BERNE Ė The Austrians are back on the scene after being relegated in 2007. And after the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland, they're hoping to stay in the neighbourhood Ė among the world's 16 best teams at the 2010 tournament in Germany.
The whole nation hopes that their NHL star, Thomas Vanek, can help the team to reach that goal. IIHF.comís Martin Merk spoke with the Buffalo Sabres forward from Graz.
Is your team very frustrated after the 7-1 loss to Sweden in the first game?
Of course we hoped to keep the game close but itís not the first time we've lost by a wide margin to Sweden, so it didnít come as a surprise. We didnít have to lose anything against Sweden, but it still hurts.
Were you surprised how big the difference was, especially in the first period?
No. The Swedes have a very good league and also some NHL players. They have four strong lines. You notice that we have some lines with inexperienced players.
Were you getting some special attention on the ice?
Yes. Of course I donít like losing and not scoring a goal. But it was difficult, as the Swedes always knew when and where I am.
What will your team have to do to have a better performance against Team USA?
The Americans are quite young and skate well. But the tournament really starts to take on more importance for them if they make it as far as the semi-finals. We really need to play with them. We have to be better and tighter in our own zone and not let them get close-range shots. Most of the Swedish goals came from about five metres away, where our goalie canít do much. We cannot play here as if we're in the Austrian League, or otherwise the score will look the same as it looked against Sweden.
Is the Relegation Round already a topic in the locker room?
Our first goal is to stay in the top division. And weíll know on Wednesday if we've done it by beating Latvia or whether we'll need to battle in the Relegation Round. Itís clear for us that itís more difficult to win points against Sweden or the Americans. As an Austrian team, and promoted team, it's never a big surprise to end up playing in the Relegation Round. We have to stay in the top division for some years to change that.
Was it hard to motivate yourself after your injury, and after missing the playoffs with the Buffalo Sabres?
That was not difficult, but of course my situation is not so ideal. It hurts when you fight so hard for the playoffs and you miss it by a few points.
How do you see your role on the Austrian team?
My goal is to help the young guys and to create a positive atmosphere. I knew that it will be difficult for us here and also in the upcoming years. But I come when I can, and we just have to practice hard. I hope that in the future we can have three or four good lines like Sweden, or Switzerland.
What'll it take to reach that goal?
We have to change something for sure. We have to limit the numbers of imports to maybe five, six players per team and to get rid of the system we have right now. We have to give Austrians a chance and to make them better when theyíre kids. People talk a lot about it, but it doesnít happen so much.
You're playing against your Buffalo teammate Drew Stafford today.
We get along well and see each other all year. It seems that the Americans are enjoying their time in Berne. And weíll say hi on the ice for sure.
Can you understand why some players donít join their national teams after the NHL season?
Yes, itís a long season. If Austria had 10 NHL players, I would maybe do the same, due to my jaw injury. But itís good for the sport for me to be here, and I like to help the team. I think the young guys are happy that Iím here, and we want to build a great group.
What's needed for more Austrians to make the NHL?
Well, everybody can skate and shoot. The biggest difference I've learned about is the mentality. You have to be positive. You can never give up. And there are physical differences as well.
Being an Austrian, do you sometimes feel like an exotic item in the NHL?
In the beginning, I was often asked where I came from, and people thought I was joking when I told them Iím Austrian. But now Iíve been in North America for a while, and I have friends who play all over the continent. Now people know where I am from, and they respect that. Theyíre not so surprised anymore that an Austrian can play hockey well.
What will you do after the World Championship?
Iíll fly back to the U.S. and will put all my hockey stuff in my garage for a month. Iíll have smoe holidays with my family, and in June or July Iíll go to Austria.