Spanish hockey is celebrating an unprecedented haul of three gold medals this season, following the success of the u18 roster at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B in Zagreb, Croatia.
The team topped the six-team pool, securing promotion to the Division II Group A with a convincing 4-1 victory over the host in Friday’s decisive encounter. That means Spain’s teams have taken gold in three of the four World Championships they’ve contested this year, with the men’s U20s winning the Division II Group B in Belgrade back in January – again thanks to a final-day win over Croatia – and the women’s senior roster sweeping all-comers to clinch the Division IIB on home ice in Valdemoro just over a week ago. What a change it was after all the silver medals last year.
For Frank Gonzalez, president of the Spanish Ice Sports Federation, this run of success is proof that hockey can thrive in nations far from the heartland of the game. “For us, this feels like a miracle,” he said. “We’re here in the southernmost point of Europe, and we’re showing that we can compete against countries with a real tradition and culture in ice hockey. We’re still a long way from competing at the elite level, but the work of all our teams deserves a lot of credit.”
In Zagreb, the Spanish were dominant throughout the competition. Although Friday’s match-up against Croatia was a tournament decider, Spain held a three-point advantage over the host and knew that anything short of a defeat in regulation would secure top spot. In the event, Timo Tuomi’s youngsters eased to victory. A first-period goal from Marc Layola settled the nerves after a bright start from Croatia kept goalie Raul Barbo busy. Then second-period tallies from Pablo Zaballa and Liam O’Hare – one shorthanded, the other on the power play – put the game out of Croatia’s reach.
The teams traded goals late in the final stanza, with Sergio Sarasa extending Spain’s lead before a power-play goal from Leo Selitaj gave the host some consolation. And there was more satisfaction for Croatia when it claimed second place, edging ahead of local rival Serbia thanks to a 2-1 win when the teams met on the opening day. Goalie Domagoj Troha, named as the best netminder of the competition, said: “I am very proud of all our players and coaches. We created some chances that we couldn’t take, but to finish with silver medals around our necks is a miracle.”
China missed out on a medal after losing 0-4 to Serbia in its last game, but forward Jing Wang ended as the tournament’s top goal scorer with seven markers. A 1-3 loss against the Netherlands on Friday condemned Iceland to relegation after the team managed just one point from its five games.
But the tournament was all about Spain. Undefeated in five games, with only a shootout win over Serbia denting a perfect record, the Spanish thrived thanks to a powerful offence that produced 27 goals in five games. An opening 8-3 defeat of Iceland set the tone, and after that nerve-jangler against Serbia, there were more high-scoring wins – 7-3 against China, 5-4 against the Dutch.
Part of Spain’s success involves looking beyond its borders. Coach Tuomi brings a wealth of experience from the Finnish leagues, and has been part of the Spanish national development program since 2010/11. He’s backed up by Italy’s Maurizio Mansi and Lars Lisspers of Sweden. Increasingly, players are also gaining experience overseas: four of this year’s u18 roster represented clubs outside of Spain, including O’Hare from the Ontario Hockey Academy and Florida Eels D-man Jaime Moreno. Then there’s David Mateo, a Czech dual national who plays for the Okanagan Academy in Britain and captain Aron Sarmiento, who plays in Switzerland with Innerschwyz Future. Sarmiento was named as the top defenceman of the tournament, while O’Hare’s nine points put him equal third on the scoring charts behind Zaballa and his captain. The pool of Spanish talent, and the experience available to the country’s young players, is steadily growing.
Spain’s gold rush may not be over just yet. At the end of April the country hosts Division IIB of the senior men’s World Championship in Granada. And, in the longer term, there are plans to continue developing the game. Recent years have seen several new or redeveloped rinks open their doors across the country. Now, proposals are in place to build a Centre of Excellence in Barcelona, with two hockey pads and a curling centre, and this year’s success on the ice will hopefully make it easier to attract funding for that project. Click here for scores and stats from the tournament.Click here to watch the full games.