OTTAWA - The IIHF ushers in the New Year by taking a look back over the previous 365 days and highlighting the hundreds of hockey stories into these top ten, the worthiest of the worthy. Some are happy, some are sad; some from North America, some from Europe; some from big names, some from lesser-knowns. But these are the stories that captivated the IIHF panel as defining moments in hockey in 2008.
1. Kovalchuk plays the hero and spoiler: May 18, 2008
Sunday afternoon at Le Colisee in Quebec City will go down as one of the greatest moments in international hockey. The IIHF was celebrating its 100th anniversary, and the centerpiece of those celebrations, the gold-medal game of the 2008 World Championship, was a fitting occasion. Canada, playing tournament host for the first time, faced off against its greatest international rival, Russia. Through two periods, a dream ending was unfolding as the home side held a 4-2 lead. But the Russians rallied to tie the game, and then Kovalchuk scored the golden goal at 2:42 of overtime to give Russia its first World Championship gold in 15 years. In his confident column titled “Prediction: Canada-Russia final,” published before the first game of the tournament, IIHF Director of Communications Szymon Szemberg finished with this: “The score is tied after regulation time and we are heading into overtime. Here, the crystal ball gets a little blurry.” His uncanny prediction leaves one waiting for his 2009 selection!
2. Alexei Cherepanov dies during a game: October 13, 2008
One of the darkest days in hockey occurred during a KHL game featuring Avangard Omsk and Vityaz Chekhov. Cherepanov collapsed on the bench, and without an ambulance in the arena players were forced to carry their teammate to the corridor for any medical attention available. Tragically, he died before proper assistance could save him. The 19-year-old Cherepanov was named Best Forward at the 2008 World U20 Championship and was a top prospect with the New York Rangers.
3. Champions Hockey League energizes Europe: September 12, 2008
For the first time in European league history, the IIHF introduced a tournament which captivated audiences from the very start and unified various national leagues across the Continent with one “super league.” The Champions Hockey League is heading towards a climactic finish in late January as the top 12 teams from around Europe have played a series of home-and-home games to determine the best team. Games have been played principally on Wednesday nights, a la Champions League football—and crowds have flocked to the games in record numbers. Every participating nation has national TV coverage of their games, and the IIHF has already planned to expand participation for next year.
4. Victoria Cup signals new era of NHL-IIHF cooperation: October 1, 2008
For the first time, a meaningful game between a European club team and an NHL club team took place in Berne, Switzerland. The New York Rangers stormed back to defeat European champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk, 4-3, in a thrilling game that was decided in the final minute on a great goal by Ryan Callahan. The near-capacity crowd was treated to end-to-end action, and the success of the game ensures the health of this event for the two years remaining on the current agreement and beyond.
5. Ovechkin makes history: May/June 2008
Call him what you will—Alexander the Great, AO, Ovie, Alex—the great Russian scorer had a quite a year in 2008. In January, he signed the richest deal in NHL history, a 13-year contract extension worth $124 million. He went on to finish the 2007-08 season with 65 goals and 112 points to win the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals and Art Ross Trophy for most points, and he was named winner of the Lester B. Pearson Award as NHL MVP as voted on by the players. He also won the Hart Trophy, the league’s MVP trophy voted by journalists, and soon after he led Russia to victory in the World Championship. He was the first Russian to win the Hart and Pearson, and his 65 goals was the most in the NHL since Mario Lemieux scored 69 in 1995-96.
6. Jagr leaves the NHL for KHL: July 4, 2008
It hasn’t had the impact of Bobby Hull signing with the Winnipeg Jets in 1972, but Jaromir Jagr’s signing with Avangard Omsk in the summer of 2008 is perhaps the greatest departure of an NHLer for another league in 36 years. While Jagr was 36 years old at the time, he clearly had more top-quality hockey left in him, but the lure of money and a lighter schedule prompted the departure. The great irony of the signing is Jagr’s wearing of number 68, in memory of the Soviet invasion of Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1968. Now he’s playing in Russia, of all places. How the world has changed.
7. Hungary back on top: April 19, 2008
If Denmark’s return to the top division of the World Championship in 2003 after an absence of 54 years was a miracle—not to mention that nation’s continued presence there—then what can we call Hungary’s return for 2009 after an absence of 70 years? By defeating Ukraine 4-2 in the final game of Division I in Sapporo, Japan, the Hungarians finished first in Group B and earned a ticket to Switzerland for 2009. Appropriately, it was in Switzerland they last participated, in 1939, when they finished seventh. Their only other top level play since before World War II came at the 1964 Olympics when they lost all seven games they played. Part of their current success must be attributed to coach Pat Cortina, a Montrealer who has previously coached Italy internationally.
8. World Women’s shockers: April 8, 2008
On one day, two of the greatest upsets in women’s hockey occurred only hours apart. In the Qualifying Round of the World Women’s Championship in Harbin, China, the early game saw Finland defeat the United States for the first time ever. The 1-0 score at Baqu Arena was courtesy of the shutout goaltending of veteran Noora Raty and the overtime winner off the stick of Heidi Pelttari. A little later in the day, the Swiss women defeated Sweden for the first time, 4-3, and this also marked the first time that Sweden had lost to a country other than Canada, the United States, or Finland. In the end, neither result had a profound effect on the standings. The U.S. defeated Canada, 4-3, for gold and the Swiss lost the bronze-medal game to the Finns, 4-1, but these two upsets might yet prove that women’s hockey is developing more quickly in Europe than critics might have accounted for.
9. Robert Mueller’s relentless fight: November 2006-present
There is no story more inspirational or awe-inspiring than that of German goalie Robert Mueller, a man whose life and career look like Jekyll and Hyde, good and bad, drama and comedy. As a hockey player, he is the stuff of legend in his native land. Mueller has played in six top-level World Championships from 2001 to 2008, and he has also played at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. He has played for nearly a decade in the German elite league as well. His life, however, was turned upside down in November 2006 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Doctors removed most of the tumourous matter through one surgery, but in the summer of 2008 the symptoms returned with an even bleaker prognosis: the tumour was inoperable and incurable. Still, Mueller continued to play and practice with his club team, Kolner Haie. But on December 18, 2008, doctors told him he had to take a break until at least January. The medical fact is that Mueller is unlikely to live much longer, but the emotional fact is that his courage in the face of such personal horror is remarkable beyond any great save or big win in the crease.
10. Lidstrom captains a Cup winner: June 4, 2008
It took 115 years, but finally a European captain led his NHL team to the Stanley Cup. And it couldn’t have happened to a worthier player than Sweden’s Nicklas Lidstrom, now in his 17th NHL season, all with the Detroit Red Wings. In Cup tradition, it is the captain who receives the trophy on behalf of the team, and although there have been many European names on the Cup since 1980, no European captain has ever had the honour until Lidstrom this past June. It was his fourth Cup with the Wings, but in each previous victory the captain was Steve Yzerman. The second or third European to achieve this honour won’t be particularly immortalized, but the first will always be the Swede whose stellar play on the blueline has earned him six Norris Trophies during his career.