Representing your country on the international stage at the Olympics is a pinnacle achievement for many athletes. Austria native Michael Grabner was not sure his country would ever qualify for the Olympics during his career.
At the end of 2012, Austria ranked 15th according to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Only 12 teams will participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Out of those 12, the top nine countries in the IIHF rankings directly qualify into the winter games. The rest must participate in a qualifying tournament for the final three spots.
On February 10, Austria won its four-team qualifying group to earn a berth for the 2014 games.
Although the NHL and NHLPA have yet to reach an agreement permitting players to participate in Sochi, players like Grabner are hoping to make the trip to Russia one year from now.
“If we can go, it’d exciting and I’d be very happy to represent my country in the Olympics,” the 25-year-old said. “The Olympics are a special time. We’re probably not going to win a medal, but it’s just great to represent your country on the biggest stage. I’m hoping we’re allowed to go.”
Austria last qualified for men’s ice hockey at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002. The central European country’s highest finish was fifth in 1928 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The Islanders forward has fond memories of watching his country participate in Utah.
“A lot of the guys from my hometown team were on the Olympic team back then,” the Villach native said. “I remember always cheering for them and I grew up idolizing those players.”
Austria finished 12th out of 14 teams in 2002, but defeated neighboring Slovakia. That Slovakian team featured lots of NHL talent including current Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky.
Along with Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres and Andreas Nodl of the Carolina Hurricanes, Grabner is one of just three Austrians currently playing in the NHL. Vanek has made his country very proud with his scoring touch. As of February 13, Vanek leads the NHL with 23 points and 11 goals.
“I wrote with him as we followed the qualification,” Grabner said. “He’s obviously as excited as I am like everyone else in the hockey world in Austria.”
Although it might not have the luster on the world stage like USA-Canada or Sweden-Finland, Austria’s greatest sports rival is Germany. The two countries share a border nearly 500 miles long.
Grabner was a member of the Austrian team that lost to Germany in its attempt to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
On February 10, the neighboring teams met in Bietgheim-Bissingen, Germany to determine who earned the final spot in Sochi.
“I read some of the interviews from the German players before the game and they were pretty confident they were going to beat us just because we’re Austria,” Grabner said.
After defeating Italy and the Netherlands in its first two games, all Austria needed was to reach overtime and gain one point against Germany. With less than eight minutes remaining, the Eagles tied the game and officially qualified despite a 3-2 overtime loss.
“It’s nice to get back at them,” Grabner said. “They were always a little bit ahead of us but in the recent years we’ve gotten better. It’s a heated rivalry and it’s fun to be in those games. My mom is half-German, so I’m German too but on the ice I’ll always be Austrian.”
Germany finds itself on the outside looking in for the first time in the Winter Olympics since 1948.
It remains to be seen whether Grabner and other NHL players will take part in the 2014 Winter Olympics. But for now, Grabner hopes for the best and will relish the opportunity should he be allowed to participate.