QUEBEC CITY – Nothing in the wide world of sports is as stable as the hierarchy in international hockey. Switzerland was the last true underdog team to make it to the IIHF World Championship semi-finals, way back in 1998.
So international hockey has been awaiting the “big bang” at the Worlds for 10 years now. When will a newcomer crack the final four again?
Here are ten things you need for that “big bang”:
1. Outstanding goaltending for the underdog team.
2. Garage-league, soft goaltending for the big team, or a Tommy Salo comeback.
3. Totally impartial referees, who don’t pay undue respect to big-name stars.
4. Perfect power play execution by the underdogs.
5. Perfect box play by the underdogs.
6. The media hurting the underdogs’ egos by saying and writing that they are hopeless and should go home instead of even playing in the quarter-finals.
7. Overconfidence on the part of the favoured team.
8. A given night and all the luck in the world for the underdogs.
9. Courage, lots of heart, and confidence for the underdogs.
10. Murphy’s law hitting the big team.
It appears that the underdog team can only win a quarter-final when those ten reasons come together on the same day. And this particular day must be game day. But there are 364 other days in the year, too.
Swiss coach Ralph Krueger has looked at this problem a little bit more seriously than I have, as he tries to prepare his players for the “big bang”.
He says that historically, his players have always expended too much mental energy in the early games of the Worlds: “In the past, we’ve always prepared the team for those early matches just to make sure we qualify for the quarter-finals. We made up all kinds of motivational tricks and when we finally reached the quarter-finals, we couldn’t find another gear. We couldn’t find new energy for the next step. On the other hand, the top teams can use the early games to fine-tune their game."
At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Switzerland upset Canada and the Czech Republic in the preliminary games. But then they got steamrolled by Sweden in the quarter-finals, and missed the World Championship quarter-finals in Riga a few weeks later. Then they were steamrolled again in the quarter-finals last year in Moscow, this time by Canada. “We’ve paid for our wins in Turin,” Krueger says. “We’ve lost the bonus of being the underdog. The big teams are scouting us now and preparing very seriously for their games against us."
The better the underdog plays in the Preliminary Round, the harder it is to upset a big team in the quarter-finals.
In my opinion, there are two teams at this tournament with the potential for the “big bang”: Germany and Switzerland.
Switzerland is probably closer to the semi-finals. That’s because Ralph Krueger has changed his team’s preparation for this year’s tournament for the first time since 1998. “Our preparation for the first games has just been ordinary this year. No special motivations, just daily business. So we hope we can bring in that extra motivation in the second half of the tournament for the quarter-finals.”
But can you really plan the “big bang”? Prepare a team for the “big bang”? No, I don’t think so. Because if you could, it wouldn’t be a “big bang” anymore.
Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.