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Host Finland can break home-ice curse in Group A

Thursday, 05.03.2012 / 11:14 AM / 2012 IIHF World Championship

By Risto Pakarinen - NHL.com Correspondent

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Host Finland can break home-ice curse in Group A
Finland hoping home-ice advantage will be difference in Group A at IIHF World Championship

HELSINKI, Finland –– The World Championship home-ice curse has been well documented through the years. After all, it's been 25 years since the host team has won World Championship gold, with some excellent teams having tried their hands at breaking the curse.

In all, only six host teams -- and two host nations -- have won the World Championship title: Czechoslovakia (1947, 1972, and 1985) and the Soviet Union (1973, 1979, and 1986).

Realistically, the host nation isn't always expected to compete for gold. Austria, for example, has hosted the Worlds six times since 1964, but nobody ever expected it to win any of those tournaments.

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Six teams have won the 24 tournaments staged since 1986, the last year in which the host went all the way. Since then, the tournament has been won by the Czech Republic (six times), Canada (five), Soviet Union/Russia (five), Sweden (five), Finland (two), and Slovakia (one). Those six teams have hosted the World Championship 11 times in that period, with Canada only hosting once and Slovakia considered more than a long-shot to go all the way when they hosted last year.

But the pressure of playing host has even reached some of the lower-seeded teams. Switzerland failed to qualify for the playoff stage and finished ninth when they hosted in 2009.

This year, the tournament will be co-hosted by Finland and Sweden, with the final played in Helsinki, Finland. Next year, the Nordic neighbors will co-host the tournament again, with Stockholm's Globe Arena as the main venue.

Defending champion Finland is considered one of the teams that can win it all this time around, but they're not the biggest pre-tournament favorite.

With only four NHLers on its roster -- goaltender Kari Lehtonen and forwards Valtteri Filppula, Mikko Koivu, and Jussi Jokinen -- Finland has fewer NHL players than any other major hockey nation. The Czechs, for example, have six NHLers, and Russia seven.

Sweden has 14 NHLers on its roster, including Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, Calder Trophy nominee Gabriel Landeskog, and Dallas Stars forward Loui Eriksson. There is also a prominent Red Wings quartet consisting of forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzén as well as defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson.

Several former NHLers also dot several team rosters. When France takes on Canada, for example, former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet should see several familiar faces.

Switzerland has been making big strides in the past 10 years and can now challenge larger hockey nations, even if their roster may seem unfamiliar to the casual fan. Belarus' goaltending tandem of Vitali Koval and Andrei Mezin also has the ability to compete with bigger names. They may not be established NHL commodities, but the Belarussian goalies have established themselves at the World Championship, especially since Mezin was named best goaltender in 2009.

In this group, France and Kazakhstan are hoping to stay in the top division while Slovakia, Switzerland, and Belarus compete for a spot in the playoff round. Canada, Finland, and the United States are expected to fight for the top spot in the group.

One of the perennial favorites, Team Canada boasts tremendous offensive skill with forwards like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Evander Kane, and Jeff Skinner. With a roster full of NHL talent, Canada's management plans on staying in Finland until May 20, the final day of the tournament.

A few years ago, the American team appeared on the verge of becoming a force at the World Championship, winning bronze in 2004. Since then, they've consistently qualified for the quarterfinals before being eliminated. In 2009, they got past that hurdle, but lost in the semifinal and finished fourth. In 2010, they were forced to play in the relegation group. After losing in the quarterfinal last year, the Americans should be back in the mix for a medal in 2012.

Even if winning the World Championship at home is difficult, Finland should enjoy the unique opportunity of playing on home ice as defending world champion. Only seven other host teams have entered the World Championship as the defending champion: Great Britain in 1937, Sweden in 1954, Sweden in 1963, Czechoslovakia in 1978, Soviet Union in 1979, Sweden in 1989 (as the winners of the 1987 tournament, there was no World Championship tournament in 1988, an Olympic year), and Canada in 2008.

Only one of these teams defended their title successfully: the Soviet Union in 1979. One of the players on that team was defenseman Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, now head coach of Team Russia. But if he has any helpful advice about defending a world title at home, he isn't likely to share it with the Finns.

Quote of the Day

He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers