At flying saucer to the sky
At flying saucer to the sky
Six teams battle for promotion in Katowice
The 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A begins on Saturday and teams have been registered tonight.
Six teams convene at the historic venue that once hosted the top division of the World Championship in 1976. Poland at that time played in the top division and had a seventh-place finish after even reaching fifth place in the preliminary round with a sensational 6-4 opening-day victory against the defending champion from the Soviet Union.
Spodek, fittingly to the arena’s architecture also the Polish word for “flying saucer”, also hosted the World Championship B-Pool in 2000 where Germany earned promotion.
Interestingly, only two of the eight teams from that time play in the second tier of world hockey: Poland and Slovenia. Denmark, Germany and Kazakhstan will play at the top division in Russia in May while Great Britain, Estonia and the Netherlands play at the levels below.
From the national team candidates Poland’s Adam Borzecki was playing at that tournament as was Jacek Plachta, now the head coach. Slovenian defenceman Ales Krajnc and head coach Nik Zupancic were also playing here in 2000.
For one or even two of the six teams Katowice will be on the road to Cologne and Paris, the venues of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship jointly co-hosted by Germany and France. Since the last Congress approved that both host countries will be automatically seeded for the top division and can’t get relegated, only the winner of the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A will earn promotion for sure. If Germany and France end up in positions 7 and 8 in Group A during the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, only the tournament winner in Katowice will be promoted and only one team will be relegated from the top division. Otherwise the top-two ranked teams in Katowice will be promoted and two teams from the top division relegated.
Austria and Slovenia are the teams coming down from the top division. Both will be among the favourites to go up again as they did two years ago when the tournament was held in Goyang near the Korean capital of Seoul. However, that tournament showed that it’s not that easy to get back. Slovenia started with a 2-1 loss to Japan, which missed promotion only on the last day.
Austria announced first place as the clear goal and travelled from Vienna to Katowice by bus on Thursday. In Vienna they edged Italy 3-2 in a pre-competition game but the team looks quite different from last year’s. While Bernhard Starkbaum and Rene Swette are expected to share ice time in the net again, only two defencemen from last year’s team – Alexander Pallestrang and Martin Schumnig – return to this year’s squad. On the offence six forwards return from the team that played in Prague last year. The Austrians left a roster spot open in case Michael Raffl’s Philadelphia Flyers should lose in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Also Slovenia will come with a mix of core players and new faces. Several key players will be missing. Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar is just one of the players who won’t make it to Katowice due to playoffs in top hockey countries. Tomaz Razingar ended his career after last year’s demotion and Jan Mursak suffered an injury during the KHL playoffs with CSKA Moscow. The Slovenes left five roster spots open for an eventual late addition while on Wednesday five players without World Championship experience skated in the 3-0 exhibition game win against Hungary as well as veterans Andrej Hebar and Jakob Milovanovic, who return after several years out of the national team.
If the changes on the Austrian or Slovenian teams could be seen as a chance for others to earn promotion, then Poland is among the candidates eager to step up. The Poles missed out on promotion on home ice in a tight loss to Hungary last year in Krakow and were successful with their bid to host again, this time in Katowice.
Head coach Jacek Plachta and his team want to show that the strong showing last year was no fluke. For Poland, which played at most Worlds and Olympics between 1928 and 1992, it would be the first promotion to the top division since playing there in 2002. The Poles are on a high after having won the Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round tournament in Hungary in February taking revenge against the hosts.
Seeded fourth in Katowice is Japan, which has played in the Division I since being relegated in 2004 and only came close to getting back to the top level one time in 2014 when they were third while Austria and Slovenia got promoted. On the last day the Japanese didn’t get the necessary points when blowing a lead to lose against Hungary in shootout.
In the meantime there has been one major change. After 11 years with Mark Mahon behind the bench the Japanese hired a new coach who like Mahon is a German-based Canadian. Greg Thomson already knows the team after having worked as an assistant coach with the Japanese and under him they recently won the Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round tournament on home ice in Sapporo.
As usual most players join in from Asia League teams except two forwards: Shuhei Kuji finished his first season in Germany with Eisbaren Berlin and Yushiroh Hirano played junior hockey for the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms this season.
Italy continues its Italians-first principle and places their hopes mostly on home-grown talent rather than naturalized players like before to develop their own players and give them a perspective. The results on the ice weren’t as promising last year in Krakow as Italy just finished in fifth place but the Azzurri had a hassle-free Olympic Qualification campaign winning all three games on home ice in Cortina two months ago.
Coach Stefan Mair can count on several Italian players who tried their luck abroad including Italian NHL draft pick Thomas Larkin. The towering defenceman returned from North America and played for the KHL’s Medvescak Zagreb this season.
The sixth team is Korea, which returned to the Division I Group A after finishing in last place two years ago on home ice in Goyang. The host nation of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games has big ambitions and won a tight promotion race in last year’s Division I Group B.
Most players were selected from the three Korean Asia League teams and the contingent of naturalized players has grown. After Brock Radunske, Michael Swift, Bryan Young and Mike Testwuide the Koreans added goalie Matt Dalton and defenceman Eric Regan. The Ontario-born duo recently received Korean citizenship. Especially the addition of a new goalie – Dalton earlier played for the AHL’s Springfield Falcons and in the KHL for Vityaz Chekhov and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk – could boost the Korean team and its hopes in this group.
The 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A begins with the Japan-Slovenia game on Saturday at 13:00. Host Poland starts against Italy at 16:30 and Korea-Austria will be the evening game at 20:00.
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