The World Championships are always exciting to watch because of the different styles of hockey that clash. There is the finesse passing style of host team Finland and fellow Scandinavian countries Sweden and Norway. Then there is the dump and chase, strong fore-checking style famous in North America.
The Czechs and Slovaks attack the net with crossing wingers looking for a pass that will put the goalie way out of position for an easy goal. And of course there are the Russians whose speed turns any mistake into a one- on-one with the goalie.
The only cloud over any world championship is that by playing in late April and early May, the NHL playoffs are in full swing, keeping most of the world's best players from their ęnational teams.
Still, pride and bragging rights are at stake, providing some of the best hockey in the year. Here's how the teams in Slovakia's pool shape up:
Predicted order of finish
1. Czech Republic
World Championship Record: 276-123-41 (incl. Czecholovakia) (Gold: 7; Silver: 12; Bronze: 17
1996 Group A Record: 7-0-1 (1st)
vs. Slovakia: 5-0
Outlook: The Czechs took the tournament last year and are awaiting a slew of NHL stars (35 Czechs play in the NHL), including goal-scorer Petr Nedvěd. The Czechs have a strong tradition at goalie which is vital in these tense games. They look good enough again to fight for a gold.
World Championship Record: 128-183-40 (wins-losses-ties)
Gold: 1; Silver: 2; Bronze: 0
1996 Group A Record: 2-2-2 (5th)
vs. Slovakia: 3-1-1
Outlook: Playing on home ice will be a huge boost for the Finns. Their pack-in defense, wait for breakaways style is perfect for the tournament. Expect them to contend for a medal.
World Championship Record: 270-126-41 (incl. Czechoslovakia)
Gold: 6; Silver: 12; Bronze: 17
1996 Group A Record: 1-3-1 (9th)
vs. Group A: 31-19-11
Outlook: Slovakia has to stay disciplined on defense, or they will stay stationary. The Slovaks play Russia well, which could be their ticket to the final round. On offense they are set with NHL players Juraj Droppa and high scoring Jozef Stümpel, as well as captain Zdeno Cíger.
Goalie is a question mark since both Jaromír Dragan and Pavol Murin are bothered by injuries. That could mean old Eduard Hartmann back from his absence last year could be minding the nets. His experience could help the sometimes absent-minded defensemen. Breaking into the top six would be a tremendous accomplishment for the Slovaks. They will do it.
World Championship Record: 275-34-21 (wins-losses-ties)
Gold: 23; Silver: 7; Bronze: 5
1996 Group A Record: 6-2 (4th)
vs. Slovakia: 4-3-1
Outlook: The Russians are always an unknown quantity at the start of the tournament. One thing for sure is that they always have young guns who can light up the scoreboard. But there are too many stars in the NHL playoffs and dissension in the Russian hockey league means that this year's team is ripe for an upset.
World Championship Record: 99-208-34
Gold: 0; Silver: 2; Bronze: 2
1996 Group A Record: 2-4 (8th)
vs. Slovakia: 0-3
Outlook: The Germans surprised everyone in last year's World Cup in August when they knocked the Czechs out of the tourney. They have an adequate offense, but there are too many holes on defense. Still they are not in danger of being relegated.
World Championship Record: 19-52-1
Gold: 0; Silver: 0; Bronze: 0
1996 Group A Record: 2-5 (11th)
vs. Slovakia: 0-8-2
Outlook: Au revoir. The French were lucky that the Austrians were in Group A last year. There is no such lackey this year, and the former Soviet Republics will rise from the lower pools. The French won't be seen for a while.
Predicted order of finish
The Canadians and Americans are stocked with NHL players and national team veterans. They should breeze through their pool. Latvia will be the surprise of the tournament. Their strong flexible defenders don't let many forwards get close to the goalie. Playing in Finland is virtually home ice.
Sweden was dissappointed last year by the ice conditions. The bottom line is they were vulnerable on defense, which will knock them out of contention again. Italy has some bruisers - mainly Canadians of Italian decent to stuff the goal - but they rack up the penalty minutes. Norway is the weakest of the Scandinavian countries. They should be able to beat France in the relegation round to avoid going down.
SILVER: Czech Republic
Slovakia will finish fifth.
24. Apr 1997 at 0:00 | Daniel J. Stoll