Given that there are 16 teams in the top level of the World Championship it is impossible for every nation to dream of gold. Indeed, since the tournament began annually in 1930, only seven teams have won that cherished medal.
More incredible, three of those teams have won only once. The United States won its only World gold way back in 1933; the Finns were victorious only in 1995; and, the Slovaks won in 2002. Taking out these exceptions, all other gold medals have been won by four countries: Canada, Soviet Union/Russia, Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, and Sweden.
As a result, these are the four countries that come to Switzerland with golden expectations, but even within this quartet ambitions are different. Canada comes to every tournament expecting gold, and this year is no exception. Canada has appeared in five of the last six gold-medal games, so these expectations are justified.
The same can be said for Russia, although its lineup isn’t quite as strong as last year’s which beat Canada in overtime of the finals. Still, coach Vyacheslav Bykov isn’t thinking about the quarterfinals or capturing bronze.
The Czechs won gold in 2005 and silver a year later, but they’ve gone without a medal the last two years. Given their history, though, they also think gold first and anything else later.
Believe it or not, Sweden has been in the semi-finals more often since 1992 when the IIHF went to a playoff elimination format than any other country. In 19 tournaments they have made it to the final four an incredible 15 times. Canada has made it 13, the Czechs 12, and Russia only 7. This year, however, Sweden has a decidedly underdog role, and to add to its semi-finals appearances here in 2009 would be impressive, indeed.
Then there are the other 12 nations. Pat Cortina, Hungary’s coach, was simple and honest after his team’s heart-breaking 4-3 loss to the Slovaks on Friday night, admitting his team’s only goal was to stay in the top division. The loss, he noted, wasn’t so bad because the team was only -1 in goal differential, perhaps a vital deciding factor in which teams get relegated.
France, Austria, and Norway, while more successful than Hungary, are in the same boat. They will be fighting to remain in the top pool, and they all know this means beating one opponent in the Preliminary Round or beating at least one in the Relegation Round. Denmark has been the most nervous team since it returned to the top pool in 2003. It has remained here ever since, but its place is never assured. Every year is a fight, and every year produces a nail-biting performance. But the truth is that of these five nations, two are likely to be demoted and three will remain. To be among the three staying is each team’s primary goal.
Then there are the lower-middle teams which include Belarus, Latvia, and Germany. Germany and Belarus have both experienced the pain of demotion in the past, and Latvia has survived a couple of scares in the last decade. These teams are looking to improve their performance and position. There is little chance they can win a medal, and they are not likely to be demoted, but they want to show progress in their program and development of young players.
Slovakia’s goals have become more modest since winning gold in 2002. Many of the great players from that team have retired or gotten too old to make the team any more, but the team came precariously close to demotion last year and a new generation of stars has yet to establish themselves. Slovakia has tremendous pride, but it isn’t thinking of gold so much as re-establishing itself among the elite nations.
And then there are the three conundrum teams—United States, Finland, and Switzerland. The Americans seem tantalizingly close to doing something big, but every year they have a problem game at a bad time and their fate is sealed. They have won only two medals in the last 46 years — bronze in 2004 and bronze previously in 1996. The talent is there, but the timely scoring, the big-game play, and the pressure performance have not been. Again this year the team has the ability to win a medal and must certainly believe it can — but it has to go out and do it.
Finland is another country in the shadows of greatness. Since 1992 it has won ten medals, but only the one gold, yet time and again it has failed to win the big game. The nation seems to suffer a psychological intimidation playing Canada, Russia, and Sweden, but this year like any other Suomi can win gold… or settle for bronze.
And what to make of host Switzerland? The cynics say coach Ralph Krueger is the King of Mediocrity, but the supporters point to the terrible record of the team before he took over in 1998. Still, the fact remains that the last medal La Suisse won was a bronze in 1953 (when there were only three competing teams). Switzerland is a perennial 8th place team, almost always making it to the quarterfinal round and never beyond (except in Krueger’s first season when the Swiss lost the bronze medal game to the Czechs, 4-0). Again, the critics say on home ice the team had better win at least one playoff game while those in favour of the status quo point to the superiority of the big six teams, especially in big games.
And so a 16-team tournament is under way with pretty much as many different mindsets and expectations. There are only three medals up for grabs, but those two demotion placings are haunting for certain of the teams. The World Championship is big and complex, 56 games of positioning and strategizing based on those expectations.