Friday, April 29, 2011
Today the 2011 IIHF World Championships begin in Slovakia, which is hosting the event for the first time.
Games are being played in Košice, located in the eastern part of the country, and in Bratislava, 250 miles away, located on the far western border with Austria. Bratislava has previously hosted the World Championships in 1959 and 1992 when it was then a part of Czechoslovakia prior to the division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993.
Since gaining their independence, Slovakia have been regular participants in the World Championships, first being assigned to Pool C as a new country, the lowest rung of the ladder system, despite the Czechs remaining in the Top Divison. Having felt they were undeservedly placed far too low on the ladder system, the Slovaks proved their point by immediately winning Pool C in 1994 and followed that by winning Pool B the very next year, completing a rise to the Top Division in the shortest time possible, aided by a 38-year-old Peter Stastny, who scored 8 goals and 16 points in just 6 games to lead Slovakia to the top of the IIHF ladder, where they have remained ever since.
Slovakian legend and National Team captain Peter Stastny
They slowly rose from a 10th place finish at the top level in 1996 to 9th and then a pair of 7ths before winning a silver medal in 2000. A drop back to 7th in 2001 was followed by the highlight of Slovakian hockey history, as they captured the World Championship in 2002.
Since that time however, the program has been in a steady, slow decline. They followed their championship with a respectable bronze medal in 2003 and then dropped to 4th, 5th and then 8th place. 2007 saw a rise to 6th, but then the dismal drop to the relegation round and a 13th place finish in 2008 and a 10th place in 2009, avoiding the relegation round thanks only to a narrow 4-3 win over Hungary.
Last year saw Slovakia finish second in Group A thanks two wins over Belarus and Kazakhstan, but that early promise was dashed in the Qualifying Round with a shootout loss to Belarus, a 7-3 drubbing by Canada, an overtime loss to Finland and an 8-0 pounding by rivals the Czech Republic. They completed their tournament by needing overtime to defeat winless Norway to limp home to a 10th place finish.
They will certainly be hoping to repeat the boost of playing in front of the home fans that Germany enjoyed last year by finishing 4th after being spared relegation after their dismal 15th place finish in 2008 due to a protection clause exempting them from relegation to ensure their participation as hosts the following year.
Despite their recent issues in the World Championships, Slovakia enters the tournament ranked 8th in the IIHF World Rankings thanks to a strong 4th place finish in the 2010 Winter Olympics when they were able to field their strongest possible team, free from the conflicts of their best players often being unavailable during the World Championships each spring due to their commitments to their NHL clubs, which are fully engulfed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs each spring.
Without a doubt, the greatest moment in Slovakian hockey history followed one of it's lowest moments. Due to rules in place during the time of the 2002 Winter Olympics in February, Slovakia was required to participate in Group A along with Austria, Germany and Latvia in the Preliminary Round, which took place prior to the NHL taking a break from it's regular season schedule in time for Slovakia's best players to compete in the early games, costing them a chance to advance to the First Round group stage when their star players, such as Peter Bondra, Josef Stumpel, Ziggy Palffy, Pavol Demitra, Marian Hossa, Miroslav Satanand Zedeno Chara, were either unavailable or limited to a game or two at best.
As a result of missing the nation's best, Slovakia finished last in their group with an 0-2-1 record and failed to advance to the First Round, which took place entirely after the break in the NHL season.
Slovakia proved the unfairness of this system just two months later when, allowed to field a more complete roster, they placed second in Group B in the First Round after defeating Poland and Ukraine before losing to Finland.
In the Qualification Round's Group F, they defeated Sweden, Austria and Russia, proving they were to be reckoned with. In the Quarter Finals they eliminated Canada in regulation, coming from behind with two goals in the third, before having to go to a tense shootout to defeat Sweden to move into the Finals, again vs. Russia, where they won the championship on a goal by the great Peter Bondra with less than two minutes remaining after trailing 3-1 after two periods.
Starting with the next Olympics in 2006, the schedule was altered to match the NHL schedule break starting in 2006 to prevent such an occurrence from happening again.
This year's World Championships will take place starting today through the championship final on May 15th in Bratislava.
16 countries will participate, with Russia, Slovakia, Germany and Slovenia comprising Group A, Canada, Switzerland, Belarus and France competing in Group B, Sweden, the United States, Norway and Austria fighting it out in Group C and Finland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Denmark facing off in Group D.
The top three teams in each group will move on to the Qualification Round, with the 12 teams being divided into two six team groups, designated Group E and Group F. From there, the top 4 teams in both of those groups will be paired up for the Quarterfinals, which begins the knockout phase of the tournament, where the true excitement really begins and the winners keep advancing until a champion is crowned.
Meanwhile, the four last place teams from the Preliminary Round will be placed in the Relegation Round with the bottom two being demoted to Division 1 for 2012.
Today's featured jersey is a 2002 Slovakia National Team Peter Bondra jersey as worn when "Peter the Great" scored the game winning goal in the championship Final of the 2002 World Championships, just three months after failing to advance out of the Preliminary Round at the 2002 Olympics.
Our video selection today takes a look back at the excitement of Slovakia winning their first World Championship back in 2002.