After a year away during one of the most tumultuous years in human history, with a pandemic and political strife seeing a year-long delay and a change in venue, the international hockey calendar sees some sense of normalcy return with the resurgence of the IIHF World Championship, set to take place this year in Rīga, Latvia.
Unlike most other years, where NHL players eliminated from the playoffs or during the opening rounds would head east to Europe to join their respective national teams, pandemic restrictions and bubble setups have already resulted in a number of NHL players, particularly those that are older or with families, opting out of the tournament, meaning that younger players are getting the opportunity to represent their country. However, this gives a distinct advantage to the likes of Russia and Sweden, who are shoring up with more non-NHL stars to give a mix of veteran and youth firepower to contend with younger squads like Team USA or Canada.
Group A sees three of the four Euro Hockey Tour heavy hitters facing off, with Czechia, Russia and Sweden the likeliest to finish top three in the group. Current IHLC holders Switzerland, along with Slovakia, are bringing more youthful squads to Latvia by virtue of lack of NHL firepower, and will look to fight for a spot in the elimination round. Thanks to no relegation in 2021 due to pandemic restrictions on lower Division tournaments, teams that would normally be fighting to avoid relegation (Belarus, Denmark and Great Britain) can take the year to develop their players, and to potentially even cause some upsets.
Group B sees defending champions Finland contending against the likes of Canada and the United States, who as mentioned earlier will come to Rīga with an abundance of youth, but with a lack of established star power to contend; look for Finland to top the table in Group B once again. Hosts Latvia will be looking to make a huge splash in front of a raucous hometown crowd, while teams like Germany and Norway will struggle to compete without their NHL stars being available to them. Italy, Kazakhstan and Norway will also benefit from the lack of relegation, and will surely try to surprise some teams as the tournament goes on.
Click here to see the full 2021 World Championship schedule
From the perspective of the IHLC, a few interesting facts related to this year’s World Championship:
– Switzerland enters as incumbent champions for the seventh time, and first since 2013, when they held a perfect record heading into the final and finished with Silver
– this is the second World Championship hosted in Latvia, with Rīga first hosting in 2006, which saw Sweden win the first “double” of Olympic and World Championship Gold in the same year
– Minsk, who lost hosting rights due to political unrest and safety concerns, was set to host its second World Championship, after first hosting in 2014, which saw Russia win their 27th title
– due to a CAS ruling over a state-sanctioned doping program, this and next year Russia will compete as the “Russian Olympic Committee,” playing under a neutral flag and anthem
– despite a two year gap, defending champions Finland are looking to repeat as champions and win their fourth ever title, and third in the past decade (2011, 2019)
– with no relegations this year, the likes of Great Britain, Italy, Belarus and Kazakhstan will have their returns to Finland in 2022 guaranteed
– the only returning tournament All-Star to this year’s Worlds is 2019 top defenceman Filip Hronek, playing for Czechia
While Switzerland enters with the International Hockey Lineal Championship in hand looking for Gold, who leaves Rīga with both titles, official and unofficial, remains to be seen. With the way the international hockey world has been for the past 15 months, and the chance for young NHL players or European league stars to make their mark, this will certainly be a fascinating tournament to watch as the keystone event on the international hockey calendar gets underway.