11 long-awaited returns
by Lucas Aykroyd|17 MAY 2019
History for Hungary in 2008: Krisztian Palkovics and the late Gabor Ocskay celebrate a goal in the deciding game against Ukraine that lifted Hungary to its first top-level World Championship participation in 70 years.
photo: Seinosuke Uchigasaki
Prior to 2019, the last time Great Britain played at an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was back in 1994. The British lost their final game 5-2 to Norway on 6 May, the same day the “Chunnel” connecting England and France opened. That was a long time ago.

However, Great Britain is far from the only IIHF member country that’s endured a long wait before returning to the top division. Let’s take a look back at 11 long-awaited returns at this tournament and how they played out.

1) Austria
The Long Wait: 1957-1993 (46 Years)

After finishing seventh in Moscow in 1957 under coach Udo Hohlfeld, the Austrians floundered for decades in the old B Pool and C Pool. When they re-emerged in the top division in Munich in 1993, however, things went better. Featuring plenty of expat Canadians, plus 18-year-old rookie Dieter Kalt, they only eked out one group stage point, tying Italy 1-1. Yet a 6-2 relegation round win over Norway paved the way for Austria to stay up for four years in a row under coach Ken Tyler.

2) Denmark
The Long Wait: 1949-2003 (54 Years)

Every Danish hockey fan is sick of hearing about how Canada annihilated their national team 47-0 at the 1949 Worlds in Stockholm. But every Danish hockey fan loves to relive their triumphant return in 2003 in Finland. A shocking 5-2 win over the U.S. to open the tournament on 26 April proved the Danes were serious. Backstopped by goalie Peter Hirsch, they also tied eventual champion Canada 2-2 on 2 May. Denmark finished 11th and has never been relegated since then.

3) France
The Long Wait: 1950-1992 (42 Years)

Like many nations whose fortunes improve when they’re hosting an Olympics, France went from finishing sixth at the Albertville Winter Games to participating in the Worlds in Prague and Bratislava just two months later. Under head coach Kjell Larsson, they managed to stay afloat despite losing five straight round-robin games. Philippe Bozon, the first French-trained NHL skater with St. Louis and the current national team coach, played on that roster.  A 3-1 relegation win over Poland gave the French 11th place in the 12-team tournament. Les Bleues wouldn’t go down again until the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg.

4) Italy
The Long Wait: 1959-1982 (23 Years)

If an underdog wants to get some attention, one way to do it is to pull off a stunning 3-3 tie with a powerhouse Canadian team featuring Wayne Gretzky, Dale Hawerchuk, Mike Gartner and other future Hockey Hall of Famers. That was the highlight of Italy’s 1982 return to the top division. Montreal-born goalie Jim Corsi made 55 stops in front of 4,178 fans in Tampere. Coached by Dave Chambers, another Canadian who also worked with the Quebec Nordiques and multiple Swiss clubs, the Italians finished seventh. However, they would get demoted again in 1983. 

5) Japan
The Long Wait: 1957-1998 (41 Years)

1998 was a landmark year for hockey in Asia. Not only did Nagano host the inaugural “NHL Olympics” with the Czechs winning gold with Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr, but the IIHF also instituted the Far East Qualifier program. Under this system, which ran from 1998 to 2004, a spot was reserved every year at the Worlds for the winner of a tourney between Japan, China and Korea. The Japanese qualified annually, but they went winless in their debut in Basel, Switzerland.

6) Latvia
The Long Wait: 1939-1997 (58 Years)

For decades, Latvian hockey stayed under the radar, since the small Baltic country was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Three-time world champion Helmut Balderis, for instance, was nicknamed “Elektrichka” for his electric train-like speed in the 1970s and early 1980s, but had to wear the CCCP crest in IIHF competition. However, Latvia generated enormous excitement when it qualified for the 1997 Worlds in Finland, being back as an independent country. Ties against Canada (3-3) and Sweden (1-1) showed no one could trifle with this team with NHL veteran Arturs Irbe in net. The Latvians, who also featured such late greats as Sergejs Zoltoks and Karlis Skrastins, finished seventh. Although they’ve never been relegated, that remains their highest placement (equalled in 2004 and 2009).

7) The Netherlands
The Long Wait: 1950-1981 (31 Years)

After the Soviets hammered the Netherlands 10-1 in their opener at the 1981 Worlds in Sweden, the Dutch delivered some punishment in their second game. Canadian-born defenceman Rick Van Gog laid a huge hit on Montreal Canadiens superstar Guy Lafleur, who was playing his first shift ever at the IIHF World Championship. In a 2013 IIHF.com interview, Lafleur recalled with a laugh: “That first shift, bang! I was playing with Lucien DeBlois. Blind pass. It was a good hit. It’s the best one I took in my career!” Although the three-time Art Ross Trophy winner was regrettably knocked out of the tournament, the Netherlands didn’t win a single game. Outscored 69-24 in 1981, the Dutch have never returned to the world’s elite.

8) Norway
The Long Wait: 1965-1990 (25 Years)

It’s hard to believe that a nation currently sitting ninth in the IIHF World Ranking once went a quarter-century without playing in the top division. Yet with limited players, funding, and media interest, the Norwegians struggled to move up. It was under Canadian coach George Kingston that their comeback came in Berne and Fribourg, Switzerland in 1990. The lone happy note for the unheralded squad was a 7-3 round-robin win over West Germany. Unfortunately, the West Germans took their revenge in the relegation round with a 4-0 blanking, and the Norwegians had to go down again before their next top-division run from 1992 to 1997.

9) Hungary
The Long Wait: 1939-2009 (70 Years)

For hockey historians, Sapporo, Japan is best-known as the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. However, Hungarian fans fondly remember it as the place where their Mighty Magyars earned promotion to the top division for the first time in 70 years. They had last finished seventh in Zurich and Basel in 1939. On 19 April 2008, the Hungarians defeated Ukraine 4-2 in Sapporo, clinching their promotion with a stellar performance from goalie Levente Szuper. The party was on! At the Worlds in Berne and Zurich-Kloten in 2009, the Hungarians had a tough go, finishing 16th and last under head coach Pat Cortina (who did not only lead the men to the top division in 2008 but achieved the same with the women’s team this year). Yet they would battle back for another Worlds cameo in Moscow in 2016.

10) Romania
The Long Wait: 1947-1977 (30 Years)

If you’re a fan of the movie 2004 Miracle, you might recall a reporter asking coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell): “Herb, now that Norway is behind you, what do you look for out of Romania?” Brooks replies: “It should be a tough test. We’re sure not gonna overlook them.” With that said, despite this quick snapshot from the fictionalized retelling of the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” gold medal run at the Lake Placid Olympics, many people have forgotten that Romania also re-emerged at the 1977 IIHF World Championship in Vienna. That tournament was mostly noted for the return of Canada to IIHF competition with NHL players. The little-known Romanians had a tough and brief stay. The nadir was losing 18-1 to the Soviets. Romania was relegated with an 84-20 goal difference, and has never gotten back up.

11) Switzerland
The Long Wait: 1972-1987 (15 Years)

With two silver medals (2013, 2018) this decade, Switzerland at worst nowadays is a top-10 contender. However, long before young snipers like Nico Hischier and Kevin Fiala were born, the Swiss were a B-Pool afterthought for most of the 1970s and 1980s. They showed they weren’t quite ready for prime time at the 1987 Worlds in Vienna. They did score five goals on Day One versus the ever-powerful Soviets, who were destined for silver behind Sweden. The bad news was that Switzerland lost 13-5. With players including future 10-time World Junior head coach Jakob Kolliker, the Swiss dropped 10 straight games and wouldn’t make the top-level Worlds again until 1991.