Month: April 2018 (page 1 of 3)

Dutch Dominance

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By Joeri Loonen – IIHF.com

Similar to 2016, the Netherlands made sure their stay in Division IIA would be limited to just a single year. Carrying the pressure of being the gold medal favourite, the Netherlands thrived on home ice at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Tilburg.

In front of a capacity crowd at the IJssportcentrum in Tilburg, the hosts did not leave anything to chance and defeated unbeaten Australia 9-2 on the final day to win promotion to Division IB. Serbia claimed bronze while Iceland was relegated to the Division IIB.

Although the colour of the medal is similar, the 2018 Dutch team is not to be compared with the one that won gold two years ago. The majority of the best Dutch players are representing the Tilburg Trappers team, which has successfully transitioned to the German Oberliga boasting three consecutive championship titles. Whereas the move to Germany offered the players to play at a more competitive level, the long playoff runs consequently resulted in the players to be unavailable to participate in the World Championships to represent the Netherlands.

No such issues this year as this year’s tournament schedule allowed for the Tilburg players to join the squad of head coach Doug Mason. No less than 15 players were selected by the veteran coach and it paid immediate dividends.

The Dutch dominated the scoring charts with the top six of the scoring leaders all donning the orange jersey. On top of that the Dutch defence was rock solid allowing just five goals in five games.

“The team was fantastic. From the very first minute until the last they have played super ice hockey,“ Mason lauded his players. “An unbeaten record makes a coach look good but with these players it made my job really easy.“

Playing in front of their home crowd, the Netherlands sent out a clear signal to the rest of the teams brushing aside China 7-0 in their opening game before settings aside Iceland 11-1.

Serbia was the first team that was able to somewhat neutralize the Dutch offence but eventually had to concede a 5-0 loss. The Netherlands recorded double digits once again in game 4 against neighbours Belgium, who were swept 10-2.

With four straight wins, the Netherlands were on course to complete their mission but they had to wait until the final game day before being able to lock the first spot. On Game Day 5, the hosts met an Australia side which had been a positive surprise all tournament long. The Ozzie team coached by Brad Vigon had impressed with a solid performance in Tilburg.

“I’m extremely proud of the guys to see how my team has achieved in Tilburg. Most players haven’t been playing competitively for seven months before we got here,“ Vigon refers to the Australian AIHL league only having started last week.

“The players have to make personal sacrifices in terms of funding and taking time off work to participate in this championship. We only had a single exhibition game in the Czech Republic, so I was anxious to see how the players responded during the tournament. I believe we took a step forward with Australian hockey capturing two consecutive silver medals.“

The Ozzies were off to a good start thanks to a pair of goals in the final two minutes to defeat Iceland 3-0 in game one which built the momentum.

Goaltender Anthony Kimlin recorded his second shutout against Belgium; 6-0 before his team scored three unanswered third period goals against China to claim a 3-1 victory.

Australia continued their run by dashing Serbia’s hopes of grinding out a gold medal after a penalty shot victory on day four. The Serbs started the game emphatically taking a 2-0 lead but saw Australia take over control of the game scoring four unanswered goals.

Credit to Serbia for not giving up. Marko Sretovic scored shorthanded to cut the deficit to one and with time running out and the goalie pulled, Petar Novakovic scored 10 seconds left to play to tie the game 4-4. Beau Taylor scored the fifth and decisive penalty shot ensuring Australia to remain unbeaten ahead of the clash against the Netherlands on the final day.

The Dutch were off to a great start against Australia taking the lead after just one minute and never looked back. Raymond van der Schuit converted a beautiful tic-tac-toe combination with Reno de Hondt and Danny Stempher. Five minutes later Van der Schuit scored his second of the game and defensemen Jurry Smid and Jordy van Oorschot also tallied to put a 4-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.

Australia was unable to keep up with the tempo of the Netherlands who outshot their opponents 66-19. Mickey Bastings and Jordy Verkiel had lifted the score to 6-0 before Kieren Webster put Australia on the scoreboard after 31 minutes.

Misery wasn’t done yet.

Defenceman Giovanni Vogelaar’s trademark booming slapshot has been terrorizing opposition netminders throughout the tournament and also against Australia he found the net twice. Vogelaar ended up as the tournament’s top goal scorer with eight goals.

“We kept our focus and stuck to our game plan for the full 60 minutes,” Vogelaar commented. “We always felt we were going to win this tournament. Most of the Tilburg Trappers players know by now what it takes to win and that mentality was brought over to the rest of the team.“

Eventually the scoring spree stopped at nine goals with Thomas Powell saving the honour for Australia with a late goal to make it 9-2.

“The moment that first goal came I knew it was going to be a long game. It was such a high-quality goal as well from high-quality players,“ admitted Vigon. “We felt like we had no pressure on us to play this game so we were loose. In the end of the day the Dutch were just plain better than us. They are at a different level than us.”

Newly promoted China finished a respectable fourth after victories over Iceland (3-1) and Belgium (5-2), which had to settle for fifth place. Avoiding relegation was the main goal for the team of head coach Jyrki Aho, who knows his team still has a long way to go if they want to be competitive for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games the country will host in Beijing.

Belgium coach Gil Paelinck was visibly upset after his team’s disappointing fifth place finish.

“We have been outworked by most teams here this week. Our guys let their heads down the moment we fell behind,” he expressed afterwards. “Some players entered the tournament with the wrong attitude coming off a good season with their club team. I had rather seen a hard working gritty team on the ice instead.”

Last year’s surprise team Iceland could not repeat miracles and was relegated to Division IIB. The team of head coach Vladimir Kolek lost the crucial match against China and bowed out the tournament pointless.

“It was unfortunate we could not select our best players for this tournament,” Kolek said. “We now had to play a number of young players who are not yet ready for this level. Each game we made a couple of costly mistakes we could not overcome. However, I’m confident they will use this experience to improve and compete for promotion next year.”

Great Britain & Italy up!

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By Martin Merk IIHF.com

“We are going up! We are going up!” the British fans chanted on the tribune. 15.8 seconds were missing in regulation time that changed everything. For a long time it looked like host Hungary would win the game in regulation time and get promoted together with Kazakhstan in a four-team tie at nine points. But the last-minute bounce made Great Britain tournament winner and Italy will be promoted too as second-placed team.

After the 2-2 tie the rest of the game wouldn’t change anything anymore but Great Britain continued its party on the ice by beating Hungary in shootout with Ben O’Connor scoring the winning goal in the fifth round. Great Britain tried to get into the game for most of the time and outshot Hungary 43-33.

It was the fitting ending of a tournament that was full of drama, surprises and a tight standing from the first to the last day, to the last game and the last minute. Five teams were still in run for promotion before the final day and four teams could still have made it before the last game’s result.

For Great Britain it will be a return to the top division after 24 years. And like in the ‘90s they made it from the third to the top tier with two consecutive promotions.

While Hungary and Italy will be promoted to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Slovakia, Kazakhstan had to settle for bronze before Hungary, Slovenia and Poland, which will be relegated.

In front of a loud and passionate sell-out home crowd of 7,870 spectators Hungary had a perfect start also thanks to a tripping call against British goaltender Ben Bowns. At 3:31 the Hungarian players covered him with shots and had several rebounds until Christopher Bodo eventually succeeded and beat Bowns for the 1-0 goal. The British had their chances too but didn’t manage to create enough danger to tie the game.

In a scoreless second period Daniel Koger had the probably best chance for Hungary when Bowns deflected a shot with his hands. A bit later on the other side Adam Vay had to be sharp when Mark Richardson shot after a great pass from Mike Hammond.

A lucky bounce gave Hungary the 2-0 lead at 1:53 of the third period. Janos Hari brought the puck high to the crease where it hit Csanad Erdely’s shoulder and from there went in. The goal was confirmed after a video review.

The British still continued to work hard and when they were looking for a rebound Robert Down eventually broke the spell and beat Adam Vay for the 2-1 goal with nine minutes left for GB to tie.

The British were pushing but the best chance was Hungary’s when Hari missed out on a penalty shot with four minutes left.

The Hungarians seemed to win it and to go up with Kazakhstan. But then, with 15.8 seconds left a nightmare broke out for the hosts. The British occupied their zone, had their time-out and their goalie pulled for a sixth skater. Farmer brought the puck from a sharp angle to the goal and surprised Vay. The puck slid down from his glove and slid across the goal line. It was 2-2. Now suddenly Great Britain would be tournament winner and take Italy as second-place team to the top division.

It was not over yet. Now Hungary took its time-out. With eight seconds left and after a glove block from Bowns the fans started to cheer after a rebound but the puck just came onto the net from outside. Great Britain won and the players and the “Barmy Army”, their loud fans on the ice, celebrated loudly.

It was the start of the British party while the Hungarian fans chanted farewell to their visibly broken players with the traditional singing of the national anthem as they do even in defeat.

Lithuania moving up Next stop: Division 1A

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By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com

In the battle of the Baltics, Pavilas Verenis scored a brace while blueliners Nerijus Alisauskas and Jaunius Jasinevicius scored one apiece as Lithuania went undefeated through the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas.

Lithuania’s 4-1 final day win sealed their promotion to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A. Japan finished second to win silver while Estonia slipped down to third in Division I Group B.

“I think one of the biggest influence to our success was the arrival of Darius Kasparaitis and Dainius Zubrus to our team. We had read about them, but we never had them together in our locker room. We have a good team, but those two guys made the difference,” said Lithuania’s captain of the evening, Mindaugas Kieras who played his 100th and last game for Lithuania this evening.

Robert Rooba got Estonia’s marker as they went ahead before conceding four straight unanswered goals. Villem-Henrik Koitmaa recorded 39 saves and was voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament by the Directorate.

“They guys gave it all and I am very proud of them. You could see right after the game that the players are disappointed as there was so much at stake. In the third period we still had chances which could have gotten us close, but tonight we lost against worthy winners and the best team of the tournament” said Estonia’s head coach Jussi Tupamaki being gracious in defeat.

The clash got off to an intriguing start as it was the surprise package Estonia that got in front. Lithuania’s netminder Mantas Armalis had lost his stick when Rooba surprised by snapping a trademark wrister from the left boards after 4:20 for a shock lead that helped settle Estonian nerves.

“It was such an important game for gold or bronze, and I’ve never played in front of so many people so it was a bit nervous, but when you got into the game it was ok,” said Estonia’s Artjom Gornostajev.

The lead only lasted for just over three minutes before Zubrus won a draw and Alisauskas hit a bullet from the blueline for this first of the tournament to tie the game at one.

“I was impressed by Estonia, they have a young team now and new guys stepping in and playing really good hockey without trying to make any mistakes. We knew they were a good team, but we felt that they would have to do something extra in order to take the win away from us,” said Kieras.

Winning the shots in the first frame 14-7, Lithuania went in front when Daniel Bogdziul fed Jasinevicius who lofted a shot past Koitmaa for 2-1 after 15:42.

With the game still in the balance, Tadas Kumeliauskas collected the puck from his own defensive zone and charged towards Estonia’s net, got intercepted by Marko Kettunen before the puck went to Verenis who showed no hesitation to hit high past Koitmaa to stretch Lithuania’s lead to 3-1 at 35:58

With Verenis serving a cross-checking minor at the start of the final frame, Estonia piled up the pressure on powerplay with Robert Arrak and Andrei Makrov both denied by Armalis.

As Estonia’s energy level deteriorated, Tupamaki called a timeout with 8:53 for a well-deserved breather. With 3:41 left of the game, Estonia pulled Koitmaa from the net, but it took only 20 seconds before Verenis converted an empty-netter as the crowd got on their feet to celebrate a memorable night for Lithuanian hockey and its

 

Italy’s Andreas Bernard hones skills in Finland

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By Martin Merk IIHF.com

It was a decision that would change his life. Around his 19th birthday and with his first games in the top Italian league, Andreas Bernard decided to move to junior hockey in Finland. To leave his beloved home of South Tyrol (visibly represented as the ad on the Italian jerseys here in Budapest) where he grew up and played in the town the locals call Neumarkt (also known by its Italian name of Egna elsewhere in the country).

He played U20 hockey in Lappenranta close to the Russian border, had his first top-level senior league games in his second season and two years later tried his breakthrough in the second-tier league where he led Jukurit Mikkeli to the championship and was named best goaltender of the league. Two years followed as the backup for SaiPa Lappenranta before he moved to Assat Pori in 2015 where he has been the starting goalie ever since.

Last season he had his statistically best season, fourth in save percentage in the Finnish Liiga. Recently he was sixth in the playoff stats.

Back with the Italian national team he every year goes back to his roots and to his buddies. In the interview zone in Budapest he answers questions to reporters in his native languages of German and Italian, in English and even in Finnish. It’s not the easiest language to learn as it has no relation to his other languages and to most European languages due to its different roots.

“It’s not so easy but I’ve been there for nine years, have my girlfriend and future wife there and she helped me a lot. In the meantime I can speak fluently,” Bernard said.

Bernard has another year with Assat on his contract and doesn’t think about leaving Finland soon.

“I like it very much in Finland. It’s very professional, it’s a bit different than in Italy. The culture is different, it’s less stressful. The mentality is different, we practise more and hard. After the season I have two or three weeks off and then it continues. In Italy you have two or three months off. That’s a big difference,” the 27-year-old said.

“I adjusted to the north but I still have my South Tyrolean mentality,” he said with a smile. That means not just a hard shell but also a hard interior.

Since travelling to the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship as emergency goalie he has joined the Italian national team every year and has become the number one in the Azzurri’s net. With a save percentage of 94.12 he’s second in the tournament behind Henrik Karlsson – the Swede-turned-Kazakh even has a 95.70 save percentage.

Italy is in a group of four teams with six points right now that are still in run for promotion and also include Kazakhstan, Great Britain and Hungary. Slovenia has small mathematical chances too while Poland can’t finish in the top-two anymore.

After beating Poland and losing to host Hungary, Italy got a big 3-0 win against Kazakhstan, one of its toughest competitors for promotion, also thanks to Bernard’s shutout.

“It was an important win. If you look at the standings, it’s very tight, one game will make the difference in this tournament and now we’re back with six points and in first place and hope that the other teams will play for us,” Bernard said.

“The win gives a lot of confidence and the three points are very important. I think the tournament is so short that we need every point. The win is important for our moral and we showed that we can also play and win against good teams.”

Italy needs at least five out of six possible points in the games against Great Britain and Slovenia to reach promotion without having to look at other results. But with favourable scores in the other games that dream can also become true with less than two wins.

After a day off Bernard hopes Italy will get back strong for the match-up against Great Britain.

To say which two teams go up is difficult here considering the tight standings and with no team being undefeated nor winless.

“Hungary has always been a difficult opponent for us. But when watching this tournament, you can see that it’s very tight. You can never underestimate Great Britain and I think Slovenia will come out stronger too,” he said.

The fifth round of games will conclude with today’s Kazakhstan vs. Poland and Italy vs. Great Britain games before the final round of games tomorrow. Latest by then we will know which two teams will earn promotion to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Bratislava and Kosice, Slovakia.

Croatia’s ironman

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By Henrik Manninen IIHF.com

While the poster-boy of Croatian hockey, Borna Rendulic grabs most of the headlines, performances at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas has proved that there is more to their game as a new generation is making its mark.

Seven on the current Croatia roster competing in Division 1B in Kaunas are part of a generation born 1995/96. One of the leading players from that crop now stamping his authority on the team is 22-year-old blueliner Ivan Puzic.

His no-nonsense play with grit and determination are qualities which have stood him in good stead since leaving his native Zagreb eight years ago to fulfil his dream to make a living out of hockey.

“It’s been in my head ever since I was a kid, so I went to Czech Republic on my own when I was 14 to be a professional hockey player,” said Puzic.

Josef Halouzka, a Czech coach then working for KHL Mladost Zagreb utilized his contacts as Vitkovice from the steel city of Ostrava became Puzic’s next port of call.

“We had been travelling from Zagreb to tournaments in Czech Republic in the past. The languages were similar so moving there was not very different compared to let’s say when Borna Rendulic went from Croatia to Finland,” he said.

Instead, a world of difference opened itself up in terms of representing a big club in a hockey country with excellent facilities.

“We were training twice a day and the club had two rinks inside the same arena in Vitkovice. In Croatia we had two indoor rinks in the whole country,” said Puzic.

Soon tasting success and becoming Czech U18-champion with his new club, Puzic had already played for the senior team in the Champions Hockey league when he made a temporary return home to make his debut at the 2016 World Championship Division 1B.

“It was great to play in my home city after being away for six years, my family was there to watch me and it was a proud moment in my career,” he said as Croatia had the chance to win bronze ahead of their final game against Lithuania before, in the end, having to settle for fourth spot.

Upon his return to Czech Republic, Puzic has played a handful of games during each of the last two seasons for Vitkovice. Being an import player does not help his prospects and Puzic has spent time out on loan in the Czech second tier before in January temporarily returning back to Croatia to suit up for Medvescak in EBEL. Currently out of contract he will weigh up his options come close season.

“I have some offers that I will consider after the World Championship, but having been in Czech Republic for eight years I would like to stay there,” said Puzic.

A wish to stay put where they are also applying for Croatia. Enio Sacilotto’s men arrived in Kaunas with the ambition to hang on to their place in Division 1B

A disciplined display in their opening day loss against Lithuania was then followed up by coming close to upset Japan. They then got their reward in game three when toppling Ukraine 4-2.

With three points gained they are up against high-flying Estonia next, before a potential nail-biter against Romania awaits during the final day to stay in the division.

“It will be tough, but we must continue to play with our heart and for Croatia,” said Puzic.

Transylvanian whirlwind

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By Henrik Manninen IIHF.com

Results at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas has so far not gone Romania’s way. Two straight defeats to Ukraine and Lithuania has stretched their winless streak to thirteen games at this level.

Romania finished rock bottom in their two most recent appearances in Division IB in 2014 and 2016. A far cry from the heady days of 2012 and 2013 when they won four out of ten at this level and enjoyed two straight fourth-place finishes.

A winger with many tricks up his sleeve, Fodor made his debut for Romania at the 2014 World Championship Division I Group B in Vilnius and also featured two years later as Croatia’s Zagreb hosted Division IB. Having endured the dark days at this level, he is now back on Lithuanian ice with the Romanian national team and confident that a change in fortunes is looming around the corner.

“This year I think we have a better team than what we had in both Zagreb and Vilnius. We have lots of good guys coming into the team, many of them still very young so it looks good,” he said.

Selected as the best forward by the Directorate when Romania last year won gold at the Division IIA, Fodor has continued his success at club level with a fruitful 2017/18 season following his return to his native Miercurea Ciuc after building up his reputation elsewhere during the last 12 years.

In what is the coldest town of Romania, Fodor’s form improved as the season rolled on and he was one of the leading domestic players as SC Csikszereda from Miercurea Ciuc once again enjoyed great success. Lifting both the Romanian championship and cup this season, they also reached the semi-finals of the Austro-Hungarian-Romanian Erste Liga with a roster including many illustrious names.

“My centreman this season was Andrei Taratukhin who won the Gagarin Cup and played for Russia, Pyotr Schastlivy, the former captain of Russia was on the team and there was also ex-Spartak Moscow captain Maxim Potapov, all of them good people and great players that we all learned a lot from,” he said.

Fodor who is the same height as New York Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello, picked up the game at the age of four in Transylvania. His dad, Levente, had a car repair shop which the president of the local hockey club frequented and one day brought along a pair of skates for the youngster.

When starting to show promise and looking to push ahead with his development, neighbouring Hungary became the next port of call. Fodor, a native Hungarian speaker uprooted to the Hungarian capital which put him on course towards a professional career.

“I was 14 when I had a chance to move to Budapest, go to school there and play hockey. My family supported me, but I went there alone and it was very hard especially during the first two years. But I had hockey and playing in Hungary helped me a lot,” he said.

Winning the MOL Liga (now Erste Liga) back in 2009/2010 as a 19-year-old is a memory he cherishes to this day as he got his professional career off to a flying start.

“Back then I played on the fourth line where we were hard warriors who had our job to do and it was great,” he said playing on a Budapest Stars team together with many big names who contributed to lifting Hungarian hockey where it is today.

“I’ve played together with Gergely Majoross, who won the Erste Liga this season as coach for MAC Budapest and is also the assistant coach of Hungary. Bence Svasznek was the captain, Balazs Kangyal was great too and all of them played many years for the Hungarian national team. I’ve learnt a lot of from them, how to prepare myself, enjoy my hockey but also how to respect it as a job,” Fodor said.

Despite only being 27, Fodor is currently the third oldest player on the Romanian team skating in Div. IB in Kaunas. Despite having played nearly 100 competitive games this year, crisscrossing by bus through Romania, Hungary and Austria, Fodor is adamant that there is more than enough energy left in the tank to ensure survival at return back to winnings ways in Division IB.

“We are here to stay in this division. I believe if we work together 100% we should be ok,” he said.

Estonia’s other Robert aiming high

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By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com

Having turned 19 earlier this month and clearly on an ascent upwards, the Tallinn-born center and winger recently penned a two-year deal with Finnish top division team Vaasan Sport. Despite sealing a move to Finland’s Liiga, his ambitions don’t stop there.

“Now I aim to get playing time with Vaasa, then I will look at my options to try and play in KHL or NHL. The main goal would be NHL,” said Arrak who is on Estonia’s second line at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas. Arrak’s Estonia has enjoyed a flying start to the tournament. They came out of the traps to push Japan to overtime before blanking Ukraine 2-0 in their second game.

Just as the current Champions Hockey League winner Rooba was once spotted when playing against Finnish opposition as a youngster, Arrak got noticed in a similar way as an opportunity arose to continue his development across the Bay of Finland.

“I was around 13-14 and I played in a tournament in Tallinn where Espoo Blues also took part. It went well for me and then came a call to ask me whether I wanted to come over and play junior hockey in Finland,” he said.

From their base in the western metropolitan region of Finland’s capital Helsinki, Blues was by then starting to make a name for themselves as a fine breeding ground for promising Estonian players, Rooba had been among the players who made the jump across to Espoo and was at the club when Arrak arrived in Finland with his father in tow.

“After playing four years for Blues I was then contacted by an agent on how to continue my development. We agreed on the USA where the plan was to play college hockey, but things didn’t go as planned, so I soon decided to return back to Finland instead,” said Arrak.

Leaving the state of Iowa ahead of this season, he returned back to Helsinki and suited up for Jokerit’s U20 team where he quickly got up to speed again. Scoring for fun at the top level in the Finnish junior league, he was called up to Jokerit’s affiliate partner Kiekko-Vantaa to try his luck with the seniors in Finland’s second tier, Mestis.

“Around Christmas time this season I was first offered to practice with Kiekko-Vantaa and it went well so I got playing with the team,” he said of an eventful 2018 so far which seen him suit up for Kiekko-Vantaa in Metsis before his raw talent caught the eye of Liiga’s Vaasan Sport.

“In my opinion, he has really big potential. His development was halted a bit by his decision to go to the USHL. Since coming back ahead of this season he became the top scorer for Jokerit’s U20 and played senior hockey in Mestis and I believe that he will at least be a player in Liiga but could get even higher,” said Estonia head coach Jussi Tupamaki as he lines up Arrak’s attributes that will come to good use in years to come for the Estonian national team.

“He is very versatile, able to play both as center or on the wing. He is tall and skillful but still can play a physical game but needs more kilos and power,” continued Tupamaki.

Behind the emergence of Arrak, more promising signs are coming from Finland which in the near future could be benefiting the Estonian national team.

Joining Arrak to Vaasan Sport for next season is 18-year-old Tallinn-born netminder Conrad Molder. Having moved to Finland in his teens to pursue his future prospects, Molder is eligible for both Estonia and Finland, but yet to feature for either country.

Another player Estonia harbour high hopes for is Kristjan Kombe, a tall center hailing from Estonia’s Saaremaa island who just turned 18 and is showing good promise in HPK Hameenlinna’s U20 set-up.

The lone Estonian national team player selected so far in the NHL Entry Draft was Toivo Suursoo as 283rd overall back in 1994. Narva-born Leo Komarov of the Toronto Maple Leafs was born in what today is Estonia but represents the country he was brought up in, Finland.

For Arrak any talk of whether or not he one day will be mentioned in the same breath as those two appears not to face him as he wants his hockey to do the talking.

“Yes, sometimes I look at my NHL-draft ranking, but my dream is not to be drafted but to actually play there one day,” said Arrak.

Georgia’s joy Emerging nation claims first gold

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By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Georgian hockey is celebrating after the former Soviet republic produced its best-ever result in IIHF play to win the Division III title in Cape Town.

The mountainous nation, high in the Caucasus, only played its first internationals in 2010 and competed in IIHF events for the first time in 2013. For two seasons, it could not manage a single victory, but those struggles were all forgotten after four wins from five games in South Africa secured the sought-after gold medals and elevation to Division IIB.

The change in fortune came namely thanks to Russian-trained players who have joined the Georgian national team in the past two years. Of the five best scorers three have names hailing from Russia or Ukraine and all five learned their hockey abroad. The tournament’s scoring leader Alexander Zhuzhunashvili originally came from Moscow to play for the country of his ancestors and made it to the second-highest junior league MHL-B in Russia. Also Alexander Vasilchenko, Artyom Kozyulin and Artyom Kurbatov played their hockey in Moscow while Oliver Obolgogiani, second in scoring, played junior hockey in Finland, and goalie Andrei Ilienko is a native of St. Petersburg.

The free-scoring offence put Georgia in control of the group. The country started with a 6-2 win in a neighbouring clash with Turkey and followed that up by beating Bulgaria 5-3. Next came a crushing 11-1 demolition of Hong Kong before a stumble against the host nation saw South Africa win 4-2 and threatened to halt the promotion parade. Going into Sunday’s final round of games, Georgia knew that it had to defeat Chinese Taipei or be overtaken when Turkey and Bulgaria played later that day.

In the event, there was little to worry about. Zhuzhunashvili opened the scoring after just 17 seconds, potting the first of four goals for him in the game. Defenceman Artyom Kurbanov doubled the lead soon afterwards and Georgia was looking comfortable. There a momentary wobble: captain Vitali Dumbadze took a 5+20 for a high hit and Taipei got one back on the PP, but Semyon Kharizov hit back with a short-handed goal to calm the alarm. Once the teams were back to equal strength, normal service was resumed: Georgia jumped to a 5-1 lead at the end of the first period and added three more in the two remaining frames. Kharizov completed a hat-trick, Zhuzhunashvili completed his four-goal haul with a short-handed marker four seconds from the end. The final score was 11-2, with Yen-Lin Shen and Po-Yun Hsiao getting the consolation goals for Chinese Taipei.

The earlier head-to-head results meant that nobody could catch Georgia now. Bulgaria pipped Turkey to bronze with an overtime victory and South Africa safely navigated a potential relegation showdown against Hong Kong by winning 6-0. But this tournament was all about Georgia’s historic triumph. The team was led by the free-scoring Zhuzhunasvili, one of several Russian-Georgian players on the team. A generation earlier than him, head coach Roland Svanidze underwent a similar journey, starting his career as a player of Georgian descent at Metallurg Novokuznetsk before a stint playing in Dubai and a move into coaching with the Georgian national program. However, this is no mere team of imports playing under a flag of convenience. Most of the roster does indeed have Georgian names and many players come from the domestic system.

So where does Georgian hockey come from? There is a Soviet history to the game here: the first recorded appearance of a Georgian team dates from the Winter Spartakiad of 1962, where Soviet Georgia competed in a kind of Winter Olympics for the republics of the USSR. At the competition in Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, the team defeated the Armenian and Kyrgyz SSRs but lost to the Kazakhs and all three Baltic republics.

The modern-day team is entirely drawn from the country’s four-team national championship. The bulk of the players, perhaps surprisingly, do not represent the three teams from the capital, Tbilisi, but come from Mimino in the small mountain village of Bakuriani. That community of 2,500 people high in the Borjomi region is something of a winter sport’s hub: a popular ski resort, it was also home to Nodar Kumaritashvili, the luger tragically killed in training at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Mimino supplied 11 of Svanidze’s 20-man roster for Cape Town.

Although the early days of Georgia’s new hockey era were tough – no wins in two years of IIHF competition and a chastening -75 goal difference in 2014, then a disqualification in 2016 for selecting ineligible players in Division III in Istanbul – the team has progressed quickly. Last year’s event in Sofia saw the team claim bronze, with only a group-stage loss to eventual champion Luxembourg denying the team a place in the gold-medal game against host nation Bulgaria. With something to build on, Svanidze and his team refined their plans. In 2018, the efforts paid off: a sparkling performance in South Africa secured promotion for the first time and a highest-ever World Championship ranking of 41st.

Ak Bars Kazan upsets CSKA Moscow to win KHL’s Gagarin Cup

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By Associated Press

Russia’s Ak Bars Kazan won the Kontinental Hockey League’s Gagarin Cup for the third time in its history on Sunday with a surprise 4-1 series win over CSKA Moscow.

Ak Bars won Game 5 1-0, with ex-Edmonton Oilers wing Rob Klinkhammer scoring the winning goal on the power play early in the third period. Emil Garipov stopped 33 shots for the first shutout of the finals.

It was the first Gagarin Cup since 2010 for Ak Bars, which won the title in the KHL’s first two seasons but hadn’t won since.

Ak Bars was considered the underdog since CSKA’s roster included eight of the Russian players who won Olympic gold in February, with Ak Bars having none.

Andras Benk has seen it all with Hungary

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By Szabolcs Zavodszky IIHF.com

For anyone who represents a country such as Hungary playing in the top division is a great accomplishment. Playing in two top-level World Championships during a career is a tremendous achievement and only a couple of Hungarian players have pulled off this feat, one of them being Andras Benk.

“If I remember correctly my first game for the Hungarian national team was in the Ice Palace against Croatia in November of that season. The final score was 3-3, and I scored in the shootout. In those early days I remember sometimes playing in one lineup with Gabor Ocskay Jr or Krisztian Palkovics. Pat Cortina was the coach at the time and would throw me in with them. These are great memories to look back at,” remembers Andras Benk when asked about his first experience with the national team.

The 30-year-old forward came along in Hungarian hockey in a peculiar time. He made his debut in the national team during the 2005/2006 season, two seasons later head coach Pat Cortina picked him to make his first World Championship, which happened to be where Hungary won promotion to the top division. The 2008 Hungarian team was made up of mostly players born between 1975 and 1980, which has become known as the golden generation in Hungarian hockey.

“It is an interesting situation. 10 years have passed without me really realizing it. I really didn’t notice the turnover on the team until we played for the 90th anniversary of Hungarian hockey when I was named the captain. We faced Poland and I was the oldest player on the team. The guys that were older or more experienced than me have stepped aside or retired,” said Benk as he talked about his observation.

During the season he and Janos Vas were the oldest players still carrying the torch and getting ready to pass it to the next generation of players that are breaking in and possibly the next golden generation (born between 1994-1997).

“I am the link between the older generation and the guys coming up right now. My teammates back then had grown up in a completely different world than the ones that are coming up right now. However, we are playing hockey and chasing the little black puck on the ice and trying to put it into the back of the net. I am really enjoying this and as I am getting older I am noticing that I am enjoying hockey more and more. I hope to be a key member of not only the national team but my club team as well for the next few years.”

Vas spent most of his career playing in the top leagues throughout Europe and North America, Benk has spent his entire career in Hungary aside from playing one year in Sweden. Benk came up through the youth system of Dunaujvaros, which produced not only Benk and Vas but other Hungarian players such as Balazs Ladanyi, Viktor Tokaji, Marton Vas, Imre Peterdi and Zoltan Hetenyi. He debuted for the senior team in the Hungarian league before moving on to spend one season in Sweden playing for the U20 team for Huddinge.

“It is an interesting turn, it was a great experience for me to be playing with Ocskay, Palkovics or Balazs Ladanyi when I first played in the national team, playing in one line with them and assisting on one of their goals or scoring off of a pass from them was always a great experience. They have aged out and gotten older. I remember sitting in the stands or next to the glass and watch the great Dunaujvaros-Szekesfehervar matches, Levente Szuper was in the net, and Csaba Kovacs Jr. scored in a shootout for Fehervar with the stands jampacked with fans. Now I am the one, along with Janos Vas maybe, who can talk about what it used to be like. I do feel that the younger players look up to me and what I have accomplished, but I am always happy to pass on what I have experienced and learned to the next generation. The world and the hockey world have changed tremendously in the past 10 years. The game has picked up in speed and we are different style of play.”

Benk came back from Sweden and played for Szekesfehervar in the Austrian-based EBEL for nine seasons and has spent the past two playing for UTE in Hungary. On the international stage he has played in nine World Championship tournaments, which included two emotion-filled promotions to the top division and two appearances there in 2009 and 2016.

“I was very young in Sapporo, that was my first World Championship and I was very happy that Cortina had selected me to make the team. I was so young I don’t think I realized what was going on. I was just doing what I was told, just going and working hard. I was at the right place at the right time and it was an honour to play with the guys that I was on one team with. We won promotion again a few years later with a young team. It is a great feeling to be playing a larger part and to be an older player when we won promotion to the top division in 2015,” Benk said and continued:

“In 2009 in Switzerland we were only seconds away from picking up our first points in the top division against Slovakia. I assisted on Roger Holeczy’s goal in that game. We thought this was a great accomplishment but then this was followed up by a game against Canada and they cleaned the ice with us. But we needed to taste this so to learn and use the experience to be back sooner. In 2016 in Russia we had a better chance to stay in the top division and we played some great games. We have been playing against top-level teams recently. When I first started in the national team we would play matches against teams that were at our level or just below us. In the past few years we have been playing games against stable top-level countries in preparation for the World Championship. This helps the learning process for us and it is easier for us to adjust to their pace if we face more countries like this.”

Just since 2016 Hungary has played Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Russia, Denmark and Korea outside of World Championship play.

The goal this season of course is to win promotion back to the top division under the guidance of new head coach Jarmo Tolvanen at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest.

“I really hope that the next step is that we become an ‘elevator’ country such as Austria or Slovenia and eventually be in the top division more often than in the Division I. We have more and more players playing in the top leagues in the world. We need a player to make it to the NHL and these chances are improving every year. Ádam Vay is right there and with a little luck he will have the breakthrough to make it to an NHL roster. With this eventually the national team will be in the top division. That would be a great experience not just for the players but also for the fans.”

Regardless of what happens in the next few years, what is for sure is that Hungarian hockey and anyone that Andras Benk has played with has only benefited with him being in and around the sport and he hopes to continue doing this for years to come. “I have two top-division appearances and good number of World Championships under my belt, this being said I am still only 30 years old, which in hockey is still a good age.”

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