KOSICE – Placed in Group B with Belarus, Canada, and Switzerland, France is on survival mode right from the get-go. This is the fourth straight year it has played in the top division after an absence of four years, but avoiding the Relegation Round will be difficult. Coach Dave Henderson is back, also for a fourth year.
It seems in a blink of an eye Cristobal Huet has gone from being a kid with great promise to being a 35-year-old veteran. Incredibly, his first World Championship was in 1997, and this will be his seventh. Three times previous the team has been demoted, but his skills in the blue ice will be critical if the team is to play in Finland/Sweden next year. His backup will be Fabrice Lhenry, a 38-year-old who debuted in 1998 and who is also in for the seventh time. The third goalie is Ronan Quemener.
The blueliners are a veteran lot, starting with Vincent Bachet, who played for Amiens this past season. Indeed, four defencemen played in Amiens, the others being Kevin Hecquefeuille, Thomas Roussel, and Teddy Trabichet. Two Finnish-league players also made the cut, 21-year-old Johan Auvitu and the more experienced Nicolas Besch. Rounding out the defence are Maxime Moisand, 20, and Johann Morant, 25.
Laurent Meunier is back as captain for a fourth time and sixth top-level World Championship. Perhaps the name to watch out for most, though, is Stéphane da Costa. The 21-year-old has been playing at Merrimack University in the U.S. and received a call-up from the Ottawa Senators at the end of the regular season, playing in his first four NHL games. He didn’t register a point, but he became only the third born-and-trained Frenchmen to make the NHL after Huet and Philippe Bozon. Da Costa’s older brother, Teddy, is also on the team this year. Stéphane, still only 20, is in his third World Championship. Veteran Laurent Gras is, at 35, the oldest member of the team, while Nicolas Arrossamena, at 20, is the second youngest (after Moisand). The team is light on scoring ability. Indeed, in the last three years the team has scored just 33 goals in 17 games.
Dave Henderson has done a tremendous job with the talent at his disposal to keep the French in the top pool, a symbolically important achievement even if it means fighting it out in the Relegation Round most of the time. The chance to play against the world’s best players exposes France’s young players to a calibre of hockey they desperately need if they are to develop and improve.
Slovenia, Austria, Latvia, and France might well battle it out for relegation, and among these teams France can find comparable talent. If the French stay up, it will be by the slimmest of margins.