TILBURG – The Netherlands is traditionally known for tulips, windmills and cheese. More recently its sports fans with orange outfits dominate football and speed skate arenas. With the 2010 IIHF World Championship, Division I Group A in Tilburg, will the world see the next orange revolution?
Ice hockey and the Netherlands are not a well known combination. Nevertheless, the Dutch have been a member of the IIHF for 75 years and they were at the 1980 Olympics with its ‘Miracle on Ice’.
Like many nations below the upper echelon of international hockey, the Netherlands have had their share of ups and downs. From time to time, the country had a team at the A-pool between the late ‘30s and the ‘50s. A few years later, the sport almost died when rinks were closed in Amsterdam and Tilburg. It got back on its feet thanks to new speed skating rinks that were built with hockey rinks. The 60s also saw sponsors step into hockey and it didn’t take long before import players arrived. In the beginning, those imports were mainly Canadians or Czech soldiers stationed across the border in Germany.
One source for new players, and still used today, is to scour Canadian phone books to find Dutch names and ask if anyone in the family plays hockey. During the second world war, thousands of families left the Netherlands for Canada. Dutch hockey fans still dream of the next Jay Bouwmeester, Eric Staal or James van Riemsdyk to suit up in the orange jersey.
In the 70s the domestic league and its tickets were a hot property. It was inevitable that the national team would also improve from the strong league.
The highlight of Dutch hockey came in 1980 and 1981. The team went from the C-pool in 1979 to winning the B-pool in 1980and with that an automatic ticket to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. The vast majority of the team was Dutch-Canadian. They finished ninth of twelve teams and were the lone country other than Canada and the USA to score four times against the Soviet Union. Of course, this is put into perspective knowing that the Soviets scored 17 goals.
The fairytale of going from the C-pool to the A-pool and the Olympics lasted exactly three years. 1981 was the last time the Netherlands were among the elite and they made sure they wouldn’t be forgotten quickly. Their physical North American type of game sent Canadian super star Guy LaFleur flying literally over the ice. Rick van Gog’s hit on his debut sent a shock through Canada and made the newspapers globally.
The last three decades the Dutch have been mainly active in Division I with an occasional one year stint one level below. Their steadiness warrants their 24th position on the IIHF World Ranking. The last time they made noise were a silver medal in 1992 and two bronze medals in 2004 and 2005.
Since the new tournament setup was established ten years ago, the Netherlands are the only team, together with Great Britain, to play in all editions. The 2010 World Championship, Division I marks the third time in the last decade it is being hosted in the Netherlands.
After finishing fifth the last three years, the team is eager to improve on home ice. Former national team player (162 games) Tom Hartogs is the head coach and his team played five exhibition games in the build-up to the tournament but found itself on the losing end against Romania and Great Britain twice and most recently against top-division team France.
“It’s very sad that we couldn’t win a single game but the preparation schedule was good," said Hartogs. "We have trouble scoring and it showed in the games. A direct result of this is that it does hurt the confidence of the players a little at this moment.”
In Tilburg, the hosts will face stiff competition from Austria, Ukraine, Japan, Lithuania and Serbia. “Austria and Ukraine are A-level teams or will soon be playing there,” Hartogs thinks. “We haven’t played Japan for quite some time so I’m not too sure what to expect from them. Games against Lithuania have always been close and exciting in the past.”
Based on the results the last few seasons, the game against lowest-seeded Serbia will be a must-win game. Hartogs knows the importance of a win. “The last few months we’ve been stating that we want to improve from last year’s position so yes, that game is one we must win to achieve our goal.”
Hartogs was once a dominant player at Division I level, but realizes several countries have leapfrogged the Netherlands, for example Denmark. “All countries in general have improved, but some countries have made bigger strides than us. A decade ago we had players like Dave Livingston and myself who played for the national team for many years. The current squad is talented but young. We lacked a generation in between. Until they have experience, we have to survive on this level.”
Luckily for Hartogs, Mark Tanner (born in Canada) and Stanislav Nazarov (Russia) received a Dutch passport in time for the tournament meaning he can count on their experience on defence.
In last year’s championship, the Netherlands had six players younger then 23. This year that won’t be much different as the Dutch are looking to the future generation. This summer, a new project called CTO (centre for top sport and education) was started. Next to several other sports, 25 talented hockey players 15-18 years old moved to Eindhoven to combine sports with school. Eight practice sessions during the week followed by a game in the weekend is a new concept for Dutch hockey.
The federation, NIJB, hopes this initiative will provide a higher level of play in the future. Chairman Joop Vullers said, “we have four years to build the fundamentals and in six to seven years we expect to take advantage of it on national team level.” Vullers has publically announced his dreams of participating in the 2018 Olympics but remains realistic. “One shouldn’t be afraid to set high targets but if we can become a country that can play for the medals in the Division I and every now and then can promote to the elite level we’ve already done very well.”
Hist city Tilburg has recently built a complete new sports facility including ice rink next to the existing rink and a lot of players/coaches of the local team, the Tilburg Trappers, will meet each other in a different jersey during the tournament. The team’s head coach Mark Pederson has opted to coach Serbia, assisted by Mike Pellegrims while Trappers’ goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji might be between the pipes for Japan.
Ian Meierdres shared the goaltending duties with Fukufuji in Tilburg this season. The Tilburg native is obviously excited to play a championship at home. “As a kid I witnessed previous championships and thought the level was so high. Now I’m there myself even in my own city. That’s awesome. It brings some extra pressure to play in front of your own fans but I get a kick out of that.”
Tilburg forward and native Peter van Biezen is looking forward to play at home. “It’s a great feeling and gives me some confidence. We can sit in our own locker room and know the rink and the fans. It should give us more energy during the tournament.” Van Biezen is also clear about his ambitions. “We want to play for a medal otherwise we can just as well not participate.”
Hartogs also feels it is an advantage to play in Tilburg. “It’s a different feeling to play at home. Positive excitement is building and the media attention is growing. Playing at home in front of the home crowd should be giving us some stimulus though.”
The fans have responded as well. Several games are sold out, something that was never achieved in previous World Championships in the Netherlands. Don’t be surprised if there are goofy costumes and hats or dress bonnet-to-wooden shoe. If the youth project the federation has started up becomes successful the orange revolution could spread through rinks across the borders meaning the world will soon see Orange-clad fans in a nearby arena.
Thirty years ago, the Dutch team was different because the players didn’t speak Dutch. Currently their fans and coloured jersey make the difference. It seems to fit the country to go against the grain. They feel it’s time for revolution.