Ask the Experts, volume 1
by Andrew PODNIEKS|17 MAY 2024
Should Czechia host the Men's Worlds more often? That is one of the questions our expert panel discusses in the first round of Ask the Experts.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andrea Cardin
Okay, hockey fans, it’s that time of the tournament when writers gather ‘round a warm computer and chat a bit about what’s going on in Prague and Ostrava. Here’s what they’re talking about (“they” being Lucas Aykroyd, Chris Jurewicz, Andrew Podnieks, and Andy Potts).

Q: Massive crowds in Prague and Ostrava! The Czechs have most recently hosted the World Championship in 1992, 2004, and 2015, so about once a decade. Should they be hosting more frequently, or is this spacing about right?

Potts: I’ve fond memories of previous tournaments in Czechia, and it’s always a great place to watch hockey. But rather than going back more often, it might be better to see what other hosts can learn from the Czech experience. Clearly not everywhere can set up a secondary venue close to a border with two other competing nations. However, there could be worthwhile lessons about ticket pricing and packages, for example, or about making public transit available to gameday ticket holders.

Aykroyd: When a nation hosts a tournament too frequently, it becomes a case of diminishing returns. You want to maintain that sense of excitement and freshness. You also have to leave room for the other traditional powers to get their hosting slots and for emerging nations – Kazakhstan? Hungary? Great Britain? – to feel empowered to bid on the World Championship. So count me in for the status quo.

Jurewicz: You can debate this question ’til the cows come home, but we need only to look at recent World Junior Championships for clarity. There was a time when Canada thought it a good idea to host the World Juniors every couple of years, but even rabid Canadian hockey fans had their fill of the tournament. It’s about supply and demand – keep hockey fans wanting more but don’t give them too much or it could turn out like the World Juniors that saw a drop in demand in Canada. That said, Czechia in spring is a marvelous place and its hockey fans are coming out in droves and creating an atmosphere that is second to none. Maybe once a decade isn’t quite enough and one could argue that the Czechs would still support an IIHF Worlds every 7-8 years. But then, what country is being pushed out of the way to make room for additional tournaments in Czechia?

Podnieks: I’m leaning more firmly beyond Chris’s tentative suggestion but also suggest that if Canada can host the World Juniors every other year for two decades or more, the Czechs can have the Men’s Worlds every seven years. I don’t think seven years comes so quickly people are tired or over-saturated with the tournament, and as Andy points out, the Prague/Ostrava connection basically caters to a significant number of geographical “home” teams—Czechia, Slovakia, Germany, Poland. The problem with other countries hosting from the 9-16 World Ranking is that you can’t be sure they’ll be in the top pool in 5-7 years after they’ve been awarded the event.

Q: Many games to choose from, but who has scored the biggest (i.e., most important) goal so far?

Potts: At this stage, I’m leaning towards Nico Hischier’s winner for Switzerland over Austria. Potentially, that could have a big impact at both ends of the Group A standings.

Podnieks: I’m going with Roman Starchenko of Kazakhstan from 11 May against France. It was the first game of the tournament for both countries, and both are part of a small group of teams that might be capable of staying up but might also be vulnerable to demotion. France got an early goal, but before they could enjoy the lead Starchenko tied the game, sending Kazakhstan on its way to victory. The three points were huge, but that buffer in case head-to-head factors in is even more critical.

Aykroyd: Let me frame it this way. I interviewed Dylan Cozens after Canada won 7-6 in overtime to survive Austria’s unprecedented third-period rally. I first asked the Buffalo Sabres star: “What just happened out there?” Before Cozens could reply, Andrew Mangiapane chimed in as he walked past: “We won!” Point well taken. That’s why John Tavares’ goal 15 seconds into OT is the biggest we’ve seen so far. If the Toronto captain doesn’t score and the Austrians pull off the unthinkable victory, Canada’s tournament takes on the early stench of a fiasco. But because the defending champs did secure two points, the result becomes a quirky note for the historians, and perhaps also that some-adversity-is-good moment that championship teams build off. 

Jurewicz: This one is pretty easy for me. Slovakia and the United States played one of the most memorable games in the tournament so far. The Slovaks were ahead, 4-1, but the Americans came back to force overtime, peppering Slovak netminder Samuel Hlavaj with 41 shots along the way. But when it looked like the Slovaks were about to blow their chance at a victory, Milos Kelemen came up in the 3-on-3 overtime with a goal that sent the pro-Slovak crowd into a frenzy. Simon Nemec shot a knuckler from the point and Kelemen got a stick on it and tipped it past USA goaltender Trey Augustine. Not the flashiest goal but certainly the biggest.
That was a giant win (and extra point) for the Slovaks, who were tied with the United States in points coming into the game in the tight and crowded Group B standings. The goal may give Slovakia more belief as it looked to rebound from its disappointing ninth-place performance in 2023.
Q: The teams are starting to separate a bit into those heading to playoff contention and those trying to avoid relegation. For the latter, who are you most worried about?

Potts: Sad to say, it looks like the promoted teams are again finding life tough. We’ve heard brave words from both, and seen some battling performances, especially from the Poles. But it’s always a worry when you see teams playing at close to their maximum and still not picking up wins. Of the more established nations, Denmark looks a little short of its usual level and might have reason to be anxious ahead of Friday’s meeting with Great Britain.

Aykroyd: Denmark’s top-division streak dating back to 2003 could be in jeopardy. Losing 2-0 to Nordic rival Norway adds urgency to Friday’s game against Great Britain, as Denmark’s odds of taking points from either Switzerland or Finland are iffy. If the Austrians can buckle down defensively, their beating Norway on Sunday would further imperil the Danes.

Podnieks: The Brits just seem to be that little bit out of their depths. Poland hasn’t had the results but they’ve played decent hockey. That might not be enough. But in Group A, I don’t think GB can extricate themselves from the basement. But they pulled off a miracle in 2019, so who knows?

Jurewicz: Several teams are having a tough time scoring but topping that list is Great Britain. The Brits occupy last spot in Group A and, in three losses, have scored only two goals, both of which came in an opening-day 4-2 loss to Canada. That game was GB’s best result and gave its fans some hope, but the English went on to lose by 8-0 and 3-0 scores to Finland and Switzerland. To avoid relegation, Great Britain now faces an almost must-win on Friday against Denmark. 

Q: It's early, so your powers of observation (and blind luck) are critical here. What teams will be playing for gold, and what teams for bronze in a week and a half?

Podnieks: It’s rare one group is so stacked at the expense of the other, but Group B features Sweden as the clear favourite to finish first. The problem is that Group A is loaded, so Tre Kronor will have a QF matchup against one of Canada, Czechia, Finland, or Switzerland. In all, the Swedes might well have to beat three of those four teams to win gold. Tough, but given their lineup, doable. In fact, I see three Group A teams being the ones playing for medals next Sunday, along with Tre Kronor. I’ll say Canada-Sweden for gold and Switzerland-Czechia for bronze. Having said that, no one is expecting much form the Americans, which might well put them in an advantageous spot by the time next week rolls around.

Potts: Defences famously win championships, so it’s hard to look past Sweden. The Tre Kronor haven’t quite clicked at recent championships, but I’d be astonished if they leave here without medals. If Finland’s goal rush against GB was the reset it needed, rather than a case of flexing on an outsider, we could see a Nordic final. Up to now, Canada has allowed too many shots and too many goals against relatively weak opposition. That makes me reluctant to back them for anything beyond a bronze-medal game, probably against a Czech team riding a passionate home crowd to some hardware.
Aykroyd: Sweden has been every bit as good as advertised. Canada will most likely continue to improve. So let’s say a Sweden-Canada final for the first time since 2017. Bronze? The U.S.’s young guns versus Finland’s defensive wall.

Jurewicz: Not really going out on a limb with my first pick for the gold-medal game being Sweden. That defence is too good for the Swedes not to be there in the end. I can see a few possibilities for matchups, but let’s go with what would be fun. It says here the Czechs will return to the gold-medal game for the first time since 2010. Goaltending is huge, and Lukas Dostal is putting up fantastic numbers through his three games, with a 1.58 GAA and .923 save percentage. I also like the way the Czechs have spread out their scoring. Ten different players have scored goals and 18 Czechs have earned at least one point.  As for bronze, it would be fun to see the Latvians return to that game, but I don’t see that happening. It’ll be Canada versus Finland for bronze. Hey, we’ve had four Canada-Finland medal games in the past seven Worlds, and this will be the first one of those that isn’t for gold!