HELSINKI – As we get ready for the playoff elimination round, here are ten bite-sized stories to shed light on various aspects of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and its participants.
Swiss referee Danny Kurmann has now held the whistle for more World Championship games than anyone. The Germany-Denmark game on May 12 in Stockholm was his 61st, surpassing Swede Olle Wiking for all-time honours. Vladimir Sindler had 58 and Andre Poplimont 55. Kurmann did one other game after and could call another game during the final round. The closest active refs to Kurmann are Richard Schütz (GER) and Brent Reiber (SUI/CAN) with 55 and 44 games, respectively, prior to 2012. Oddly, the only gold-medal games Kurmann has done were in 1999 when it was a best-of-two format. He handled both.
Grandpa alive and kicking
There are seven players born before December 31, 1974, playing in 2012. One, goalie Andrei Mezin of Belarus, has left his team. One other is also goalie, Fabrice Lhenry of France. That leaves five skaters. Why is that date important? Because that’s the date the IIHF uses as its grandfather clause for visors. The rulebook states:
224 - PLAYER’S FACEMASK AND VISOR
a) It is recommended that all players shall wear a full-facemask or a visor.
b) Male players born after December 31, 1974 shall wear, as a minimum, a visor.
Only one player does NOT follow the recommendation set down in 224 (a) and that is Alexei Troshinki of Kazakhstan. He is the only bare-faced player left because he was born on October 9, 1973, and chooses not to wear a visor. The other pre-74s do – Petr Nedved (CZE), Rodrigo Lavins (LAT), Miroslav Satan (SVK), and Daniel Alfredsson (SWE).
Incredibly, half of the teams at this year’s World Championship are coached by non-nationals. Leading the way is Canada, which not only has a Canadian for its own country (Brent Sutter) but is providing its services to Switzerland (Sean Simpson), Latvia (Ted Nolan), Italy (Rick Cornacchia), and France (David Henderson). There is a Finn coaching Belarus (Kari Heikkilä), a Swede coaching Denmark (Per Bäckman), a Swiss coaching Germany (Jakob Kölliker), and a Czech coaching the Slovaks (Vladimir Vujtek).
There are 41 players this year born in the 1990s, but no team has more than Canada, with 7. Sweden has six, while the United States and Latvia have four. Germany is the only team without even one 1990s-born player. Of this group, only three are 1993 born, the youngest in the tournament. Canada’s Ryan Murray is the baby of the bunch, born September 27. Next is Jonas Brodin of Sweden (July 12) and lastly Canadian Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (born April 12).
The Americans were having a decent tournament until Sunday, when they shocked the host Finns, 5-0, and got everyone’s attention and can now be considered medal contenders. This isn't very often a successful tournament for the country because it rarely attracts enough of its top players, but this year is different because, if nothing else, it has a world-class goalie in Jimmy Howard. The U.S. won bronze when it hosted for the only and only time exactly half a century ago, and since then has won only two other bronzes, in 1996 and 2004. But history is funny and can be deceiving. Let’s go back to the semi-finals in 2009. Canada beat Sweden 3-1 in one semi-final to advance to the gold-medal game, but in the other it was Russia versus the Americans. The game was tied 2-2 after two periods, and in the third both teams had two power plays. Konstantin Gorovikov scored on one of those with just 1:47 left in regulation to give the Russians the win, and then Sweden beat the U.S. to take bronze. But for one break, it might have been an all-North American final, and that has happened only once before. In 1933, the U.S. beat Canada, 2-1, to win its one and only gold.
Who is to Finland what Borje Salming is to Sweden? That is, who is the pioneer, the first Finnish player to leave his mark in North America? Of course, the easy answers are Esa Tikkanen and Jari Kurri, both stars. Kurri is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and well remembered as a scorer and linemate of Wayne Gretzky. But there are three other players that preceded this pair that might qualify, to a lesser extent perhaps. Matti Hagman played four years in the NHL, starting with Boston in 1976, and he had back-to-back 20-goal seasons with Gretzky and Kurri in Edmonton, 1980-81 and 81-82. Pekka Rautakallio started with Phoenix in the WHA a year earlier (1975-77) and later played for Calgary, the Oilers’ adversary, the same two years as Hagman in Edmonton. And Heikki Riihiranta started even earlier, in 1974 with the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA, alongside several other Europeans, notably Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Veli-Pekka Ketola (another Finnish legend), and Lars-Erik Sjoberg.
Finland has hosted the World Championship six times – in 1965, 1974, 1982, 1991, 1997, and 2003 – but the team has never performed particularly well at home. In 1965, its first time hosting, the team finished a disappointing seventh, winning only one game. Nine years later, it finished fourth with a 4-2-4 record. In 1982 and 1991, the team finished fifth. Ditto for 1997 and 2003. The pressure and expectations have historically been, perhaps, too great. Not coincidentally, the Finns have won two World Championship gold, last year in Slovakia and in 1995 in Sweden. And both times against the Swedes, their geographic, and psychological, rivals.
As the IIHF assesses the new format in place this year, there are definitely pros (knowing all game and opponents through the round robin) and cons (longer schedule). But one fact that is more fair is the elimination of carry-over results from the Preliminary Round to the Qualification Round. Last year, an early loss would count a second time in the Qualification Round, but this year a win is ONE win and a loss ONE loss.
The leading scorers in the last two World Championships have an expected name – and a very surprising name. Canada’s John Tavares has 18 points (9 from last year, 9 so far this year), but as one of the bright young stars of the NHL, this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. But tied with him is Per-Åge Skrøder of Norway, who had eleven points in 2011 to go with 7 so far this year (and he had only two assists in the team’s 12-4 drubbing of Germany on Sunday night). Go figure.
Up and down
Kazakhstan is demoted in Helsinki, and Italy in the Stockholm group. For 2013, Austria and Slovenia have been promoted. Austria is an “inbetween” country, not quite strong enough for the top division but better than Division I. Consider in the last decade the team has gone up and down every year, never staying up two years consecutively, never staying down two years. Slovenia is also in a tough spot. It relies heavily on Anze Kopitar, but it looks like his NHL team, the Los Angeles Kings, trying to get to the Cup finals right now, will be a playoff contender for a few years yet, meaning he might not get to play for his country at the top level any time soon.