On the Ice, Blades Need Sharpening

Without NHL Players, the World Championships in Moscow Delivered Few Surprises to the Fans

The 71st world hockey championships, were held from the Apr. 27  until May 13, 2007 in Moscow, Russia.

The competition is organized annually, and it has, throughout its history been dominated by the “big seven” teams, Canada and Russia (formerly the USSR), Sweden (the 2006 Olympic and World Champions), Finland, USA, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Canadians and the Russians have won an impressive 47 titles between them. The Canadians won the title in a close final against the Finns, who, in the last 15 years, have made the finals of the world and Olympic Games seven times, but only won once.

The host’s team took the bronze medal in the semifinals against the Swedes.  All of the “big seven” made it to the quarterfinals, accompanied by the Swiss.

At the end of the day, however, the Czechs played the poorest and lost their quarterfinal match against the Russians after their biggest upset of the tournament – the Germans defeating the Czech Republic, for the first time since 1996.

The team’s poor performance, compared to the their usual standards, caused significant concern at home, in addition to the fact that the Czech U 18 youth team, for the first time in history, got relegated from the international group earlier this year.

The Austrian team, who have been shifting back and forth from the world group in the last few years, where the best 16 teams compete, to the first division, where the next 12 teams participate, finished the tournament only defeating the Ukraine, and as a result got relegated. But they wouldn’t have needed much to remain in the tournament. The crucial game between Austria and Norway for the last ranking place for next year’s championship in Canada, was won by Norway – a 3-2 overtime victory. Slovenia and France will replace Ukraine and Austria next year.

The question remains as to whether the world championships really are a good representation of the best teams in the world, as their best players play in the National Hockey League (NHL) which is in the middle of playoff season when the world championship commences. In comparison, during the Olympic Games the NHL takes a two week break from play in order to make all players available for the tournament.

The Swedish team, for example, last year’s Olympic gold-medalist, arrived with a troop of 24 players, 20 of which are current NHL players and two more NHL veterans. This years world championship troop was included a single player from the NHL. The Czechs, the Finns, the Slovaks and the Russians have reported similar figures. The North American teams usually don’t face such large problems as they have enough NHL players in lesser teams to still make a lineup.

Austria’s Thomas Vanek playing in the playoffs with the Buffalo Sabers, could have made the difference and kept his team in the world group. Whether this is just an excuse for European teams remains debatable.

Some great future prospects did compete, however. The most notable has to be the Russian wunderkind, a Washington Capitals player and a 1st round draft pick in 2004, Alexander Ovechkin.

Having set several rookie and other records in the NHL this year and broken the 100 point mark in  one season, he is predicted to become one of the best players of all time.

Washington recently contracted swedish youngster  Nicklas Backstrom, who, in 2006, became one of the youngest players to win a world championship. He will soon join Ovechkin in Washington, possibly even in the same line-up. Both players were acquired as part of the team’s recent investments to become a Stanley Cup (the NHL trophy) contender.

All in all, this year’s championships brought no big surprises. The “big seven” remained on top and continued to dominate world rankings. Austria got relegated to the first division, a setback for sure; however they will have the chance to host the first division world championships next year in Innsbruck, which will surely bring a large audience and new support from the fans at home.

The next real ice hockey showdown will be probably not take place until the next winter Olympics, held in 2010 in Vancouver, when NHL players will be available to compete in their nations colors. As far as Austria goes, the Olympic dream is realistic, but optimistic.

They are currently ranked 17th in the world, the first 12 qualify. With a lot of hope and a little Vanek maybe they can make it.

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