KARLSTAD – The 2010 IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship kicks off next week in Karlstad, Sweden with 16 nations split into two divisions, vying for two sets of medals.
Sweden, a first-time host, is the three-time defending champion of the Inline Worlds and is going for a record fourth-straight title. The Swedes have a legitimate chance for the gold medal after it was announced that several star ice hockey players will join the team for the week-long tournament.
Highlighting the Swedish roster is Rickard Wallin, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, but is now with Farjestad. Detroit Red Wings prospect Dick Axelsson, who is also from Farjestad, will join Wallin along with Simon Olsson, who played in the Quebec Junior Major League last year.
Standing in the way of the Swedes’ home title hopes will be most likely the Finns, Americans and Germans. Finland has faltered the last two years, missing the medal podium. But before 2008, Finland won nine straight medals, including three golds. Between 2002 and 2007, Finland and Sweden met four times in the gold medal game, but in recent years, Sweden has clearly gained the upper hand in the rivalry.
The Americans are perennial Inline hockey medalists, taking home hardware 10 of 13 years. Last year, they were in prime position to add a gold to their collection, but a three-goal fourth quarter pushed the Swedes to the 7-6 win. The loss is sure to be on the minds of head coach Rob Chornomud, who is returning for his second season behind the bench along nine members from last year’s silver team.
Germany is one of the most consistent performers at the Inline Worlds in recent years, taking home three consecutive bronze medals. Each year, the Germans come painfully close to making the gold medal game, but can’t seem to get over the hump to play for the top prize. While the German roster has yet to be formally announced, the team normally features at least a few national team ice hockey players – the most recent being Michael Wolf who starred in last year’s Inline event in Ingolstadt, Germany.
USA and Germany will play in the same preliminary round group which also includes the Czech Republic and Canada. Both the Czechs and Canadians were disappointments at the 2009 Inline Worlds. The Czechs had a talented roster, but faltered in the playoff stage of the event. Meanwhile, Canada made a return to the Inline Worlds after a near-decade absence in 2008 and last year had to play the qualification game to remain in the top division among the elite eight nations.
The other top division group will feature Sweden, rival Finland, Austria and Slovenia. The Austrians have struggled to stay in the top division the past few years and are only among the elite after winning the Division I gold medal last year. They will once again have their hands full with the two Nordic nations and wild card Slovenia.
The Division I level is much like the top division with a quartet of nations that are the consistent performers at the top of the class. Great Britain, Brazil, Hungary and Japan have consistently proven themselves to be a notch ahead of the rest of the pack. None of the four has ever cracked the top division, but every year, the cross-over game is closer and closer with the nations challenging harder to make it to the elite eight.
Since 2004, Great Britain has missed the podium only once. Last year, they missed their biggest chance to make it to the top division, losing to Austria, 2-1, in the gold medal game. It was the first time in Inline history that the Division I gold medalist earned a direct promotion to the top level – and a chance that was narrowly missed by the Brits. They are sure to want to make up for the lost chance this season and are sure to be a strong contender for a medal.
Much like Great Britain, Brazil has also been a mainstay on the medal podium in recent years. The country has six medals in the last seven years, including the gold in 2007. The victory samba is indeed a becoming a familiar sight at the Inline Worlds. As one of the stronger teams in the preliminary round, Brazil often finds itself playing in the cross-over game, yet consistently coming up short in its attempts to make it to the elite level.
Hungary always comes to the Worlds with a talented and large team, but has struggled in recent years with sluggish starts. In 2008, Hungary had its worst finish, just barely missing relegation in 14th-place. Last year, they improved, making it to the bronze medal game, but falling against Brazil, 4-3. It is anyone’s guess which Hungarian team will show up – but strong start is the key to the nation’s success.
The last of the contenders in Division I are the speedy Japanese and the crafty Australians. Once the Japanese team starts, there’s no slowing them down as more often than not, they simply tire out their opponents. The last three years, Japan has fallen behind in the standings as Australia has leap-frogged them, but never count out the skilled Asian squad. Australia is an up-and-down team that ultimately has bad luck in the big games. The have won just two medals at Inline Worlds, with the last being a bronze in 2003.
Australia will have its hands full in its preliminary round group with Hungary, normal top-division team Slovakia and newly promoted Croatia. The other group will feature Brazil, Japan, Great Britain and returnee Argentina, who made it back to the event through a qualification process.