COLOGNE, GERMANY - MAY 23: Tomas Rolinek (C) of Czech Republic celebrates after winning the IIHF World Championship gold medal match between Russia and Czech Republic at Lanxess Arena on May 23, 2010 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
So the IIHF World Championships are coming around for another season, with sixteen of the top nations in the world coming to a host nation to have a little bit of fun for the largely European audience. It's an end of the season party, and the top hockey played on the continent every year (barring an Olympics, obviously). However, while the rosters are full of international stars, both of the veteran and up and coming variety, the serious side of the Championships remains in the background. These annual tournaments are the basis for the qualification for the next Olympics, and these first two years post-Olympics are the most important in terms of determining that fate.
The IIHF World Ranking is the basis for Olympic qualification, so while it sometimes produces some silly results, it generally serves its purpose: the top 9 nations in the ranking after the 2012 Worlds will be able to start making reservations for Sochi in 2014. The final three spots will be determined through a qualification process, weighted to favour those teams ranked 10-18, if the same process is used as for 2010. Each year closer to the Olympics is weighted as more important than the next: the 2009 Worlds are only valued at 25% of full value, the 2010 Olympics and Worlds are worth 50% of value each, the 2011 Worlds are at 75% of value, and the 2012 Worlds will be marked at full value. It's far from perfect (the 2010 Olympics and the World Championships are valued the same?), but its a decent method.
With that in mind, let's have a look at this year's four groups, and how each country looks in terms of reaching a top 9 spot. The groupings this year is based off the 2010 IIHF World Ranking:
|Group A (WR)||Oly Pts||Rank||Group D||Oly Pts||Rank|
|Russia (1)||1690||1||Finland (4)||1605||5|
|Slovakia (8)||1460||9||Czech Republic (5)||1670||2|
|Germany (9)||1495||8||Latvia (12)||1395||12|
|Slovenia (19)||1155||19||Denmark (13)||1390||13|
Next year, there will be two groups of eight, so this is the last year of the current format. Group A will start the action of Friday with Russia vs. Germany and Slovakia vs. Slovenia. The next day, Group D will take over with two games at the Orange Arena in Bratislava, featuring Finland vs. Denmark and the defending champion Czechs vs. Latvia. As you can see, this is a huge tournament for Slovakia's Olympic hopes. They're precariously holding onto a top 9 spot, so the hope of using the home crowd, and attracting the best players possible to finish as high as possible will go a long ways to securing a spot. Germany got that home boost last year, finishing fourth, their highest finish post-reunification. Still, they face close competition from Belarus and Norway, while Latvia and Denmark could make gains a top 8 finish. Making the initial cut into the top 12 shouldn't be a huge issue, as Slovenia is the weakest nation at the tournament and are missing their two NHL players (Anze Kopitar and Jan Mursak), but these aren't the 'A' rosters for the other countries, either. Upsets are definitely possible. Group D will feature an interesting match-up between Latvia and Denmark for a top 3 finish in the group, while hockey powers Finland and the Czechs are sitting pretty comfortably, with more help on the way from the NHL in the coming days. Denmark is missing a lot of their best players due to the NHL playoffs and injuries, so their chances of reaching the quarterfinals again are more difficult.
|Group B (WR)||Oly Pts||Rank||Group C (WR)||Oly Pts||Rank|
|Canada (2)||1655||3||Sweden (3)||1650||4|
|Switzerland (7)||1535||6||United States (6)||1515||7|
|Belarus (10)||1435||10||Norway (11)||1420||11|
|France (15)||1240||15||Austria (14)||1255||14|
Due to their 13th place finish at last year's Worlds, the good work done by the American 2010 Olympic team was largely undone in the eyes of the World Ranking. They're sitting at 7th, but I wouldn't consider them in danger quite yet. They obviously have to, and should be able to finish in the top 3 of their group this year, even with an inexperienced roster again. Canada and Sweden don't have a lot to worry about, and even Switzerland should be safe. Reaching the quarterfinals is the key for Olympic qualification: it'll guarantee a top 8 finish, simple as that, and if you're already in the top 8, you won't be losing that spot. Belarus and Norway are chomping at the bit to join the top 9. Norway will have a full squad minus KHL star Patrick Thoreson, who is missing this year to spend some much needed time with his family. Belarus is missing two NHL players right now in the Kostitsyn brothers, who are both involved in the NHL playoffs, though Andrei Kostitsyn is playing in a Game 7 on Wednesday. These are the types of nations who need as many hands on deck as possible this year and next.
Group B action starts on Friday with Switzerland vs. France and Canada vs. Belarus, while Group C follows the next day with Finland vs. Denmark and Norway vs. Sweden. Each group goes one day on, one day off, with action every day through to Wednesday May 4, when the preliminary round closes. After that, the fourth place teams in each group are sent to the relegation round, and the top 12 teams are reorganized to play another set of 3 games against teams from the other group in their city. That stage runs through May 9 (while the relegation round runs May 5-8), and then the top 8 teams make the quarterfinals, where the teams are seeded from 1-8 in a one game elimination format. The quarterfinals run May 11 and 12th, and are followed quickly by the semifinals on Friday May 13. The bronze medal and gold medal games follow on May 15th. All of the playoff games take place in Bratislava.
It's serious business for a lot of countries, but hey, it's a lot of fun as well.
Here's the entire schedule from the IIHF's website.