When International Hockey Powers Don’t Look Behind Them

A good hockey team wins most of its games. But a great hockey team wins when it needs to, and doesn’t lose a game to a weaker team. How much more is this true for hockey teams that represent entire countries?

This is the fate that befell Sweden in the 2002 Olympics when they took the night off against Belarus. Thanks to a great performance by their goalie, and an all-around team effort, Belarus knocked off a giant and earned the chance to play for a medal.

At the time, there was one Belarusian NHL player. Eight years later, there are four. Not exactly a boom of new talent. Since then, Belarus has been mediocre in IIHF tournaments, never mustering anything close to a win against a true hockey power. Goliath is out for blood against David, and the top teams have made it clear that the win in 2002 was little more than a fluke.

The top six of Canada, United States, Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic are safe for the foreseeable future. Below them are the Slovaks and whoever else has had recent success.

The vaunted seventh, eighth and ninth spots in the IIHF world rankings are more than just random numbers. The last Olympics saw the top nine get automatic berths. So it serves as a valuable measuring stick for hockey nations that have become good and stayed good. Belarus snuck in the ninth spot, but has shown it has much work to do before it can stay there. Here now is a look at other lesser nations, and their chances of joining the upper echelon for good.

Germany Has to Tear Down That Wall

For years Germany held the number 8 spot solidly due to having Olaf Kolzig’s stellar play. They’ve produced a handful of NHLers over the years, with a few young Germans on the rise, like San Jose goalie Thomas Greiss and Toronto prospects Korbinian Holzer and Marcel Mueller, to name a few.

But Germany has yet to produce an NHL star. Even lesser countries have managed this. One big reason is the German emphasis on trap-style defense, which keeps them in a few games at the IIHF World Championship. On the strength of this, and its relative youth, Germany pulled off an upset and finished fourth in the 2010 World Championship.

Unfortunately for the Germans, this means there are higher expectations next time around, as well as increased attention from other teams. So unless Germany can unshackle their players, let them show some creativity and develop a star or two, they will become the next Belarus.

Latvia Isn’t Just Russia’s Cousin

Latvia was late coming to the international party, following in the heels of its Former Soviet brothers. For a time it enjoyed moderate success, even qualifying for the Olympics in 2006 and 2010. It had real stars like Sandis Ozolinsh, Karlis Skrastins, Arturs Irbe and Sergei Zholtok. But when the latter died suddenly in a locker room, a gap was created that was never filled.

Unfortunately for the Latvians, their stars are aging. Their team in Vancouver 2010 had but two NHLer, one a depth player and Skrastins the other. Latvia has had its moment in the sun, but there will be nothing for a few years without some work.

Denmark Prepares to Launch

On the flip side, there’s a new light shining from Europe. Denmark, a nation long obscure from a hockey perspective, is on the rise. In the past five years, a Dane has been drafted at least once, including two in the first round. While Lars Eller has yet to crack an NHL roster, and Mikkel Boedker has yet to stick, the country has much to look forward to.

The NHL has two other Danes: Peter Regin in Ottawa and Frans Nielsen in Long Island. On the international stage, the Danes are rising slowly but steadily. They nearly qualified for the Vancouver games in a tough group, and have stayed in the top pool of the World Championships.

This is progress, but the true sign of making it as a hockey player is to produce at least two NHL stars. This may yet happen for the Danes, but it’s too early to tell. But stay tuned. Big things may be coming from this tenacious little country.

Switzerland Has Climbed the Mountain

In a rare case of success in the absence of stars, the Swiss have become that team no one wants to play in international tournaments. Already they have Canada’s number. They pay tough defense, never let the other team make plays, and have stellar goaltending every time. In other words, Team Switzerland is a team, unlike the collection of individuals other countries show up as.

Slowly but surely, the Swiss are infiltrating the NHL. Their biggest star yet, Nido Niederreiter, was drafted fifth by the Islanders. They have stayed in the eight, seventh, or even sixth spot in the World Rankings. It may be early to dub them a new hockey power, but they belong in that conversation, and they’re here to stay.

The Rest of the Second Best

Other countries need some love too. But they also need stars. From time to time, teams will rise as high as tenth, and then disappear for an Olympics or two. Some just fall off the map. Ukraine, Lithuania and Kazakhstan, for instance have had trouble qualifying for the top level in the IIHF World Championships. Moreover, they seemed to have stopped producing NHLers.

In Western Europe, France has made a bit of a comeback after some time away, and so has Italy. But they must be consistent in order to stay where they are. Same with Norway, who may be the new Denmark. Austria has an NHL star names Thomas Vanek to their credit, but nothing else. In order to prove they’re for real, they must produce. So stay tuned. Perhaps more countries will rise unexpectedly.