For the first time in franchise history, the Vegas Golden Knights will send players to the IIHF Men's World Championship. The 2019 edition of the tournament runs May 10-26 and is split between Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia.
During last year's tournament, the Golden Knights were in the midst of their run to the Stanley Cup Final and thus couldn't send players to join their respective countries for the festivities. This year, Vegas has three representatives playing for their respective home nations.
From 2013-17, VGK Color Analyst Shane Hnidy covered the Men's World Championship and experienced the tournament in five different locations, each of which gave him, the players and the fans with unforgettable experiences.
While countries like Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the United States are consistent contenders to win the World Championship, Hnidy said that the hockey is exciting because every team is competitive.
"The year it was in Minsk (2014), Canada lost to France in overtime and the shootout-winner came from a guy that Vegas fans would know. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored the shootout-winner and it was the first time that France beat Canada in 60-plus years," Hnidy said. "The next year was when Bellemare came over to play for Philadelphia."
That goal stuck out in Hnidy's memory because, at the time, Bellemare's name wasn't well known in North America. Now, his name resides on the backs of jerseys and shirts of Vegas Golden Knights fans. Other players that have stood out at the World Championship have made names for themselves and Hnidy said he thinks that's one of the most special things about the tournament.
"It's a neat thing about that tournament," Hnidy said. "You see a lot of guys that came over that are older and stand out in that tournament. Guys like Bellemare, Michal Kempny, Carl Soderberg, Joonas Donskoi, they make an impression over there and then they come over and play in the NHL. Artemi Panarin was another. Guys like that make an impact in that tournament because they have to."
Hnidy has found that upsets and unexpected developments are commonplace during the Men's World Championship. Any team has a chance to win any game no matter how the matchup might look on paper.
"Germany was really good one year. My former teammate, Marco Sturm, was coaching," Hnidy said. "They had a great run upsetting some teams. The thing with a lot of those teams is that they've played together longer. You'd think with the bigger ice that the games are more wide-open, but a lot of the games are more defensive, and they keep everything to the outside and everything slows down a bit. It's great hockey, it's very exciting and you always like those upsets because they're interesting. It sets up for real good competition."
For established NHL players, the World Championship provides a way to mix improving as a player with enjoying a unique experience that Hnidy said helps players broaden their minds as players and people.
"It helps the individual players hone their skills," Hnidy said. "They play with some new guys, elite guys, and play a bit of a different style on the big ice. And they get to play for a gold medal. For the NHL guys, you can't compare anything to the Stanley Cup. This is the second prize that you can get. You go over, compete and play at a high level against great competition and take in the environment."
While the players enjoy representing their countries in the tournament, the fans have the most fun as they celebrate what makes their nation unique. Hnidy said that fans make a point to go to the tournament and center their calendars around being in attendance.
"The fan experience is unlike anything you'll see," said Hnidy. "It's massive for all fans. Slovakia is a huge one. Latvia has huge support. Germany, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, every country. For a lot of fans in those countries, that's their vacation for two weeks. A lot of them will camp, some will take over a whole hotel. It's really a two-week party. Every game day outside the arenas, they set up a fan experience where they have hockey stations, music, tons of food and drink and it's a party from the first game of the day to the last."
Hnidy added European fans express their feelings about the game in different ways than fans in North America and it can create a raucous, exciting atmosphere during the tournament.
"Here, fans cheer and boo," said Hnidy. "Over there, if the fans don't like a call or the referee misses something, they whistle. You have to get used to that. The whole European crowd is just whistling. A lot of the fans, Latvians, Germans, Swiss, they do chants, they have drums and it goes on for the whole game. When I was in Slovakia, they jump in unison so the whole building is shaking. They jump when the game is getting to the end and it's getting exciting. These are different experiences as a player that make you think 'why wouldn't I want to go over there and take it all in?'"