Saturday, 3 May 2008

Worldwide Game

As the world watched Paul Henderson score that historic goal against the Soviets in 1972, there had to be some realization that hockey would grow as a global game. There have always been international powerhouses, and those teams are favoured to do well every time they step on the ice. Canada, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia were "The Big Three" through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Sweden arrived on the scene in the early 1990s, and the Americans began fielding consistently good teams in the mid-1990s. Finland caught up at the turn of the millenium, and now it seems that the rest of the world is making strides to catch "The Big Six" of Canada, Russia, USA, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic.

We'll start in the country of France who earned a spot in the 2008 IIHF Men's World Championships. Led by Washington Capitals' goaltender Cristobal Huet, France has yet to pull off any major upsets, but they are beginning to develop top-notch talent. Aside from Huet, France has no other NHLers on their roster at the tournament, but they do boast former NHLer Sebastien Bordeleau up front. With Huet's NHL success, I can only see the game growing in France.

Another team that is making strides in the international circuit is Belarus. Former Los Angeles King Vladimir Tsyplakov is an assistant coach with the Belarussian squad. Having a former NHL player teaching the young Belarussian players should help in the long run. Belarus also has Colorado Avalanche prospect Vladimir Denisov playing for them. In 66 games with the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters, he scored two goals and posted six assists. Former Pittsburgh Penguin Konstantin Koltsov is also a member of the Belarussian team. After Belarus' stunning victory over the Swedes at the 2002 Winter Olympics, hockey in Belarus grew by leaps and bounds.

Another team that has made huge strides at the international level is Latvia. Of course, the Latvians used to led by their two most famous NHLers in Sandis Ozolinsh and Arturs Irbe, but those days have since passed. The only NHLer on the Latvian roster in the 2008 tournament is Los Angeles Kings' tough guy Raitis Ivanans. However, the plucky Latvians have become heroes in their country. Don't believe me? Check out this article from The Canadian Press. Hockey is thriving in Latvia, and the little country is showing some big love for the game.

Denmark is making strides to join their Scandinavian brethren on the podium at the World Championship. While the Danes boast no full-time NHL talent, they do have a couple of talented AHLers playing for them in Jannik Hansen of the Manitoba Moose, and Morten Madsen of the Houston Aeros. Like France, Denmark hasn't shocked the international hockey scene yet with any major upsets, but they are getting stronger every year.

Germany has made life miserable for many opposing countries in the world of hockey. Head coach Uwe Krupp was instrumental in Colorado's Stanley Cup win over Florida, and has been teaching his team well. The Germans boast three NHLers on this year's roster, as well as one AHLer. Marco Sturm of the Boston Bruins recently set the NHL record as the highest-scoring German-born player, and he's at this year's tournament. Dennis Seidenberg of the Carolina Hurricanes is also attending. They have been joined by Ottawa Senator Christoph Schubert, and by AHLer and current Worcester Shark goalie Dimitrij Patzold. Clearly, the Germans have developed some high-level talent.

Slovenia is looking to join the top international squads as they attempt to build on their star's success. Los Angeles Kings' star Anze Kopitar is the only Slovenian to have made the NHL thus far, but the Slovenians are on the way up. They have lots of players playing across Europe, and have shown decent talent to compete with the likes of Canada so far. Slovenia is not far from being a regular in the big international tournaments.

Like Denmark, Norway is looking to join Sweden and Finland as a Scandinavian powerhouse. Unfortunately, they have only one AHL player on the roster, but that hasn't deterred the Norwegians one bit. Iowa Stars' forward Marius Holtet is one step from the NHL, and has contributed nicely for the Stars. The Norwegians are in the same boat as the Slovenians when it comes to sticking around on the international scene, and that's good news for hockey in Norway.

Italy is attempting to build on their experience in Turin after hosting the last Winter Olympic Games. While they have no NHL or AHL players to boast, they do have Hall-of-Famer and former NHLer Michel Goulet helping out behind the bench. His experience alone would be invaluable to most teams, and will certainly help the Italians out as they try to make inroads on the international scene.

Slovakia seems to be the black sheep of the international hockey world. They always come in with major talent, and always end up with a disappointing finish. This year's tournament is no different in terms of the talent they've assembled. They boast current NHLers and former NHLers, and look to be solid. Ivan Ciernik, Juraj Kolnik, Jan Lasak, Ivan Majesky, Robert Petrovicky, and Martin Strbak all held NHL jobs at one point. Marcel Hossa, Branislav Mezei, Andrej Sekera, and Lubomir Visnovsky are all on NHL rosters. Yet this team continually falls short. Clearly, Slovakian hockey is churning out great players, but they have yet to realize their potential on the international stage.

The team that seems to scare everyone on the international scene is Switzerland. That's right: good ol' neutral Switzerland. Switzerland upset the Canadians in Turin at the Olympics, and they seem to play a very good trap game. And like the 1995 New Jersey Devils, it all starts with solid goaltending. Martin Gerber of the Ottawa Senators and Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks make for a very formidable goaltending tandem. Up front, the Swiss have Canadian-turned-Swiss citizen and former Montreal Canadien Paul DiPietro as the resident graybeard on the team. Besides those guys, they have a collection of players from European leagues who play very well in the Swiss system. This is a country who is developing good players at an astounding rate.

So there are the "other teams" that you may not know a lot about. There are a lot of NHL and AHL players who are still in their respective playoff series that would be a help to all of these nations, but all of these teams are making due with what they have to work with. And, to be honest, some are doing quite well.

More action tomorrow as Canada plays Latvia on TSN!

Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!

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