Tough for first-time hosts

Will Belarus buck trend and overachieve at home?

04.05.2014
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When Slovakia (pictured: Marian Gaborik) hosted the Worlds for the first time in 2011, it came a disappointing 10th. How will Belarus fare this year? Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

A high-calibre roster. New arenas. Sky-high expectations. These are all typically part of the package for an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship host nation. However, the pressure becomes even more intense when you’re hosting the tournament for the first time in your country’s history.

Belarus will enjoy that honour and challenge when the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship kicks off in Minsk on 9th May. How will the national team respond under head coach Glen Hanlon?

Based on recent tournaments, it would be wise for fans in the former Soviet republic to maintain a balance between optimism and realism.

Admittedly, Belarus has had its greatest success at the Worlds with Hanlon, the Canadian-born former Washington Capitals coach and 14-year NHL goalie. He was behind the bench in 2005 (10th place), 2006 (sixth) and 2009 (eighth). That ‘06 finish marked an all-time high for the Belarusians.

But Hanlon was also coaching Slovakia when it recorded a genuinely disappointing 10th-place finish in Bratislava in 2011, the last time the World Championship had a rookie host nation.

And when we look back over results in the new millennium, that’s more typical for first-timers.

In 2000, it was Russia’s first post-Soviet attempt at hosting, and the first time the Worlds had come to St. Petersburg. But the Russians stumbled badly, finishing 11th despite icing a roster with Pavel Bure, Sergei Gonchar, and Alexei Yashin, among other stars.

The Czech Republic (as distinct from Czechoslovakia) got its first crack in 2004. But an Olympic-level squad including Jaromir Jagr, Martin Rucinsky, and Tomas Vokoun failed in the quarter-finals, losing 3-2 to the Americans on Andy Roach’s shootout goal in front of a stunned Prague crowd. They came fifth.

Latvia’s passion for hockey is unquestioned, and its inaugural hosting of the Worlds got off to a promising start with a deafeningly cheered 1-1 tie with the Czechs at the new Arena Riga in 2006. However, the wheels soon fell off. The Latvians couldn’t beat any contenders, and the low point was an 11-0 loss to Canada. Latvia ended up in 10th place.

Canada fared better than any of the aforementioned countries in its maiden voyage in 2008, but still didn’t live up to expectations. Playing on NHL-sized rinks in Halifax and Quebec City, Dany Heatley put up a tournament-best 20 points, the highest total since the USSR’s Vladimir Petrov had 21 points in 1977. The '08 Canadian team also featured the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash, Martin St-Louis, and Jonathan Toews. The hosts won eight straight games in regulation heading into the final, but blew a 4-2 second-period lead and lost 5-4 to Russia on Ilya Kovalchuk’s overtime marker.

In the old days, first-time World Championship hosts seemed to fare better.

At one time, the Olympics counted as World Championships in Olympic years, and that was the case when Switzerland won bronze in 1928 (St. Moritz) and the United States took silver in 1932 (Lake Placid). The Germans were fifth in 1936 (Garmisch-Partenkirchen).

At stand-alone World Championships, Czechoslovakia earned the bronze in 1933, and the Soviet Union got silver in 1957. Sweden came away empty-handed in its 1949 hosting debut, finishing fourth.

But remember, here we’re focusing on nations that have, at the very least, mostly been top-eight in IIHF play. When we look at lesser hockey nations, their first-time hosting results have never been overwhelmingly impressive.

In Olympic years, France was sixth in 1924 (Chamonix), Norway fifth in 1952 (Oslo), and Austria 13th in 1964 (Innsbruck). In non-Olympic years, Italy finished seventh (1934) and Yugoslavia 11th (1966).

Returning to modern times, it’s worth noting that since the 2003 institution of the IIHF World Ranking, no host nation has entered a World Championship with a lower ranking than Belarus (15th). So success, regardless of how it’s defined, will be difficult to achieve.

Perhaps Belarus will get an extra dose of inspiration from its opening-day opponent in Minsk: the United States. It was, after all, in the U.S. that the greatest moment in Belarusian hockey history occurred: the upset 4-3 quarter-final victory over Sweden at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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