By Ivan Tchechankov – IIHF.com
Luxembourg, one of the smallest countries in the world, was triumphant after the final game of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III. The Winter Palace in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia was voiced with chants and emotional outbursts from the winner’s locker room for long after the last buzzer and the closing ceremony. And it was a well-deserved celebration.
For the first time in history Luxembourg won an IIHF event. Beating Bulgaria for the Division III gold also means Luxembourg will play at Division II for the first time since 2004 when the tea was relegated.
In the final for the gold medals Luxembourg defeated the host Bulgaria 10-4 as three players had two goals and one assist (Benny Welter, Miroslav Mosr and Thierry Beran) and the goalie Philippe Lepage made 57 saves!
“We came here to win it all. We believed that we can do it and were fighting for the whole 60 minutes. For Luxembourg this is unbelievable success. Our goal for next year is to keep our place in Division II Group B,” said Petr Fical, the jubilant head coach of Luxembourg, after the closing ceremony.
Eight teams were supposed to participate in the tournament using a new format with two round-robin groups followed by the cross-over semi-finals and placement games. Unfortunately Bosnia & Herzegovina withdrew from the championship just a few days before the start of the tournament leaving Group A with just three teams. The schedule was played as planned, however all Bosnia & Herzegovina games were count as forfeited (5-0 win for the opposing team).
Bulgaria finished first in Group A with wins over Chinese Taipei (3-0) and Hong Kong (10-3) and Luxembourg was the winner of Group B after defeating the United Arab Emirates (17-0), Georgia (6-4) and South Africa (3-1). In the semifinals the hosts beat against Georgia, 9-3, and Luxembourg routed Hong Kong, 8-1.
This was just the second competition in Division III for Bulgaria since the introduction of the new IIHF categorization in 2001. The previous one was in 2014, when the tournament was in Luxembourg and Bulgaria was undefeated and gain back its place in Division II. In the first day of that event Bulgaria beat the hosts in a roller-coaster. Luxembourg was leading 4-3 and 5-4 after getting back from 0-3. In the end Bulgaria won 8-5. There was just one more match-up between the two countries on the men’s level in the past World Championships – a 17-2 win for Bulgaria in 2002 in the Division II Group B. So the expectations of the crowd of 950 spectators at the Winter Palace were very high for a home success, but there were some concerns regarding Bulgarian defence.
The start was quite a positive one for Bulgaria’s “Lions” as Miroslav Vasilev scored at 2:15 after a great pass from Stanislav Muhachev. Thierry Beran tied the score two minutes later, but Alexei Yotov and Georgi Iskrenov tallied for 3-1 lead at 15:15. Once again a defensive mishap led to a Luxembourg’s goal just 32 seconds later. The first period finished 3-3 and the turnaround continued in the second as Kai Linster scored on a power play to give Luxembourg its first lead in the game, 4-3.
“I don’t know why, but our team was tired already in the second period. They didn’t have energy anymore. What are the reasons for that? Maybe they are not used to play so many games in a week or train so hard. In the same time Luxembourg played smart, they were just getting the puck out of their zone, without any risks and were waiting for opportunities. It’s a disappointing night for sure. We had many chances, but couldn’t score,” said Daniel Cuomo, the head coach for the host nation.
Bulgaria had its chance to tie on a penalty shot after Ronny Scheier, the captain of the Luxembourger team for the 13th straight World Championship, was penalized for falling on the puck in the goal crease. In this crucial moment there was a long delay as the official didn’t let the shot to be taken by Muhachev. In the end Ivan Hodulov took the responsibility, but couldn’t beat Lepage, who made 24 saves just in the second period and had the game of his life.
Three minutes later Yotov scored after a crisp breakaway pass from Muhachev, when their team was shorthanded and the crowd was enthusiastic again. But not for long as Luxembourg finished the period with a 7-4 lead after three more goals by Benny Welter, Miroslav Mosr and Francois Schons. The last one in this sequence was on a two-man advantage following consecutive penalties to Iskrenov and Muhachev.
“Mentally we were very strong. We didn’t panic at all after being two goals behind. It was very important to comeback quick and we were able to do it. The key moment was when we scored the sixth and the seventh goal. These goals broke the opponent down,” said Czech-born Petr Fical, who played for Germany at the 2006 Olympic Games and at World Championships in the period 2005-08. Bulgaria’s coach Cuomo had the same opinion: “The 6-4 goal was the crucial one. I could see the effect that it had on the bench, the body language of the players.”
There were small signs of hopes in the first part of the third period, but Bulgaria couldn’t score on two power plays and then everything went downfall with new ostentatious examples of lack of discipline.
“Nowadays hockey is built on good defencemen, who can carry the puck. It’s not a secret that we have problems in this regard. We have veteran defencemen who are not in great shape. On top of that when something goes wrong, we are losing the whole structure, we indulge in disappointment and the penalties are coming,” explained Cuomo.
At 51:06 Mosr capitalized on another two-man advantage and just 104 seconds later Thierry Beran made it 9-4. The last goal was scored on an empty net by his father Robert Beran, who finished the historic journey with most points (19, 6+13) for Luxembourg and was voted as the best forward of the tournament. The 47-year-old Robert Beran hails from Slovakia but has been based in Luxembourg since the early 1990s and was even the national team’s head coach at the 2000 World Championship D-Pool.
“It was a wonderful week for me and Luxembourg hockey. To share this moment with my son and so many players that I had coached from the scratch is just a dream come true,” said Robert Beran, who works in a construction company besides being a coach and a player. He has also a younger son, who is 15 years old. It’s one more motivation for Robert to keep playing: “Soon we will be able to complete a full Beran forward line for the national team.“
“To be honest, I expected a closer game, but today we played great hockey, great defence too. The key for us was the team effort. The whole week we had awesome team work, we worked hard for each other – on the ice, outside of the ice. It was unbelievable experience. Our general manager Alain Schneider did a great job. He organized two exhibition games and got the team together earlier. And we won even though there are some players who couldn’t come to Sofia, because they are working and couldn’t take a leave-of-absence from their jobs,” explained Fical, who is in his second year as a Luxembourg’s head coach.
So far the best showing from the small nation (570,252 population; 399 registered players) in Division III play had been a second-place finish in 2003, last year they finished fourth. But in 2003 there were just three teams in the group and Luxembourg won against Turkey and lost to New Zealand. From the 77 IIHF members only Andorra, Iceland and Liechtenstein have a smaller population than Luxembourg.
It’s interesting to know that Luxembourg became an IIHF member on 23 March 1912, along Sweden, as the 10th and 11th members since its founding. The World Championship debut was almost on the day 80 years later though and the second participation came in 2000. On 21 March 1992 Luxembourg lost its first official game in Johannesburg against host South Africa, 23-0.
Since 2002 Luxembourg is a regular part of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program in the men’s category and in the last 10 years had eight bronze medals in the Division III and two fourth-place finishes. In Sofia, Luxembourg not only had its first gold medal in any tournament but set national records for wins (5) and goals allowed in one tournament (10).