Switzerland’s leap from 11th place at the 2012 IIHF World Championship to the silver medal this year marks one of the biggest improvements in recent tournament history. But the Swiss aren’t the only ones who have medaled the very next year after a sub-par performance.
Going back to the start of the new millennium, here are five memorable examples of top-16 nations that went directly from disgrace to delight.
The Team: Sweden
The Years: 2000 and 2001
The 2000 IIHF World Championship is mostly remembered for Russia’s shocking 11th-place finish on home ice in St. Petersburg despite a roster starring Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin, and Sergei Gonchar. But it was nearly as bad for Sweden. Tre Kronor went winless in its last four games, including a 2-1 quarter-final loss to archrival Finland.
The Swedes finished seventh – their worst result since coming ninth in 1937.
But in 2001, the Swedes bounced back. They defeated the Americans 3-2 in the bronze medal game, with Andreas Johansson tallying the winner with under four minutes to go. Third place wasn’t the perfect result for a squad featuring a top line with Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin, and Fredrik Modin, but it was still nice to end on a winning note.
The Team: United States
The Years: 2003 and 2004
In 2003, the United States simply didn’t ice a team of its usual caliber. Only 12 of the players were NHLers. Even with the talent of a 22-year-old Ryan Miller in goal and the experience of a 39-year-old Phil Housley on defence, this squad was destined for the Relegation Round. It finished 13th in Finland.
The Czech Republic was a much friendlier setting for the Stars and Stripes in 2004. Under head coach Peter Laviolette, the Americans turned out to be shootout superstars in the elimination games.
Defenceman Andy Roach stunned the host Czechs with his spectacular 3-2 shootout winner in the quarter-final. Roach also shone in the bronze medal game shootout as the U.S. beat Slovakia 1-0. Goalie Ty Conklin was named to the tournament all-star team.
The Team: Russia
The Years: 2004 and 2005
With eight World Championship gold medals for the Soviet Union between 1978 and 1990, Viktor Tikhonov is one of the most successful coaches in tournament history. However, his winning percentage took a beating when he made a comeback behind the bench at the 2004 Worlds at age 73.
Russia stumbled to a 10th-place finish, losing to Sweden, Slovakia, the U.S., and Finland. “It takes time to gel, and we did not have that time,” Tikhonov said afterwards. “First of all, it’s the mistakes of the players [that led to us being eliminated]. Second, the lack of time.”
Things went better under coach Vladimir Krikunov the following year in Austria. Playing a much tighter defensive style, the Russians would crack the podium for the first time since 2002. A three-point effort by a pre-NHL Alexander Ovechkin lifted Russia to a 6-3 victory over Sweden in the bronze medal game.
The Team: Germany
The Years: 2009 and 2010
It was lucky for the Germans that they were guaranteed a spot at the 2010 IIHF World Championship as the host nation. Otherwise, they’d have been relegated after finishing fifteenth in 2009. Head coach Uwe Krupp had to go back to the drawing board after that debacle in Switzerland, which featured just one win over newly promoted Hungary in the Relegation Round.
But it was a totally different German team that showed up in 2010. Demonstrating unbelievable work ethic and discipline, they set the tone with a 2-1 overtime win to open the tournament against the United States in front of a world-record crowd of 77,803 at Gelsenkirchen’s Veltins Arena.
A 1-0 quarter-final win over Switzerland and a 2-1 loss to the Russians put these underdogs into the bronze medal game. Even though Germany lost 3-1 to Sweden, its fourth-place finish was beyond what anyone had dreamed before the tournament.
The Team: Slovakia
The Years: 2011 and 2012
Finishing 10th on home ice in Bratislava was tremendously disappointing for Slovakia in 2011. The sadness was compounded when Slovak captain Pavol Demitra passed away in the tragic September plane clash that wiped out the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
However, the Slovaks would rebound strongly at the 2012 IIHF World Championship. They needed a 5-4 win over France to squeak into the quarter-finals. Surprise wins over Canada (4-3) and the Czechs (3-1) gave them a berth in the gold medal game. Even though they couldn’t stymie Russian superstars like tournament MVP Yevgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, and Alexander Syomin in a 6-2 loss, they had nothing to be ashamed of.
“We were disappointed to lose the game, but not in how we finished the tournament,” said Slovak captain Zdeno Chara. “It’s a privilege to play in the final and I tried to tell the guys to enjoy the moment. You never know when you get a chance to do that again.”