Lindner, during a Zoom interview alongside Austrian teammate Marco Rossi, head coach Roger Bader and assistant coach Philipp Lukas, was asked what the goal is for Austria as it enters its first world juniors in over a decade. The last time Austria competed with the best was in 2010 in Saskatoon.
“We want to play our best and then everybody should know... Austria is not where the kangaroos are at,” says Lindner. “That’s the biggest thing I want to achieve. I want to know that people know where Austria is. They don’t mess it up with Australia. I want the people to know, Austria is where Vienna is at and we can play hockey.”
There’s no doubt the Austrians can play hockey, having earned a berth in the 2021 World Juniors thanks to its win a year ago at the Division I Group A tournament. Austria will be in tough this year in Group B alongside World Junior heavyweights Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
But just getting here is a massive accomplishment for Austria, the Central European country that has qualified for the top under-20 tournament just four times, including this year. The first Austrian U20 team in 1979 competed in Pool B, finishing 13th overall. In 1981, Austria played in the top division and finished eighth and didn’t qualify again until 2004, when Austria finished in ninth place. That year, Austria, which has never won a game in the top division, earned a tie versus Ukraine.
Austria’s only other appearance was a 10th-place finish at the 2010 event.
“We are very aware that this doesn’t happen every year,” says Lukas, the assistant coach who played for Austria’s national team at six IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. “So we’re very proud of what we have achieved as a country. I’m very proud of the group and what they have done last year to give us this opportunity and to have this experience this year in Edmonton. This is a big deal for us – for the players as well for us coaches – to see the best of the best at this age, go at it and measure ourselves with them and see where we’re at. That’s huge for us.”
Austria is no hockey slouch. The country has produced NHLers Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl.
The current under-20 team includes Rossi, a forward who played two years for the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League and was selected ninth overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild. Rossi had 65 points in his OHL rookie campaign in 2018/19 and then exploded for 120 points in just 56 games with the 67s in 2019/20 which gave Rossi the league scoring title.
His 120 points put him ahead of such players like Team Canada stars Cole Perfetti, Connor McMichael and Jack Quinn. This season he played professional hockey in Switzerland with the ZSC Lions Zurich.
Lindner, a defenceman, is another player used to North American hockey, as he spent the 2019/20 season as a member of the Boston Junior Bruins of the National Collegiate Development Conference.
“The first year was completely different for me with the lifestyle, the culture, with the ice surface being different. It’s not very easy,” says Rossi. “The first few games were different with the smaller ice. You have less time. It’s different compared to Austria and the European ice surface.
But I got used to that and then I had a really good season that first year. And then coming into my second season, I just knew how the hockey was in Canada and I just knew what to expect. I just played my game and I had a really good season.”
Both Rossi and Lindner say they didn’t know much about the world juniors as kids in Austria. The last time their country played in the event, both players were eight years old. Lindner says he started to learn more of the event as a teenager.
“As soon as I was 16 or 17, I went to national team camps, I kind of saw it and I kept on following it just to see the highlights and clips from final games,” he says. “But I didn’t really follow it through the years because, in Austria, it’s not that big. We don’t have any television program that’s showing it. It’s hard to follow it.”
This will certainly change as Austrian state broadcaster ORF will show all games from the team.
This year’s Austrian team could help grow the under-20 tournament back home and instill motivation in the country’s up-and-coming hockey players. Head coach Bader says media are paying more attention to the team, with one of Austria’s recent practices even being shown live on TV, something he says has never happened before.
“Many sports people and especially ice hockey people will follow us,” says Bader. “As Luis said, we want to surprise. We want, at the end of the tournament, everybody to say we did not expect that Austria is that good. If we can reach that, we will be very happy.”
Austria played its only exhibition game against neighbouring rival Switzerland losing 3-2 and will start the tournament on 26 December against the United States. The U.S. won Tuesday’s other exhibition game against Finland 3-2.