HELSINKI – Austria had a good run in the top division of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in the 1990s and the early 2000s. The country played in the top division every year between 1993 and 2005, with the exception of 1997. Their eight consecutive top division appearances between 1998 and 2005 was their longest since 1949. After their twelve World Championships in thirteen years, it looked like Austria had established itself among the game’s elite.
But something happened. In recent years, Austria has been on the elevator that travels between the top division and Division I. In 2005, they got relegated for the first time since 1996, but they fought their way back to the top the year after. In 2007, they finished 15th, ended up playing for their spot – and losing it. They were back in the top division 2009. And got relegated. Back in 2011. And down in 2011.
Up in 2012. And in 2013...?
Bernhard Starkbaum is coming off a good season. He played 46 games with MODO Örnsköldsvik in the Swedish Elitserien, and posted the Swedish league’s third best save percentage, 93.3, and that facing more rubber than all other goalies except (Switzerland’s) Martin Gerber. He also led the league in shutouts, with eight. Even if Starkbaum struggled in the playoffs, he can also look back to a great Olympic qualification tournament in which he played all three games, allowed just six goals, and led his team to Sochi.
Should “strong tree” – the literal translation of his name – need a break, René Swette, will be able to give Austria solid goaltending. He won the Austrian championship this year, allowing just a goal and a half, on average, in his 14 playoff appearances.
The core of the defence corps comes from KAC Klagenfurt, this year’s Austrian champions, and the Vienna Capitals, the team they swept in the final. Thomas Pöck, a former Klagenfurt and MODO player whose Lake Erie Monsters missed the AHL playoffs, will bring almost 120 NHL games worth of leadership to the blueline. He’s also the only defenceman not playing in the Austrian league this season. Not yet, anyway. Pöck has signed with KAC for next season, though.
Andre Lakos led the team in defencemen scoring in the Olympic qualification, and his big shot will be a valuable asset for Austria in Helsinki, as well.
Two words: Thomas Vanek. In early February, the Austrian sniper was the hottest layer in hockey. By February 10, he had had two five-point games, and one three-point games in the NHL. The Sabres forward collected 23 points in his first 11 games, and led the league in scoring. His production did taper off, but Vanek finished the season with 41 points in 38 games, and in Top 30 in league scoring.
Austria did manage to score 11 goals in the three Olympic Qualification, but in 2011, when the team last played in the top division, they scored just one goal in seven games. Vanek will help, but secondary scoring from players like Daniel Oberkofler and Klagenfurt captain Thomas Koch would be welcome.
Manny Viveiros took over last year, after two years doubling as an assistant coach and Klagenfurt’s head coach. Last season, he had to step aside in Klagenfurt, but the Alberta native also managed to coach the national team back to the top division. This season, he’s already guided the team to an Olympic berth, and will now try to keep Austria in the top division for a second consecutive year, for the first time since 2005. One of the players on that 2005 team that got relegated was... Manny Viveiros.
Austria’s goal is simple: Not to be one of the overall bottom ranked two teams who will be relegated to the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A. Matters are complicated by the fact that since Belarus will host the tournament in 2014, even if they end up on the bottom of standings, they can’t get relegated. Austria will have to fight tooth and nail, and make sure they leave at least two teams behind them in the group standings.
The elevator is on its way but Austria would rather let somebody else get on it. A tough task.