BERN – The organizers of the 73rd World Championship are putting the final touches on this year’s European hockeyfest in Switzerland. The last signs are posted and the press conference room is getting its backdrop. The first teams have hit the ice in the practice rinks, as the rest of the teams and the media get into the city to take it over for the next three weeks.
Bern’s PostFinance Arena, the home of National League A regular season winners and post-season underachievers SC Bern, has also got a major facelift, fit for the main venue of the tournament.
The best part, the standing room grandstand where 10,000 fans can cheer their favorites, has remained in tact. However, for the World Championship it has been turned into a seating area, bringing the capacity down from 17,000 to about 12,000. Whether their singing and chanting is enough to give Team Switzerland a true home-ice advantage remains to be seen. Back in 1998, when Switzerland last hosted the tournament, they made it to the semifinal, their best finish since 1953 when they won the bronze medal.
Then – as now – Team Switzerland was led by Canadian-born Ralph Krueger, who enters his 12th tournament as coach of the Swiss team.
Much of the buzz in and around the event’s arenas – the PostFinance Arena in Bern and the Arena Zurich-Kloten (also called Schluefweg) – surrounds which NHL players will join the tournament’s teams.
All the coaches wake up in Switzerland to check the NHL scores to see who might be available to join. And then they work the phones.
On Wednesday morning, the Finns had seven NHLers on their roster – goaltenders Karri Ramo and Pekka Rinne, defensemen Ville Koistinen and Anssi Salmela and forwards Jarkko Ruutu, Niklas Hagman, Antti Miettinen – and the Swedes four: defensemen Niklas Grossman and Tobias Enstrom and forwards Loui Eriksson and Joel Lundqvist.
By Thursday morning, Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson had named St. Louis Blues forward Patrik Berglund to his roster, while Finland’s GM Jari Kurri woke up to see the Montreal Canadiens’ Saku Koivu was available, at least in theory.
The first week of the tournament is a warmup round for the big nations. Canada, based in Kloten, is in the same group with Slovakia, Belarus and Hungary, which returns to the top division after a 70-year absence. The U.S. works on its game plan and line formations in games between Sweden, Latvia and Austria.
Russia – with a team consisting of mostly Kontinental League players and just a half-dozen NHLers – including Ilya Kovalchuk and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov – is in the same group with Switzerland, Germany and France. The last group consists of Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic.
With three teams from each group advancing to the second group stage – the qualification round – it would be more than an upset if the big eight wouldn’t be among the two groups of six that battle it out for the quarterfinal spots.
The first round also gives teams time to add players who may become available from the NHL – and enjoy the warm spring weather in Switzerland.
The home team hasn’t won the gold medal since the Soviet Union did it in Moscow in 1986. Canada was close last year, but Russia spoiled the party. This year, the home team’s “gold medal” would be any medal. Switzerland made it to the final four in 1998, but lost the two-game semifinal to Sweden 4-1 and 7-2 and then the bronze medal game to the Czech Republic 4-0.
This year, the playoffs are a best-of-one format and that one game, the quarterfinal, is the difference between great success and a complete disaster. Except for Canada and Russia who are expected to have a rematch of last year’s final. For them, only the gold medal will be considered great success.
Or simply, mission accomplished.
Canada will start its journey towards the gold medal game Friday when it meets Belarus, coached by former NHL goalie and coach Glen Hanlon, back behind the Belarus bench for his fourth World Championship, third as the head coach. Last year, Hanlon, who will coach Dinamo Minsk in the KHL next season, was the assistant to Curt Fraser as Belarus finished ninth.
THN’s European correspondant Risto Pakarinen is at the World Championship in Switzerland and will be filing reports regularly throughout the tournament.
Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he’s probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. You can email him at [email protected]pakarinen.com.
Go to THN’s World Championship Central HERE.