10 things we learned from Riga
by Lucas Aykroyd|18 JUN 2021
Team Canada overcame its worst start in tournament history to win gold at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
From the pandemic bubble to the varied rosters, the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was arguably the most unusual in hockey history. But as usual, we’ve identified 10 important lessons from the tournament, which Latvia hosted for the second time.

1) Never count Canada out

Hollywood would have rejected this script as implausible. Canada lost its first three Worlds games for the first time ever, falling 2-0 to Latvia, 5-1 to the U.S., and 3-1 to Germany. Coach Gerard Gallant’s unheralded squad then started winning, but still needed Germany and Latvia to complete their last group stage game in regulation just to make the playoffs.

The Canadians defied the odds by beating the ROC team 2-1 in overtime in the quarter-finals, the U.S. 4-2 in the semi-finals, and defending champion Finland 3-2 in overtime in the gold medal game. Tournament MVP Andrew Mangiapane, scoring leader Connor Brown, and captain Adam Henrique sparked this miraculous comeback in Canada’s first title run since 2016.

2) Finland’s formula is almost perfect

Despite featuring 14 newcomers and just eight returnees from 2019, coach Jukka Jalonen’s team almost mirrored the Bratislava title-winners.

Leading scorer Anton Lundell was, like Kaapo Kakko, a teen who recorded seven points. The workmanlike Finnish defence, this time headlined by Olli Maatta, helped limit opponents to just 14 goals. And starter Jussi Olkinuora, like Kevin Lankinen, provided world-class goaltending. However, the relentlessly disciplined Finns, who never lost in regulation, fell just one goal short of repeating as champs for the first time ever. They’ll be back.

3) America’s drought defies explanation

Where Patrick Kane, Jack Eichel, and Johnny Gaudreau couldn’t succeed in 2019, this year’s less-renowned U.S. team nearly did. Driven by a creative, productive top line with Jason Robertson, Trevor Moore, and Conor Garland, plus Cal Petersen’s heroics in net, the Americans authored a seven-game winning streak after a 2-1 opening loss to Finland. Their final 35-14 goal difference was the tournament’s best.

Still, the U.S.’s semi-final loss to Canada was their tenth since the IIHF adopted the playoff system in 1992 – with zero wins. Topping Germany for bronze provided consolation, but it’s baffling that the nation that supplies more than 25 percent of NHLers hasn’t won the Worlds since 1933.

4) Germans know how to sacrifice

When Moritz Seider and Korbinian Holzer both cracked the 2021 tournament all-star team, it marked the first time both all-star D-men have been Germans. That said, coach Toni Soderholm’s entire team committed to tight defence. Gritty forwards like Tom Kuhnhackl and Nicolas Krammer blocked shots no matter how painful it got.

As the Germans’ scoring steadily declined after the opening 9-4 romp over Italy, their willingness to play hard to the end in tight games proved critical, especially in their 3-2 quarter-final shootout win over archrival Switzerland. It portends more final-four appearances.

5) Upsets are a way of life now

The first three days in Riga saw underdogs defeating top nations for the first time ever. On Day One, Matiss Kivlenieks earned a 38-save shutout when Latvia shocked Canada 2-0. Nicklas Jensen’s hat trick helped Denmark edge Sweden 4-3 on Day Two. German Nesterov scored the third-period winner in Belarus’s 1-0 upset of Sweden on Day Three.

Later, Liam Kirk – who’d tie Mangiapane for the goals lead (seven) – scored twice as Great Britain defeated Belarus 4-3 for its first regulation-time Worlds win since 1962. It all illustrated the increasing parity in international hockey.

6) Russians remain risky to rely on

Soviet hockey legends like Vyacheslav Fetisov and Vyacheslav Anisin predicted the ROC team would eliminate the lightly regarded Canadians en route to gold. Instead, the Russian title drought stretched to seven years.

The KHL-heavy Russians had topped Group A with 17 points. Yet they suffered their first quarter-final disaster of this decade, evoking bleak memories of the 2013 and 2018 Worlds and 2010 and 2014 Olympics. Too often, Russian talent has succumbed to opposition tactics and discipline.

7) Sweden’s depth isn’t endless

If Sweden’s 5-4 quarter-final OT loss to Finland in 2019 was shocking, missing the quarter-finals in 2021 for the first time in history was a nightmare. Tre Kronor’s ninth-place finish was its worst in 84 years. Swedish media lobbied to have rookie head coach Johan Garpenlov fired.

Yet realistically, Garpenlov lacked the superstars, like the Sedin twins and Victor Hedman, who led the Swedes to their last three titles (2013, 2017, 2018). When no Swede finishes in the top 30 scorers, it shows this traditional medal contender has to ice a deeper roster to compete.

8) Czechs, Slovaks not quite there yet

On 20 May 2012, Adele won 12 awards at the Billboard Music Awards for 21, an album full of sad songs. That same day, Slovakia settled for the silver medal with a 6-2 final loss to Russia, while the Czechs nipped host Finland 3-2 for bronze.

Neither part of the former Czechoslovakia has medaled since then. 2021 looked promising. The Czechs logged five straight wins after a tough start, while Slovakia, which upset the Russians 3-1, cracked its first quarter-final since 2013. Yet both nations failed to advance, and will continue to sing sad songs until they consistently produce more young talent.

9) Leaning on imports is hit or miss

Kazakhstan exceeded expectations in Riga, edging Latvia and Finland in shootouts and finishing tenth. Naturalized players like defencemen Darren Dietz, who led these Worlds with 26:16 of ice time per game, and Viktor Svedberg, who had four points, played a huge role.

Conversely, Belarus stumbled to fifteenth place, and coach Mikhail Zakharov criticized the preparations of his imports, such as forwards Geoff Platt and Shane Prince. It highlighted the challenges of building cohesive lower-echelon rosters, especially in a season disrupted by COVID-19.

10) Hosting is hard but rewarding

Latvia, though disappointed to finish eleventh on home ice, deserves huge congratulations for pulling off a safe, successful Worlds – with no positive COVID-19 tests – in a bubble. The host nation’s patience was rewarded when fans were allowed in the stands at the end. The global hockey family is eager to reunite fully at the 2022 Worlds in Tampere and Helsinki.