Tournament Preview

PREVIEW OF THE 2001 IIHF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

by: Dennis Gibbons

The 2001 World Championship is more than just another international hockey tournament. Most countries are using it as a testing ground for prospects for the 2002 Winter Olympics

Thirteen of the 16 nations competing in Hannover, Cologne and Nuremberg Germany, April 28-May 13, also have qualified for the Olympic tourney. Only Italy, Japan and Norway will not be there.

Wayne Gretzky, executive director of Canada's 2002 Olympic team, has assigned the task of gathering players for Canada's World Championship team to former Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames' star Lanny McDonald. And McDonald is placing a lot of emphasis on youth by naming Boston Bruins' center Joe Thornton, 21, to the team along with center Vincent Lecavalier and left winger Brad Richards of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Teams must declare a roster by midnight the night before the tournament starts, but can leave spots open for the additions of players who might become avalaible when their teams are eliminated from the NHL playoffs. In addition, the four teams that qualify for the world tournament semifinals are allowed to add five players to their 23-man rosters at that time.

The IIHF introduced this rule a few years ago to make the competition for medals more exciting. In the past, some teams had so many key injuries by the time they reached the semifinals they were non-factors. The host German team returns to the top level of the World Championship after being relegated a few years ago. A threat to turn Europe's top four into a top five in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Germans have completely rebuilt their team.

Upset that established NHL players like Valery Kamensky and Andrei Kovalenko performed poorly in St. Petersburg, last season, Russian coach Boris Mikhailov has decided to ice a team made up mostly of players from Russia's Superleague. As early as mid-February, at the conclusion of the Sweden Hockey Games in Stockholm, Mikhailov declared that he had made most of his World Championship selections.

After shining at the 1994 Olympic tournament in Norway, Slovakia made its World Championship breakthrough with a silver medal last year in Russia.

Known for its excellent teamwork, Switzerland also has become a serious contender for medals. Since NHL players were used in the World Championship for the first time in 1976, Canada has won only two gold medals - in 1994 and 1997 - but has recorded more top-four finishes than any other nation. Canada is almost always in the hunt for medals and tournament organizers rely on the Canadian team to attract large crowds.

Wayne Fleming, a former assistant with the Islander and Phoenix, is coaching Canada's entry this year, and three other countries have Canadian coaches. They are Rolf Kruger of Switzerland, Ron Kennedy of Austria and Glen Williamson of Japan.

While the World Championship often has trouble getting on the sports pages in Canada because of the Stanley Cup playoffs, in Europe it's big business, especially when held , as it is this year, in a central location like Germany.

Maintaining spectator interest in the 1960s and 1970s when the Soviet Union was dominating play was a headache for International Ice Hockey Federation officials. Although the Soviet Union did not play in a World Championship until 1954, by 1979 it had won 16 out of a possible 25 gold medals and fans were getting bored watching lopsided games.

Between 1954 and the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviets won most of the gold medals. Canada, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Finland and Sweden were the only other countries to win medals of any color during that time. But since 1989, competition has been very even. The Czech Republic and Sweden have won three gold medals each, Canada and Russia (Soviet Union) two each and Finland one.

The IIHF faced another dilemma after the Berlin Wall fell, leading to a gradual change from Communism to democracy in the Eastern European countries. On Jan. 1, 1992 the Soviet Union was transformed into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and later former Soviet republics became countries on their own each with membership in the international federation. Then in 1993 Czechoslovakia divided into two separate nations - the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In the case of the former Czechoslovakia, the IIHF ruled that since its national team had always been made up mostly of Czech players, the Czech Republic would remain in the A pool of the World Championship. Slovakia protested, but to no avail and was placed in the C pool of the 1994 World Championship.

But in just two years the Slovaks climbed to the A pool, which now also includes Latvia, Ukraine and Belarus. The new kids on the block were threatening to knock central European countries like Austria, Italy, and Switzerland down to the B pool. The IIHF, fearful that it would lose much needed advertising revenue from these nations if their teams were relegated, decided to increase the number of entries for the 1998 World Championship in Switzerland to 16.

Since the 1998 world tournament, the national team of the host country automatically participates to ensure that the tournament is a financial success for the organizing committee. The best team from the Far East -
this year Japan - is also included, to help promote ice hockey in that
growing market and create further sponsorship opportunities for the
IIHF.

GROUP A

BELARUS - Strength: Experienced roster, trained in Russian system, with excellent teamwork. Weakness: Can break down against teams that play a hard-hitting game.Key players - Ruslan Salei, D, (Anaheim); Andre Mezin, G, Andrei Skabelka, F.

CZECH REPUBLIC - Strength: Confidence at a peak after winning three world and one Olympic gold medals since 1996. Weakness: NHL players have tendency to clash with old-style European coaches Josef Augusta and Vladimir Martinec. Key players - Robert Reichel, RW, Pavel Kubina, D, (Tampa Bay), Pavel Patera. (Minnesota).

GERMANY - Strength: Home-crowd advantage and enthusiasm of players making their World Championship debut. Weakness: Lack of recent competition against top level countries.Key players - Daniel Kunce, D, Jan Benda, F, Klaus Kathan, F.

SWITZERLAND - Strength:Topnotch team effort both on offence and defence. Weakness: Lack of overall size and speed of players.Key players - Michel Riesen, F, Mark Streit, D, Reto Pavoni, G.

GROUP B

AUSTRIA - Strength: Good mixture of homebrews and Austrian Canadians. Weakness: Lack of consistent goal-scorers.Key players - Claus Dalpiaz, G, Dominic Lavoie, D, Dieter Kalt, F.

FINLAND - Strength: Fighting spirit and effective response to physical game. Weakness: Tendency to go over the line and take penalties at crucial times.Key players - Ari Sulander, G, Kimmo Timonen, (Nashville) ,D, Tommi Kallio (Atlanta), F

JAPAN - Strength: Smooth-skating style.and lots of effort. Weakness: Lack of size and scoring touch down low.Key players - Tatsuki Katayama, D, Ryan Kuwabara, F, Chris Yule, F.

SLOVAKIA - Strength: Players respond well to innovative new coach Jan Filc. Weakness: Does not have a goaltender with North American pro experience. Key players - Marian Hossa, F, (Ottawa), Richard Zednik, F, (Montreal), Zdeno Chara, D, (Islanders).

GROUP C

LATVIA - Strength: National pride, especially when playing against former political aggressor Russia. Weakness: Lack of depth of goal scorers. Key players- Arturs Irbe, G (Carolina), Sandis Ozolinsh, D, (Carolina), Sergei Zholtok, F (Edmonton).

SWEDEN - Strength: Good team speed and scorers with Daniel Alfredsson, Mikael Renberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Weakness: Often, it is mostly a lack of motivation.Key players - Daniel Alfredsson, F, (Ottawa), Mikael Renberg, F, Mattias Ohlund, D, (Vancouver).

UKRAINE - Strength: Coach Anatoly Bogdanov, former mentor of the Soviet national B team, is a master teacher and tactician. Weakness: Lack of solid defenders to protect goalie Igor Karpenko.Key players - Igor Karpenko, G, Valery Shiryaev, D, Vadim Shakhraichuk, F.

UNITED STATES - Strength: Experienced defence brigade led by Phil Housley. Weakness: Lack of proper time for players to practise together.Key players - Phil Housley, D (Calgary), Eric Weinrich, D (Boston), Tim Connolly, F (Islanders).

GROUP D

CANADA - Strength: Motivation for all players to play their way on to the 2002 Olympic team. Weakness: Lack of time to adjust to larger European ice surfaces.Key players - **Michael Peca, F, (Buffalo) Steve Sullivan, F, (Chicago), Joe Thornton, F, (Boston).

ITALY - Strength: Team built around core of Italian-Canadians. Weakness: Overall team speed and stamina.Key players - Bruno Zarillo, F, Joe Busillo, F, Mike Rosati, G.

NORWAY - Strength: Core of players who play regularly in Swedish Elite League. Weakness:.Overall lack of depth on roster.Key players - Mats Trygg, D, Trond Magnussen, F, Tore Vikingstad, F.

RUSSIA - Strength: Nowhere to go but up after last year's horrible 11th place finish Weakness: Sub-par goaltending and gamble of going with unproven players from Russian Superleague.Key players -, Alexei Yashin, F, (Ottawa), Oleg Tverdovsky, D, (Anaheim), Vitaly Vishnevski, G, (Anaheim).

A freelance journalist specializing in international hockey, Denis Gibbons resides in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

**Michael Peca is a restricted free agent with the Buffalo Sabres, has not signed a contract with that club and therefore is ineligible to play in the 2001 Stanley Cup playoffs.

For more information:
Brad Pascall Vice-President, Hockey Operations