Firstly, the 30th edition of the annual August U18 international tournament was unusual to the absence of Canada – the powerhouse that had won 22 of the first 29 editions – and the inclusion of Germany. Of course, there were also COVID protocols in place, which also somewhat limited capacity for spectators.
And then there is Slovakia, the regular co-host of the event that finished last place seven years in a row between 2010 and 2016 and hadn’t finished higher than fifth since 2000. Well, the surprising Slovaks were the Cinderella story of this tournament, cruising through their first four games with relative ease before midnight struck in the final against Russia, who prevailed 7-2.
While the crowd for the final in Piestany was limited to just 500, those in attendance provided plenty of energy and at first, it looked like the Slovaks would at least compete on even footing with the Russians, with Servac Petrovicky hitting the goal post on an early 2-on-1 rush. However, Russian captain Ivan Miroshnichenko scored a power-play goal following a furious goalmouth scramble at 12:20, and the Russians had the game firmly in hand with a 3-0 lead by the first intermission.
“We were a hard working team tonight and the guys were battling hard in front of the net and doing pretty much everything,” said the Avangard Omsk winger, who is one of the top prospects available for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. “My job was just to score that goal and I did. Basically, it was a team effort.”
Slovakia started both the second and third periods well and scored early in each, but the Russians answered quickly each time to curb any momentum and won each period 2-1.
“One of the major parts of our character during this whole tournament is that when the opponent scored, we were able to answer quickly in every game, and we did the same thing in the final,” said Russian head coach Vladimir Filatov.
“The Russians are currently the best team in the world in this category,” Slovak coach Ivan Fenes said after the final. “We tried to compete with them. I don't think we disappointed our fantastic fans today. The boys worked hard the whole game and they tried their best. And of course, we made some mistakes. These are exactly the things we need to improve in the future, so that we can win such games. I'm a modest person, but I think our boys were great and proved that they are able to compete with the world's elite.”
Fenes’s boys won’t get a chance to compete against the world’s elite this season because Slovakia’s U18 team was relegated from the top division. The Slovaks will host the Division I Group A tournament in Spisska Nova Ves and battle for promotion.
This final also showcased two high-profile 16-year-olds: Russia’s Matvei Michkov, who won the scoring title and MVP of the last IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship and Slovakia’s Dalibor Dvorsky, who recorded two hat tricks in the group stage. Dvorsky entered the game with a tournament-leading 12 points, one up on Michkov. Dvorsky was held pointless in the final while Michkov had two, claiming the scoring lead on a long-distance empty-net goal with 4:12 to play.
Third place in scoring was shared by four players with nine points each: Miroshnichenko and Ruslan Gazizov of Russia, Juraj Slafkovsky of Slovakia and Swedish defenceman Mattias Havelid.
Russia and Slovakia each recorded a perfect nine points during the group stage, topping the Breclav and Piestany groups, respectively.
Second place in Breclav was between Finland and the host Czechs, who both beat Switzerland and lost to Russia. In their head-to-head meeting on the second day of play, the Finns won in a shootout to take second place by one point. Meanwhile in Piestany, the big game was also on Day 2, with Sweden coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the USA 5-3.
In the semi-finals, Russia came back from deficits of 2-0 and 4-2 to defeat Sweden 7-5 in a wild offensive show, thanks to three points each by Alexander Perevalov and Gazizov, while the Swedes got a hat trick from Jonathan Lekkerimaki.
“We played well and we got a bit better every game and even inside every game,” said Miroshichenko. “We made a lot of adjustments and we finally found the right line combinations at the right moment in the semi-final.”
Meanwhile, Slovakia had little trouble with Finland in the other semi, charging out to a 6-0 lead and winning 6-2.
In the bronze medal game in Breclav, which was played concurrently to the final in Piestany, Sweden came back from a 3-2 victory and won 4-3 on a last-minute goal by Fabian Wagner.
“It was a nice feeling to score the game-winning goal with about 30 seconds left,” said Tim Almgren of Orebro HK, who scored two of Sweden’s goals in the game, including the equalizer with 5:47 to go. “It is not really a success, but it is decent. Our goal was to play in the final and win gold, but it is good to win bronze too.”
It marked the fourth year in a row that Sweden has medalled at the tournament, while Finland’s medal-less streak extends to eight, having last won silver in 2012.
In the game for fifth place in Breclav, the USA defeated the Czech Republic 6-4.
“I liked a lot of things our guys did and I think we got better throughout the week,” said U.S. coach J.D. Forrest. “I wish we could have had a better result, but it’s a tough tournament and if you don’t start off well, it can be difficult.”
In the game for seventh place in Piestany between two previously winless teams, Germany defeated Switzerland 3-2 in a shootout. It was the first-ever win for the Germans in this, their first Hlinka Gretzky Cup tournament. Germany will host the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship 21 April to 1 May.
Next year, the Hlinka Gretzky Cup is scheduled to return to Edmonton and Red Deer, Canada, where it was last held in 2018 and was supposed to be in 2020 before being cancelled. It will return to the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 2023.