A Give 'em the Lumber's eye-witness report of the Hockey World Championships 2005 in Austria (be prepared for tangents)
Originally published in the Give 'em the Lumber fanzine #1 (2005).
What North Americans have to understand is that when you grew up in Europe in the 1970s and 80s, hockey didn't mean the NHL. Not predominantly, at least. Sure, we knew of the NHL, and every now and again there'd be some 30-second footage on one of our sports' programs (remember, this is before cable and satellite TV), and we also knew that the players there earned much more than our players did, and we knew that they claimed that they played the best hockey there was; but: that was all over there, some mythical hockey world of superstars and money and smaller rinks - while we had our own hockey over here: national federations that often enough struggled to keep a professional league going, European cups that nobody followed - and then what hockey to us Europeans was really all about: the World Championships! (Or, every four years, the Olympics, which for a while doubled as the World Championships.)
So, every April or May, once the national leagues were finished, it was hockey time in Europe for a good two weeks, and even folks who never watched s single puck netted during the winter would tune in to see, well, usually another triumph of the USSR. Between 1963 and 1990 the USSR won 22 out of possible 28 World Championship/Olympic titles. Not a bad record by pretty much anybody's standards, I'd say.
Way into the 1980s there were only eight teams in the Group A finals (there were Group B, and C, and eventually D finals too, but no one ever paid attention to those, unless you happened to come from a country that didn't have a good enough team to ever be in a Group A consisting of a mere eight nations – like Austria), and seven of them were basically always the same: besides the USSR, that meant Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Finland, Canada, the US, and West Germany (Canada making an exception in the early 70s when they didn't play at all due to amateur/professional regulations). The eighth spot (that condemned a team to relegation to Group B) was filled, in rotation, by teams like Holland, Poland, Italy (all of which have meanwhile disappeared into hockey nothingness), or East Germany (which, well, has pretty much disappeared into nothingness altogether).
At that time, not many Europeans played in the NHL yet. Like, the first Soviet player ever to play professional hockey in North America was Sergei Priakin who played a rather unadorned season for the Calgary Flames in 1988/89. This meant that when the World Championships rolled around, most of the European teams brought together the best players the respective nations had to sport – hence the excitement for the European hockey fan to watch the tournament.
It was a different situation as far as the teams from Canada and the US were concerned: Along the lines of the infamous North American tendency to ignore whatever might be happening outside “the New World” (and of course following the logics of corporate ownership in sports), no NHL team would have ever considered releasing a player who was still engaged in NHL play-off battles for some insignificant “World Championships” (like, which world? over in Europe? you gotta be kidding! – should we be surprised that the Canada Cup was renamed the “World Cup of Hockey” in 1996?), especially when they were played in places with names as unpronounceable as Södertälje, Canazei, or Turku. (Sure, none of the players would have wanted to do that anyway. But it's not their fault. They are only caught in the machine.) So this meant that the Canadian and US-American teams usually consisted of NHL players from teams who hadn't made the play-offs, and that the officials would leave a few spots on the roster open so they could register and fly in a couple of further stars on short notice should their teams lose a play-off series while the World Championships were already underway. Sometimes this meant that really big names did play at the Championships too - Gretzky, Lemieux , Lindross: they all made an appearance at some point. (Even then the Russians couldn't be beaten of course. Hmm, did that mean that the best hockey possibly wasn't played in North America after all? No – the NHL cracks were just tired after a long season. Right! Like the European players hadn't played any hockey in the winter prior to the tournament. But we don't wanna get into petty arguments here.)
Anyway, many, many things have changed since then: Due to cable and satellite TV, the ever-increasing number of Europeans drafted into the NHL (a process very much sped up by the collapse of the formerly “communist” Eastern European countries), and the glorious wonders (ya, right!) of free market dynamics, globalization, and neoliberalism, the NHL has become a global (well, hockey global) phenomenon; the World Championships' Group A has expanded from 8 to 10 to 12 to 16 teams (more teams, more games, more money); and the Olympics separated from the World Championships, 'cause since the US basketball “Dream Team” of the Barcelona Olympics (amateurism? are you kidding me? that's so, like, 20th century!) made the NBA a worldwide trademark in 1992 (lucky the NBA still had Magic, and Bird, and Jordan then, and didn't have to rely on “Dream Teams” coming in sixth at World Championships in their own country), the NHL figured that it too could make more money if the might of the NHL was to be presented to a worldwide audience and so it actually interrupted its season for the first time ever for the Olympics in Nagano in 1998 (where the Czech Republic still won the title – check this CNN report from the archives: “The Czech Republic's hockey team took the swagger out of the Canadians and Americans in maybe the biggest surprise of the Nagano Games, snagging the Gold medal in a victory for the little guys.” The little guys? Jagr, Hasek, Straka, Rucinsky? Well. CNN logics, I suppose.). However, despite of all these changes, one thing remains the same: the Hockey World Championships still don't interest anybody in North America. (Actually, in regard to the righteous editors of this zine I will correct that: they don't interest anybody in North America but the true hockey fan!) How this translates into the media coverage, for example, takes on really comical dimensions: Like, if you went on the Yahoo! Sports hockey site during the World Championships, the homepage would immaculately inform you about which games of the long cancelled NHL season would have been scheduled for today (face-off time included) – but in order to get any news on the World Championships you had to dig deep through the site's hockey news links to eventually find a couple of game reports (proper standings/schedules/scoreboards? forget it!).
So, in this sense I guess I was fortunate that, thanks to US Homeland Security protecting its nation spiritedly and dedicatedly, I was on a plane back to Europe much earlier this year than expected – just in time to catch the Group A Hockey World Championships that had returned to my native Austria after a ten year absence. And not only that: Apart from Vienna (Vienna always gets a slice of the cake, no matter what happens in Austria – it is a centralized autocratic country in that sense, no matter what they tell you), another town was blessed with the honor of hosting matches this time: Innsbruck, the Alpine metropolis (120.000 people - come on, that's not bad! it's in the mountains!) of Winter Olympics fame (1964 and – stepping in when the Colorado electorate voted down the state's plans to finance the Olympics the IOC had awarded to Denver – 1976), and, besides, the humble birthplace of these lines' author. So, what else was there to do than crash on old friends' couches for a couple of weeks and try to sneak my way into the hockey stadium, right?
The tournament's facts are quickly told: The Czech Republic restored European pride by taking the title again from Canada who had won the Championships back-to-back in '03 and '04 (both times beating Sweden). The Czechs won the final in Vienna 3:0 (of course the final was played in Vienna – what did you think?). Russia took third place by beating Sweden 6:3. Slovakia, the US, Finland, and Switzerland (especially Switzerland) could still be content as quarter finalists. Latvia, Belarus, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan performed within their capabilities and were ranked 9-12. Slovenia and Denmark were happy survivors in the fight against relegation on positions 13 and 14. And Germany and Austria – well, they better wouldn't have shown up for the tournament in the first place (more about this below). Rick Nash was the top scorer with 9 goals, while Joe Thornton not only led the stats in both assists (10) and points (16), but was also decorated the tournament's MVP. Honors as best forward went to Viktor Kozlov, best defenseman according to the directorate was Wade Redden. And Thomas Vokoun was proclaimed best goalie, even though the Belarusian Andrei Mezin led the stats with an impressive saving percentage of 97.14, and an even more impressive 1.01 goals against average. Belarus marked another impressive statistic: a 100% penalty killing. The Swede Samuel Pahlsson picked up the most penalties (28 minutes) while Russia led that ranking as a team - and if you wanna know more stats you can go to www.ihwc.net/english/.
Overall, the tournament demonstrated some fantastic hockey, and everything that a tournament of this caliber needs: highlights (the Czech overtime victory over Sweden in the semis), suspense (the quarterfinal penalty shootouts between Russia and Finland or the Czech Republic and the US), drama (Jaromir Jagr's injured finger), tension (the tournament's administrators in Vienna had to take a fair amount of shit for sloppy organization – in Innsbruck I didn't hear any of that, just to throw that in), and humor (one of the Eastern European coaches assessing the conditions of the ice at the Vienna rink by reporting that one of his players had broken a skate during the game “but fortunately was a good enough swimmer to make it back to the bench”). Needless to say, in the context of this modest article it is impossible to make all the trials and tribulations come alive that you live through at a collective social experience as tremendous as this 14-day hockey extravaganza (and joy - if you weren't German or Austrian, that is); so in my function as the lucky and privileged Give 'Em The Lumber exclusive correspondent to the Hockey World Championships 2005 I will content myself with listing the three single most important realizations forced upon the observer at the event: 1. Due to the NHL lock-out all star players were available to represent their respective countries at this year's tournament – however, the US still didn't even make the semis, and Canada did not score once in the final. What's up, Europe! 2. The top teams' level of play seems to become more and more evenly balanced: Out of the four semifinalists each one could have taken the title, and so could have at least three of the quarterfinalists (sorry, my Swiss neighbors, but this would just go too far…) – in the end it all came down to how things played out that particular day and to a touch of luck. 3. Hockey fans rule: During the course of the tournament Innsbruck hosted hockey fans from Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Slovenia, the Ukraine, and Denmark (Germans don't count – they are always there). Having these folks in town was a real treat. All of them. Even though the special supporters' award probably has to go to our Latvian friends – they were a lot of fun! And they well deserve hosting next year's World Championships (May 6th to 21st – in case you've always wanted to make that trip to Europe and were just waiting for an excuse).
Unfortunately, the article has to end on a sad note: The Austrian performance. The Austrian team managed to lose all their games except one, including defeats to teams considered “easy” opponents, such as Slovenia, or especially Denmark. The only point the Austrian team won was in a draw against Germany. Austria's overall showing was atrocious. After their last games they got booed out of the arena. (Austrians are mean. But they aren't that mean. There were reasons for the jeers.) The explanations for the disaster were the typical: injuries, bad coaching, bad attitude. As always, probably everything played together. In any case, it was embarrassing. But the players have to bear most of the burden themselves: Next year there will be no playing against no Niklas Kronwall or Zigmund Palffy; Austria's hockey aces will battle it out with the teams from Lithuania or Croatia in the Group B tournament in Estonia. I'm sure Thomas Vanek or Thomas Pöck (both, especially Vanek, playing rather successfully for their AHL teams in Rochester and Hartford respectively) won't be too excited to come across the Atlantic for an outing like that (they even seemed reluctant this year). Well, we'll see. Maybe the Austrian team bounces right back into Group A, just as it did the last time it had been relegated in 1996. Which leads me to the three ironies I have to finish this article with: 1. When Austria got relegated the last time, the World Championships were also held in the country itself. (So would I forgo another World Championships in my home country, so my country's team can actually stay in Group A? Good question. I have to think about that.) 2. By drawing with Germany, the Austrians took the Germans with them to ice hockey oblivion next year. (Okay, I admit that people not versed in soccer history might miss the irony here. All I can say is: Gijon 1982). Irony 3: My best friend from junior high school, Claus Dalpiaz, is a veteran goalkeeper for the Austrian team and was a member of every Austrian World Championship or Olympic squad since 1993. A couple of weeks before this year's World Championships he got injured in a warm-up game against the Czech Republic and had to sit the tournament out on a groin injury (Bernd Brückler, a Wisconsin Badger, had to step in – rather unsuccessfully, as you would probably guess at this point). Claus not being the youngest anymore at 33, I was rather saddened by the news, given that it meant that he would miss out on what was probably his last chance to play in another World Championships in Austria itself. Now of course it looks like it was opportune that he got to hang at home with his family during the month of May rather than partaking in the Austrian hockey fiasco. Then again, with him between the posts things might have looked very different of course...
Last Words: In 2008 the Hockey World Championships will be hosted in North America for the first time in 46 years (Colorado Springs and Denver hosted the tournament in 1962): Halifax and Quebec are supposed to gather the world's best. Will this change the North American's perception of the event? Who knows? But I'm sure Give 'Em The Lumber will be there to tell you all about it!