Looking for number 8
by Andrew Podnieks|25 MAY 2021
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
Latvia beats Canada for the first time ever, at any level. Denmark beats Sweden for the first time ever, at any level. Kazakhstan beats Finland for the first time ever, at any level.

And that’s just the start of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship!

Is there something in the water? Has the pandemic evened the playing field? Or are the smaller nations catching up?

Although the IIHF is a diverse organization with members across the globe, hockey was long dominated by the “Big 6.” 

Indeed, for a long period of time only Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, and United States have ever won gold at any IIHF event—Olympics, World Championships, World Juniors, U18. There was one exception. In 1936, Great Britain won gold in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

That changed in 2002 when Slovakia won gold at the World Championship. The win heralded a new age, and to look back at Slovakia’s winning roster is to see many of the finest players in the world of that era—Miroslav Satan, Peter Bondra, Zigmund Palffy, Michal Handzus, Robert Petrovicky. And that roster doesn’t include Zdeno Chara, the late Pavol Demitra, and Marian Gaborik, among others.

The Slovaks won silver in 2012, and although they aren’t as dominant right now, they remain Team Number 7 among medallists in modern history. 

But now we seem to be entering a new age. We are in a time when several other “lesser” countries are rising, winning games against teams they once had no hope of beating. And they are doing so with speed and skill, skating and offence and energy--and confidence.

So, which of those teams will rise up and be Number 8? Germany? Denmark? Switzerland? 

Germany joined the IIHF in 1909 and has had moments of high-level success. It won Olympic bronze way back in 1932 and then in 1976 led by the legendary Erich Kuhnhackl, who tied for the tournament lead with three Soviets that year and who led the 1984 Olympics outright with 14 points.

Of course, their greatest success was also their most recent, when they took Olympic silver after being one minute away from gold before the Olympic Athletes from Russia tied the game late in regulation and won in overtime. 

Germany has the history, the population, the resources, and the infrastructure to be a power in hockey, and with an inspirational player like Leon Draisaitl, who is among the very best players in the world right now, it has the culture to create a dominant program that can’t just get to the World Championship but can think about a medal, and, dare we say, winning gold.

Switzerland was one of the IIHF’s founding members in 1908 and has competed at all levels of the game ever since. It was a nation that was among the best in Europe in the years before World War II and immediately after, winning two Olympic bronze and seven World Championship medals up to 1953. 

But from 1961 to 1997 it competed at the lower levels most of the time, not making a resurgence until 1998 under coach Ralph Krueger. The last quarter century has seen much mediocrity, but there have been incredible signs of progress and success in the last few years. 

The Swiss have played at the World Championship gold medal game twice in the last eight years, and in 2017 Nico Hischier became the first Swiss to be selected first overall at the NHL draft, a monumental moment in hockey history. Switzerland's National League is among the best and most popular leagues in Europe, and right now the odds are probably more with Switzerland than any other for a team outside the Big 7 to win a gold medal. 

Denmark is still an outlier, to be sure, but no country has made the progress the Danes have made in the last two decades. The Swiss have been ascendant, but always within the top pool during this time. The Danes, however, did what no other team has managed to do—earn promotion to the top level and stay there. 

There were some heart-pounding moments along the way—win or get demoted—but it feels as though Denmark is legitimately here to stay. They have a smaller population, and not as rich a talent pool from which to draw, but the game is growing at the grass-roots level, and the success of players like Frederik Andersen, Mikkel Boedker, Nikolaj Ehlers, Lars Eller, Nicklas Jensen and others will make the development of more players all the easier. World Championship gold? Perhaps not quite yet, but given their rise and the number of quality players they’ve developed with limited indoor rinks, a little push might take them a long way.

Denmark beat Sweden for the first time ever at the Worlds this past Sunday, but already the result doesn’t feel so surprising. The Swiss beat the Czechs, too. Ho hum, nothing “miracle” about it. The Germans can put together a world-class roster if they have every player available to them. 

Host Latvia as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, although not regularly among the quarter-final participants, had their fair share of upsets as well at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and are in playoff position in the standings right now.

Canada will still be Canada, and Sweden will always win and win, but there are new countries emerging the way Slovakia did in 2002. One day soon, there will be a Paul Henderson or Mike Eruzione or Miro Satan who will score a glorious goal, but he will be wearing the colours of a new nation, representing the flag of a long-established but rising national program.

“The Big 8” is just around the corner. We just don’t know what country or what corner yet.