LJUBLJANA – Michael Grabner is the only of Austria’s three NHL players who was able to represent the national team at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A. On Thursday he celebrated the promotion to the elite nations.
Believe it or not, but Grabner is currently participating in his first ever World Championship tournament with Austria’s men’s national team. His last international event dates back to 2009 when he helped his country in the Olympic Qualification. He also played once at the U20 World Championship and two times at the U18 World Championship, both times at Division I level.
Grabner debuted with his hometown club Villacher SV in the top Austrian league as a 16-year-old before moving to Canada. After several junior years and AHL seasons for Vancouver’s affiliate Manitoba Moose he eventually found his place in the NHL in 2010 when the New York Islanders claimed him off waivers.
The team from Long Island was rewarded with 52 points in 76 games. And Grabner was rewarded last spring with a five-year contract worth $15 million, which made him one of the best-paid Austrian athletes.
“It was always my dream to play in the NHL and I think I’m accepted in the league, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” the 24-year-old says. “I hope I can be successful with the Islanders as well next year as I’ve been here – and reach the playoffs.”
After four games with three wins and a shootout loss, the Austrians have already secured one of the top-two spots to earn promotion to the top division along with undefeated host Slovenia.
Although Grabner didn’t score a goal while producing 13 shots and four assists in four games, his skill level was visible as soon as he was with the puck.
“I didn’t score, but we reached our goal to earn promotion to the top division, that’s the most important thing. It took a load off my mind,” the forward says. “I was pretty annoyed about losing the game to Japan. There was lot of pressure on us, but we never gave up and always believed in us, no matter what others said. I’m proud of our win.”
Grabner enjoyed representing his country for the first time in more than three years.
“I always followed the national team. In the past it didn’t work out after long seasons, but I’m happy I could play my first World Championship now. I’m happy that I came here.”
“It’s great to be back with the national team. I played with young players here I had played with seven, eight years ago in Austria,” he says. “It was great to play together with them again and earn promotion.”
After having been among the elite nations in ice hockey from 1998 until 2005 under Ron Kennedy and Herbert Pöck, the Austrian national team hasn’t managed to stay among the top-16 nations in the world. Each time it was back in the top division, it was relegated at the end of the tournament – in 2007, 2009, 2011.
Manny Viveiros is the fourth coach in seven years and with his mission to integrate some younger players in a mix with veterans he hopes to have found the solution to survive next year at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki.
“For our country it’s very nice and important to be back there and that we take care of developing young players,” Grabner says.
“It was a great team and I was welcomed well. Now we’ll see what will be next year when we play among the best nations.”
After missing the play-offs with the New York Islanders, Grabner’s season will come to an end on Saturday in a neighbouring clash for the tournament win against host Slovenia.
“Slovenia also got promoted, so there’s not that much pressure on the team, but it’s still about pride between these countries, and for the fans,” Grabner says. “It will be a great game.”