STOCKHOLM – Today marks the start of the 77th IIHF World Championship, an event shared by Stockholm and Helsinki for the second straight year. Although there are 16 teams in the tournament, several fewer have a legitimate chance to win the top medal.
In truth, by the time we go to bed tomorrow night when all teams have played their first game, we will already have a good idea who will win gold. Here’s why.
In the first place, only seven of the 16 nations have won top spot in the 83-year history of the event, which started annually outside of Olympic competition in 1930: Canada, Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia), Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Russia (Soviet Union), and the United States.
More telling, though, is that only twice have the gold medallists lost their first game of the tournament. In 1949, the Czechoslovaks lost to Sweden, 4-2, and went on to win gold, and in 1995, the Finns lost their first game, 3-0, to the Czech Republic.
On only two other occasions did the eventual winners start with anything but a win. In 1993, Russia had to settle for a 2-2 tie with Italy, and in 2004, in a similar situation, Canada played to a 2-2 tie with Austria. Both dominant nations recovered to win gold.
Although this fact is trivial and fun, it is also impressive for its longevity and consistency and points to the more coach-friendly, sound-bite explanation that it’s important to get off to a good start. The current format, a long round robin, favours the top teams because a loss has little meaning. There is plenty of time to recover and recoup the points in the standings.
The previous format, four teams and three games per group, was far more challenging for top teams losing early. Then, at some point, a game became “must win” and the points carried over to the next stage of the tournament (or, didn’t), which had a cumulative negative effect.
The Olympics shows virtually the same trend. Canada opened the 2002 Games in Salt Lake with a 5-2 loss to Sweden and went on to win gold, and on two previous occasions the winners tied their opener – Slovakia and Sweden played to a 4-4 tie in 1994 and the Americans and Swedes tied 2-2 in 1980. Other than these games, the gold-medal winning team always won its first game.
Regardless, teams that play well in game one and win are clearly teams that can get better as the tournament progresses whereas teams that lose their opener sometimes never recover from a rough start. It’s part psychological and part practical.
The Czechs rebounded in 1949 by winning their next four games en route to the gold. In 1993, the Russians struggled, winning their next game, losing two more, and then peaking as the playoff round began. Finland never lost again in 1995 on its way to that historic first World Championship gold, and in 2004, Canada lost only one game in the qualifying round during a dominant tournament.
So figuring out this year’s gold medallists starts with looking at the eight winners of the first games played, then the list of all-time winners, and finally, if more help is needed, there is always the second game. No team at the World Championships or Olympics has lost the first two games and won gold.