junior Championship why his profile has increased so much since being taken by the St. Louis Blues with the 35th pick of the 2016 NHL draft.

Incredible in transition, jetting away from backcheckers, slipping checks and feathering passes through sticks, Kyrou creates space for himself and teammates when the puck is under his control since he can set up a teammate or fling at goal to catch goalies by surprise, but he also works hard in pursuit of the biscuit and keeps the cycling game going despite his slim figure. The OHL top-point getter when he left for Team Canada’s training camp, Kyrou continued his prolific ways in Buffalo, collecting a team-best 10 pts (3 goals), and with the help of additional muscle, it’s possible to envision him as a right wing on a Blues’ scoring line sometime down the road.

Honourable mentions: Klim Kostin (Russia), Elias Petersson (Sweden)

Team by team analysis

  1. Belarus (relegated)

Newly-promoted from the Division 1, group A, Belarus will be right back to where they came from after a tournament where they lacked a touch of luck and killer instinct to take full advantage of their third-ranked PP and PK units.

The Eastern European side pushed eventual semi-finalists Czech Republic in a narrow 6-5 defeat, and ended the group stage with the same goal differential as Switzerland (10 GF – 20 GA), yet in the decisive encounter with the Swiss they squandered a 2-1 lead in the third and had to settle for the relegation playoff. In the best-of-three series, Belarus once again failed to close the deal in Game 1, allowing Denmark to rally from 4-2 down with three tallies in the last 11 minutes, and their destiny was sealed after a SO loss in Game 2.

Belarus celebrates a second period goal by Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 against Denmark during the relegation round. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Belarussians will be replaced by Kazakhstan next year, but don’t be surprised if both nations trade places again in 2020 since many of Belarus top players can fight for promotion in 2019, including powerplay quarterback Vladislav Yeryomenko, an undrafted defenseman plying his trade for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), and captain Maxim Sushko (PHI), the only drafted player in the roster and someone who rose to the challenge in Buffalo by tallying 8 pts (2G) in 6 games.

  1. Denmark

Missing blue-chip prospects mirroring the pedigree of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Danes posted an ugly 2-26 goal differential during a terrible round robin showing that broke a streak of three consecutive QF appearances, but they were still able to redeem themselves by avoiding relegation in the playoff.

Forwards Jonas Røndbjerg (LV) and Joachim Blichfeld (SJ), two of just four drafted players on the roster, inspired their crucial comeback in Game 1 vs Belarus, and the duo also proved a step above the rest of the squad throughout, amassing 7 (2+5) and 6 (3+3) pts, respectively, while none of their teammates could collect more than a pair.

Team Denmark watches the Danish flag being raised during the national anthem following the team’s victory over Belarus in relegation round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Almost half of Denmark’s roster can return in 2019, and every bit of experience will be necessary to extend their unprecedented run of five consecutive presences in the top-division, already three more than they obtained in the three preceding decades.

  1. Switzerland

These days it’s quite unusual for Switzerland to struggle so much in international competition, but the putrid results in Buffalo have an explanation. The Swiss group included a single drafted player, big defenseman Tobias Geisser (WAS), already a fixture of EV Zug’s blueline, and they submitted the youngest roster among the competitors, with 14 players eligible for the 2019 competition.

Switzerland’s Nico Gross #16 controls the puck against the Czech Republic’s Daniel Kurovsky #15 during the preliminary round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Nonetheless, beyond edging Belarus in their must-win round robin encounter, the Swiss competed well against the Swedes and the Czech, keeping the score close until the third period, and revealed a few promising talents that should be taken in the early rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft. Forwards Phillip Kurashev (1+2), a slick playmaker who plays for the Québec Remparts (QMJHL), and powerful winger Nando Eggenberger, a regular for HC Davos, are two good examples, but 17-year-old Nico Gross, an Oshawa Generals (OHL) defenseman, was the player that had scouts raving on his second appearance at the U-20 level.

  1. Slovakia

The Slovaks authored the shock of the tournament in day 3, upsetting the title-favourites USA in front of the home crowd, however they wouldn’t go on to repeat the heroics of 2015, when a fabulous performance by goaltender Denis Godla netted a bronze medal.

Clobbered by Canada in the opening session, the Slovaks also fell to Finland and thrashed Denmark before putting a scare (2-3) on the rampant Swedes in the quarter-finals. All in all, a respectable performance for a country that selected only two players with NHL-ties, top-center Adam Růžička (CGY) and RW Marian Studenič (NJ), but was still able to bother the favourites with their aggressive style supported by good goaltending.

Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 makes a pad save against USA during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Roman Durný, their 19-year-old goalie, stopped 43 of 45 shots against the US to prop a 0.928 Sv%, while left winger Samuel Buček had an amazing tournament, picking up 3 goals and 7 pts in five games, including a memorable three-point night versus the Americans that comprised two primary assists for linemate Filip Krivošík and a spectacular individual effort on the GWG. Ignored at the 2017 draft, Buček, who plays for the USHL’s Chicago Steel, may well hear his name called next summer alongside the draft-eligible Adam Liška (LW, Kitchener Rangers) and Miloš Roman (C, Vancouver Giants).

  1. Finland

Determined to put to bed the disastrous performance of 2017 (9th place), the Finns were hailed as a darkhorse for the title due to the amount of talent at their disposal this season. Counting on 15 players that won the 2016 U-18 World Championships, Finland’s roster was stock full of top-prospects, especially on defence, but, strangely, things never clicked into gear, with their usual conservative and deliberate approach clashing with the need to hit higher notes against top opposition.

Canada’s Sam Steel #23 scores a first period goal against Finland’s Ukko-Pekka Luukonen #1 while Urho Vaakanainen #23 and Miro Heiskanen #2 battle with Taylor Raddysh #16 during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Finns shrugged away Slovakia (5-2) and Denmark (4-1), and couldn’t be faulted for their competitive performances against the USA (4-5) and Canada (2-4), yet the expectations called for, at least, a semi-final appearance and they would be denied that by the Czech (3-4), ultimately falling in the shootout despite holding a lead deep into the third period.

With 16 goals allowed in five games (3.13 GAA), part of the responsibility falls into the less-than-stellar performance of goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), who carried the load start to finish and only notched a 0.879 Sv%, yet their illustrious defence, which encompassed five first round picks, also underperformed as a unit.

Olli Juolevi (VAN), competing in his third straight tournament, bounced back from a poor 2017 showing with 4 pts and 21 shots, looking active and transitioning up the ice alongside the offensive-oriented Henri Jokiharju (CHI), but more was expected of Miro Heiskanen (DAL), whose eye-popping offensive totals at home (9 G, 14 pts in 20 games for HIFK) didn’t translate internationally. The 2017 3rd overall pick was still noticeable on his ability to skate out of trouble and break plays in his own zone, and formed a steady top pair with captain Juuso Välimäki (CGY), whose reach, maturity and NHL-size stood out.

Finland’s Kristian Vesalainen #13 skates with the puck while USA’s Andrew Peeke #20 chases him down during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Meanwhile, up front, Finland was betrayed by its lack of depth, particularly down the middle. Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) didn’t nail the top-line assignment, and despite the best efforts of Aapeli Räsänen (EDM), a pass-first center who stumbled into 4 goals, the Finns relied too much on their two top-end forwards, Eeli Tolvanen (NAS) and Kristian Vesalainen (WIN). Tolvanen, who has been ripping up the KHL (17 goals in 40 games), is characterized as a gifted goal-scorer with an accurate, varied shot and deadly release, but he could only net once (5 assists) in 30 shots directed on goal and a few more that clank off the iron. For his part, Vesalainen, a burly power-forward, was never afraid to fight through the opposition or command the puck, and ended up rewarded with 2 goals and 6 pts.

This duo will seize important roles in the NHL sooner than later, but questions remain of their cohort of attackers, including Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA), the speedy WHL point-machine (71 in 29 games) who started the tournament well (2 G) before fading out.

(Continues in the next post)

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

Qualification: Group 1 winners (7W, 1L)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

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.