Slovakia is hosting its first ice hockey World Championship from April 29 to May 15. While the Slovaks have high expectations as a "hockey nation," Germany has only one aim: not to get relegated.
The Slovaks will be looking to use their home advantage
No one can escape the allure of the puck in Slovakia, where ice hockey is the national sport. The small landlocked country will be hosting its first World Hockey Championship from April 29 to May 15 with "We Live Hockey" as the unofficial slogan.
Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic wants to show the world that the country is a true hockey nation following almost a decade of mediocre performances by the national team. Slovakia burst onto the national ice hockey scene in 2002 by winning the World Championship and followed that triumph with a bronze medal finish a year later.
In March of 2011, Slovakia named Canadian ex-National Hockey League goalie Glen Hanlon as the first non-Slovak head coach.
Bratislava and Kosice to host
The Orange Arena in Bratislava can fit in 9,200 fans
The tournament will be played in the Slovak capital Bratislava and the city of Kosice. Bratislava hosted the World Championship together with Prague in 1992 before the division of Czechoslovakia. Germany will play all of its games in the Ondrej Nepela arena, which has been renamed the Orange Arena for the tournament. Currently the oldest arena in the country, it was completely renovated in 2009 and will have a capacity of 9,200 for the World Championship. The quarter and semifinals, as well as the gold-medal game, will be played in Bratislava.
The east Slovak regional capital Kosice has always struggled with its role as "number two" behind Bratislava. Its designation as a co-host for the tournament has delighted inhabitants, especially as it comes shortly before Kosice becomes a European capital of culture in 2013. The multipurpose Steel Arena in the city center can accommodate 7,600 fans and is the home of three-time consecutive domestic champions HC Kosice.
Germany not expecting repeat success
The ambitions of the German hockey team are modest. Head coach Uwe Krupp, who is leaving the national team after this tournament, says their main goal is to avoid relegation from the top flight of international hockey. He knows full well that a repeat of last year's unprecedented success as host nation is slightly unrealistic. Just a year after reaching the semifinals, the German team is adjusting to fighting for survival once again.
Germany may miss Christian Ehrhoff (right) on the powerplay
"We have to be very careful that we don't end up in the relegation zone," said German captain Michael Wolf.
Germany is up against the powerhouse, Russia, host Slovakia and Slovenia in Group A of the preliminary round. Slovenia has been targeted by the Germans as a potentially weak opponent in a tough group, from which the top three move on to the qualification round. The team that finished in fourth goes into the relegation round.
"Our first goal is to survive the first round, and it won't be possible to do that if we don't beat Slovenia," said German technical director Franz Reindl.
Germany open the tournament against the Russians this Friday. The Russians arrived in Slovakia with the most World Championship titles and half a dozen NHL stars, including New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk.
"You start shaking a bit at the knees," said Reindl at the prospect of playing Russia.
No help from NHL stars
Krupp's team will enter the tournament without much support from Germany's NHL players, most notably offensive defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, whose Vancouver Canucks are through to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Shortly after Jochen Hecht's Buffalo Sabres were defeated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, the 33-year-old forward announced that he was ending his international career and won't be available for Germany in Slovakia.
Other possible additions to the national team still involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs include veteran forward Marco Sturm (Washington) and defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (Boston).
"We will not speculate about NHL players," said Reindl, who added that was pleased for Ehrhoff, after his Canucks survived a grueling seven-game series against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks to advance.
Vancouver is seen as a legitimate contender to win this year's NHL playoffs - which would make Ehrhoff only the second German to hoist the Stanley Cup, after national team coach Uwe Krupp.
Author: Calle Kops / cn (sid, dpa)
Editor: Susan Houlton