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Improved Norway looks to brighter future

by Bill Meltzer

Veteran Norwegian national team goaltender Pål Grotnes (IK Comet Halden) stopped 30 of 33 shots in Norway's 3-2 overtime loss to Finland at the 2008 World Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Within the span of one year, Team Norway has gone from a prime candidate for relegation to one of the Cinderella stories of the 2008 World Championships. The same national team that was besieged in turmoil a year ago now seems to be on the right track to narrowing the gap between itself and the top 10 hockey countries. The Norwegians are currently ranked 14th.

In one of the most shocking developments to date at the World Championships, the Norwegians gave medal contender Finland all it could handle before succumbing in overtime, 3-2.  Norway now has a shot at avoiding the tournament’s relegation round for the second time in three years. To do so, Norway would have to beat Team Germany today and Finland would have to down Slovakia. Even if the Norwegians are unsuccessful, the team stands a good shot at surviving relegation.

In years to come, Norway could have a brighter future on the international scene. There are only two Norwegian players currently in the NHL (Patrick Thoresen and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen) and the current Norwegian World Championship roster has only one player with NHL experience (defenseman Anders Myrvold). But there is a lot of youth on the senior national team roster, and several players under the age of 25 have shown promise.

Remarkable turnaround

Norway is a powerhouse in other winter sports, especially skiing and speed skating. But in ice hockey, Norway lags far behind Sweden and Finland as an international power, and is a step behind Denmark as well. By comparison, Sweden has approximately 10 times as many indoor hockey rinks as Norway.

Last year, the problems within Norwegian hockey came to a head. Although the Norwegians narrowly held on to their top-level spot at the World Championships in Moscow, the national team’s preparations and leadership came under fire from veteran members of the Norwegian national team. 

The lead-up to the 2007 Worlds was nothing short of disastrous for Team Norway. The problems ranged from equipment not being sent to pre-tournament games to failing to secure a visa for one of the team’s key players (winger Per-Åge Skrøder of Swedish team Modo Hockey) to be able to enter Russia to join his teammates.

After the tournament, several key Norwegian players – including long-time captain Tommy Jakobsen and Thoresen – publicly called for executive and administrative changes in the Norwegian Ice Hockey Federation (NIF).   .

Shortly thereafter, the NIF unanimously elected a new president endorsed by the top Norwegian players to replace Bjørn Ruud after the latter’s 14-year tenure as the federation’s president.

Ole-Jacob Libaek previously served as NIF head from 1985-93.  During his first stint as president, Norway rose from a C-level hockey nation to a lower end A-nation at the senior level. The federation also appointed a new sports manager, Petter Salsten, a veteran of the Norwegian national team and standout defenseman in Norway and Sweden.

Unlike the professional players on most of the other national teams participating in the World Championships, the Norwegian players have not typically received any financial compensation for their service to the team each spring. Libaek and the NIF have sought to change this situation through increased visibility and funding of the hockey program.

Over the course of the last year, the Norwegian program has started to regain its equilibrium. The results of the national team’s improved preparations and increased confidence have shown at the 2008 Worlds in Halifax.

Norway dropped its opening game to Slovakia, 5-1. But the score was not indicative of the play, as the Norwegians held their own for most of the game. The major difference was the caliber and experience of the opposing goaltenders.

Team Norway coach Roy Johansen started 19-year-old Stavanger Oilers goalie Andre Lysenstøen. The teenage goalie, who suited up for Norway at the IIHF Division I World Junior Championships earlier this year, is regarded as the national team’s goalie of the future. He has a huge frame (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) and is coming off a strong season in Norway’s top league, known as Eliteserien or the Get-Ligæn.

But Lysenstøen was understandably nervous in his World Championship debut. He let in several stoppable shots as the Slovaks built their lead on a shorthanded goal in the first period and a Juraj Kolnik tally just 15 seconds after the start of the second stanza.

At the other end of the ice, the Norwegians had their fair share of scoring chances against former Nashville Predators goalie Jan Lasak (now with Czech team HC Pardubice). But only 22-year-old former Sarnia Sting center Mathis Olimb, who now plays in Germany’s DEL for the Augsburg Panthers and recorded a very respectable 39 points in 54 games, could solve Lasak.

Norway’s next game was against Finland. Most everyone in the crowd of 7,190 spectators expected an easy win for the Finns, who are laden with current and former NHL players.

Instead, the Finns found themselves in a hard-fought match that left Team Finland coach Doug Shedden impressed by the Norwegians’ progress, and relieved his club squeaked out a win in OT.

For this game, Johansen tabbed veteran national team goaltender Pål Grotnes (IK Comet Halden). Grotnes gave up a quick power-play goal to Jussi Jokinen on Finland’s first shot. But his play proved to be a major factor in the Norwegians coming away with a point in the standings and the pride of knowing they could hang tough against a top hockey power if they brought their top game. In all, Grotnes turned back 30 of 33 shots.

Winger Per-Åge Skrøder from MoDo Hockey contributed an assist for Norway in the OT loss.
Shortly after Jokinen’s goal gave Finland a 1-0 lead, Morten Ask supplied the answer for Norway. The well-traveled 28-year-old center, who has played in the ECHL, Finland’s SM-Liiga, Sweden’s Elitserien and now Germany’s DEL, snapped a wrist shot past Finnish goalie Petri Vehanen to tie the game.

Later in the first period, Florida Panthers wing Ville Peltonen converted a feed from Mikko Koivu on the power play to put the Finns ahead again, 2-1. But Norway once again drew even. With Norway on a 5-on-3 power play in the closing seconds of the first period, Anders Bastiansen (a checking forward on Swedish team Mora IK) knotted the game. Ask and Skrøder drew the helpers.

With the help of Grotnes and a cohesive team defense that denied second-chance opportunities, the Norwegians held the Finns scoreless in the second and third periods.

With less than five minutes remaining in regulation, Norway pressed the attack on a power play. Vehanen denied Bastiansen his second tally of the game. The game headed to overtime, where Tuomo Ruutu won it for Finland at the 1:27 mark after swinging wide with the puck and sneaking a shot past Grotnes.

By virtue of earning a point against the Finns, Norway is still in the hunt for a spot in the playoff qualifying round. If Germany defeats Norway and sends the Norwegians to the relegation round, the team still has a solid opportunity to maintain its spot at the top level by finishing above at least two among France, Italy and Slovenia.

Eye on the future

While the regulation tie against Finland demonstrated the progress Norway has made, the Norwegian program is focused more on the future than the present. The inclusion of 10 players on the World Championships who are 22 or younger is one clear indication of an evolution toward a new, more promising generation.

What’s more, there is fertile ground for the continued development of Norwegian junior hockey. Most Norwegian elite league teams have established ties to high schools and colleges where the sport is practiced up to 20 hours per week. Most of the junior players affiliated with the top clubs attend these schools.

Recently, the overall quality of Norwegian hockey colleges earned praise from Swedish veteran Janne Asplund, a former national-team player who manages the hockey program in Baerum. Each year, his club plays about 24 games against international opponents, including a yearly tour of USA to play against American college teams.

At this year’s U20 World Championships Div. I Group A in Germany, Team Norway fared much better than last year. Although the team lost as expected to tournament winner Germany and runner-up Austria, the Norwegians handled Poland, Ukraine and the relegated Lithuanians with little trouble.

Of course, the continued development of the Norwegian junior program in general and the upgrading of goaltender development in particular cannot be measured in a single year. It will be a multi-phase process that will take time to bear fruit.

As a short-term ambition, Norway hopes to keep more top domestic juniors at home rather than seeing the players leave to play for clubs in Sweden.

No less an experienced authority than veteran Swedish coach Sune Bergman supports this goal.  Earlier this season, Bergman told Norwegian newspaper Aftonposten that the Get-Ligaen provides better training for young Norwegian players than if players leave early for to play at the J20 Allsvenskan or J20 SuperElit levels in Sweden.

Norway may not step into the international top 10 in the next year or two, but as long as the current progress continues, the future is as bright as it’s ever been.

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