GOYANG – It was labelled the “game of the century” for the Austrian national team, but the playoff qualification game in Sochi to Division I rival Slovenia ended in a 4-0 whimper. Instead of reaching the quarter-finals at the Olympics and the first top-8 placement in 20 years, the team had to travel home in shame.
It was not supposed to turn out like this. The Austrians, for the first time with three NHL players on the roster, had a strong preliminary round and played surprisingly well, same as Slovenia, the other big underdog. This unusual scenario created a playoff game between the two bottom-seeded entries of the 12-team Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament and both had high hopes.
What was the reason for Austria’s meltdown? Officials later followed by the media were quick in finding the excuse. Two days before the big game the team was allowed to travel to Sochi’s mountain cluster and visit the official “Austrian Tirol House”. One has to know that Tyrol is famous and infamous for its so-called après-ski parties and probably the team officials and some players had different ideas of what such an official visit to the house is supposed to look like. In short words, it didn’t exactly end like a perfect team-building event. The result: several players missed the bus back to the Olympic Village, and some were reportedly not a big help at next day’s practice to say at least.
The Austrian Ice Hockey Association heavily criticized the players but at first refused to name any although some top players, including the NHL trio, immediately followed with a public apology. That changed one week ago with Sochi long gone when the association’s president, Dr Dieter Kalt, decided to write an open letter that was published and sent to media where he named no less than nine players who didn’t return to the Olympic Village on the bus with the rest of the team.
“The behaviour of the players was an extraordinary hit for me. The chance of the century was missed. Many are not part of the team anymore,” Kalt said and announced a fresh start far away in Korea.
“The new team, the new young face of the team shall take a new beginning at the World Championship Division I Group A in Korea in hand without the burden of the past,” Kalt added.
Indeed, the team does look different. Only two from the nine criticized players are still with the squad. All but one player from the team that landed in Korea on Wednesday are from the domestic league. Among players missing due to injuries are the New York Islanders’ Michael Grabner and veteran players Mathias Lange and Mathias Trattnig.
On Thursday the team held its first practice on Korean soil including three players who joined recently from Austrian champion Red Bull Salzburg. At the camp in Anyang, another satellite city of Seoul, the team will have to work hard on the ice rather than at the famous Korean karaoke bars if it wants to succeed.
“A big part of the team has been together for almost three weeks and they practised very well. In the two exhibition games we saw what we have to improve. We’ll work on that during the three pre-event days in Seoul,” head coach Manny Viveiros said. “Although the team is young, the solidarity and the energy are there. I’m very confident.”
Of the 25 players named to the team – two skaters will be cut when the tournament starts – six players have played less than ten international games so far and the average age is 24.7.
Austrian hockey fans expect nothing else than promotion like every time their national team plays in Division I but coach Viveiros dampened the hopes at a press conference during the earlier camp in Vienna.
“The promotion to the top division is not a must,” he declared because it’s the youngest teams in many years and the main goal is to build a team for the future. That sounds similar to what was said two years ago when the Austrians earned promotion at the Division I Group A in 2012 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. “But maybe something is possible with this very young team too.”
The two teams promoted in 2012, Slovenia and Austria, were the same that were relegated from the top division in Stockholm and Helsinki last year and are now the top-seeded teams here in Goyang.
If the recent exhibition game in Vienna against Slovenia can act as a benchmark, an improvement from Sochi may be seen. Being down 2-0, the Austrians were able to tie the game in the last minute of regulation time before losing in overtime. Last Saturday they defeated Hungary 5-4 in a shootout – again after tying the game late.
The path to gold or at least silver in Goyang will not be easy for the young team but nothing is impossible in a tournament that’s expected to be tight.
Austrian roster for the camp in Korea
David Kickert, Vienna Capitals
Bernhard Starkbaum, Brynas Gavle (SWE)
Rene Swette, KAC Klagenfurt
Mario Altmann, VSV Villach
Stefan Bacher, VSV Villach
Dominique Heinrich, Red Bull Salzburg
Daniel Mitterdorfer, Black Wings Linz
Florian Muhlstein, Red Bull Salzburg
Patrick Peter, Vienna Capitals
Markus Schlacher, Vienna Capitals
Martin Schumnig, KAC Klagenfurt
Mario Fischer, Vienna Capitals
Manuel Ganahl, Graz 99ers
Manuel Geier, KAC Klagenfurt
Stefan Geier, KAC Klagenfurt
Thomas Hundertpfund, KAC Klagenfurt
Matthias Iberer, Black Wings Linz
Thomas Koch, KAC Klagenfurt
Konstantin Komarek, Red Bull Salzburg
Brian Lebler, Black Wings Linz
Daniel Oberkofler, Black Wings Linz
Benjamin Petrik, VSV Villach
Nikolas Petrik, Dornbirner EC
Kevin Puschnik, Vienna Capitals
Michael Schiechl, Vienna Capitals