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One Step Behind: Men's Worlds, Div. 1 Update

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Beyond the shiny facade of the IIHF World Championships, there are the rest of the gang in the international hockey community.  While North American fans often complain about the size of the World Championships (16 teams, biggest of any IIHF tournament), the nations just below that level are kind of caught in a time warp:  some were once promising hockey nations, others have always been around and improved little, some are too small to be a serious threat, and the occasional one is a genuine new face on the international scene, improving with each year relative to the rest of the world.  

Hockey fans with decent memories will remember the time when Ukraine held promise, but post-USSR breakup the nation has had a hard time investing in their hockey program, and many of their top talents simply accepted Russian citizenship (Anton Babchuk, Nikolai Zherdev, etc.).  Two Ukrainians skate in the NHL, namely Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky, but neither were available to help Ukraine on home ice this year at the Division 1B tournament in Kiev.  The tournament is also seen as a test for a potential KHL team, which could offer a significant boost to the country's program, offering the opportunity to develop top junior players in the MHL, while assembling the top non-NHL Ukrainians under one professional team in the second best league in the world, like Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan currently.  

Meanwhile, in Budapest, the Hungarian team is looking to use home ice to propel themselves into the championship level for only the second time post-World War II.  The previous time was just in 2009, where they posted close losses to Slovakia (3-4), Belarus (1-3), and Germany (1-2) but ultimately went winless and relegated back to Division 1.  Hungary has a single team in the Austrian based EBEL, based out of the city of Szekesfehervar, who finished 9th out of 10 teams.  Hungary also has six clubs in the MOL-Liga, a joint league with three Romanian clubs.  There has been mild chatter about a KHL franchise, as with pretty much every European hockey country, but nothing substantial to date. 

Division 1A - Budapest

This is the group that Japan was going to compete in, but had to withdraw late.  Japan will receive the same amount of World Championship points as they earned last year, and return to Division 1A competition next year as a result.  Italy is the team that was at the Elite level last year, placing 15th, and likely Hungary's top challenger.  The Netherlands, South Korea, and Spain (last year's Division 2A winner) are battling it out for the other two spots to stay up at Division 1 this year.  Through four games to date, there hasn't been any upsets, which means the real interest will pick up when the tournament resumes on Wednesday.  That doesn't mean there weren't scares:  Italy held on for slim victories of 2-0 over Spain and 3-2 over the Dutch to open the tournament, while Hungary needed three late goals to beat South Korea 6-3 after opening the tournament with a solid 7-3 win over the Dutch.  

For those with longer international hockey memories, the Dutch were once a team at the bottom rung of the top group in international hockey, qualifying for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and competing in the top division of the World Championships in 1981.  But they haven't been back to the top group since, and there hasn't been a lot of growth in the sport even in recent years, though a few players have shown up on NCAA Division 1 rosters.  Mike Dalhuisen (Quinnipac) is a current example of this.  The Dutch are currently ranked 25th in the world, which should get them into 2014 Olympic qualification tournaments.  Being a top 30 nation is key to that pursuit, so with that in mind, the real battle is for South Korea (33rd) and Spain (30th) to finish as high as possible here.  South Korea's ranking is made lower due to the fact that they didn't play in a qualification tournament for 2010, and therefore didn't get any points for that, but their current world standing (25th last year) could help them push for the points to get in the top 30 by the end of the 2012 tournaments.  Staying in Division 1 is a key.  Spain, meanwhile, do have points from the 2010 qualification tournaments, and South Korea is key competition for them, so that head to head game on Saturday is their key to both stay up in Division 1 and maintain a top 30 world ranking.

The tournament will end with a showdown between Italy and Hungary, and the winner will almost certainly be heading to Sweden/Finland in 2013.  Whatever the result, the encouraging turnout for the games so far has to be a boon for Hungarian hockey:  they are drawing nearly 8000 fans to games involving the national team, and just shy of 3000 for the two games so far not involving Hungary.  Despite the unfortunate loss of the five games on the schedule involving Japan, the tournament looks like a success.

Division 1B - Kiev

Former NHL bench boss Dave Lewis is coaching the host Ukrainians, and there is a lot of pressure on the team to deliver.  While Kazakhstan is the obvious favourite, this division appears more competitive.  It was thought with home ice Ukraine could maybe pull of a promotion, but an early loss to Great Britain (5-3) put some cold water on those plans.  Ukraine is still squarely behind where they used to be, and it'll take a lot of investment and hard work to develop an elite level program again.  Kazakhstan, meanwhile, wants to build off their strong Asian Winter Games showing and successful KHL endeavor to become a permanent Elite Division member, and qualify for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.  It won't be easy, but the will to succeed in hockey appears to be present in Kazakhstan in spades.  

At the bottom end, we have the two non-Latvian Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia, who are well behind their neighbours in hockey development.  While small, both countries are close enough in proximity to major hockey nations like Russia, Finland, and to a lesser extent Belarus and Latvia that the potential is there for growth, but it hasn't happened yet.  Lithuania's lone NHL player, Danius Zubrus, got injured in game 80 of the NHL season and wasn't able to play for his country for only the second time.  These two teams are likely to be in the battle to avoid relegation, with their head to head match-up on Saturday.  However, it wouldn't be beyond them to pull of an upset of one of the higher ranked countries.

I've talked about Great Britain's potential before, and the team has already made noise with a win over Ukraine and a close loss to Kazakhstan (1-2).  International hockey fans that are likely dead by now remember Great Britain's former prominence in the game, winning the 1936 Olympic gold medal, but post WW2 the country hasn't done much at all.  Their last appearance in the Elite group of the World Championships was a one and done in 1994, and they have been a permanent fixture at the Division 1 level since then.  Their U20 team did well this last year, so there is some hope, but probably not enough to change the status quo.  Their last game against Poland on Saturday could be very significant, however.  

Poland is another team that fans will remember being a minor power in the 1980s and early 1990s, but they've been a Division 1 team since a one and done in 2002.  There has been some signs of encouragement, but Polish hockey is definitely in need of a more lasting boost.  They're a dark horse in this group, and have the potential to finish first, but must win on back to back days (Wednesday and Thursday) against Ukraine and Kazakhstan to have a shot.