BRATISLAVA – When Germany beat Russia 2-0 to open the tournament on Friday, hockey fans from Hamburg to Munich went crazy. But should we conclude that they’ll soon be hoisting beer steins to celebrate a German medal?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First-game upsets at the IIHF World Championship are certainly attention-grabbing. But they rarely influence the final outcome.
If Germany loses to Slovakia, then Germany’s hopes of avoiding the Relegation Round will probably still come down to its May 3 clash with Slovenia. Which is what anyone would have predicted before the tournament began.
Since the start of the new millennium, there really haven’t been that many first-game upsets. And that’s using a relatively liberal definition of “upset” – when a lower-echelon team either beats or ties (as you could in IIHF competition up to 2006) a “Big Seven” nation by any margin.
It’s only happened five times in teams’ first games since 2000.
In 2000, the Swiss succeeded in tying the US 3-3. But did it make a huge difference? Not really. Even though the Swiss beat the star-studded host Russians 3-2 two games later, they still finished sixth. It was a nice accomplishment, but it wasn’t a medal. A medal would have made headlines.
In 2003, Denmark shocked the US 5-2. It was a fantastic, splashy return to the Top Division for the Danes, who’d been away for 54 years. However, the medals went to Canada, Sweden, and Slovakia in the end – not exactly a startling result. The Danes finished 11th, and have continued to hover near that mark ever since.
When Latvia tied the Czechs 1-1 in its opening game in 2006, it was the loudest, most emotionally jacked up building this writer has ever experienced in the course of 12 IIHF World Championships. But, as usual, it didn’t fundamentally change the tournament. The Latvians tumbled to 10th place, including an 11-0 loss to Canada, and the Czechs found themselves in the gold medal game, where they lost 4-0 to Sweden.
Last year came the closest to furnishing exceptions to the “first-game upsets mean little rule.” When the Germans stunned the U.S. 2-1 in overtime in the stadium opener in Gelsenkirchen, which set a then-world attendance record with 77,803 on hand, it actually did set the tone for their tournament. Germany went all the way to the bronze medal game, but came away empty-handed after losing 3-1 to Sweden.
The other first-game upset last year was Denmark’s 4-1 win over Finland. It led to the Danes’ best-ever finish at the IIHF World Championship – eighth place – while the Finns settled for a less-than-satisfactory sixth place. Interesting, certainly, but not epoch-defining.
So, Russian fans, please cancel any plans you may have made to jump off the top of Moscow’s Ostankino TV Tower. There’s still plenty of hope despite suffering a first-game upset.