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Resurgent Norway eyes Olympic upsets

by Bill Meltzer
There’s no opponent more dangerous than one that’s playing with no pressure to win, yet with a sense of determination and purpose.

Within the span of two years, Team Norway has gone from a dispirited bunch that seemed to be on the brink of relegation to Division I, to one of international hockey’s most compelling Cinderella stories. The Norwegians recently completed a remarkable turnaround by earning a spot in the 2010 Olympics in a qualification tournament.

Back in 2007, the international season was a comedy of errors for Norway. After the World Championships, veteran national team members threatened to withdraw from the team if significant changes weren’t made. The Norwegian Ice Hockey Federation reorganized its leadership, and the results have been gratifying. Today, morale has never been higher for head coach Roy Johansen’s squad.

The Norwegians were the surprise story of the 2008 World Championships. The same national team that was besieged in turmoil one year earlier reached the medal round and finished eighth. Along the way, Norway beat Germany, took Finland to overtime and threw a huge scare into Canada before a late goal by Rick Nash led the Canadians to a 2-1 victory.

Norway followed it up by hosting and winning an IIHF-organized Olympic qualification tournament. In a rousing finale, the Norwegians secured their spot in Vancouver by downing Scandinavian archrival Denmark. A hat trick by Patrick Thoresen keyed the victory.

There is only one  Norwegian player currently in the NHL (Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen) and the roster Norway is likely to bring to Vancouver next year will only have two additional players with NHL experience (versatile forward Thoresen and defenseman Anders Myrvold).

Strictly a checking forward while playing in the NHL, Thoresen has rediscovered his scoring touch and offensive confidence since electing to play the 2008-09 season for HC Lugano in Switzerland rather than accepting a two-way contract in North America. There is a chance he could be back in the NHL by the time the 2010 Games roll around.  Thoresen is a good two-way player who can play all three forward positions. With a dearth of firepower on Team Norway, Thoresen will be relied upon to produce offensively.

The Norwegians also feature a pair of forwards who have made an impression in Sweden’s Elitserien for Modo Hockey. Power forward Per-Age Skroder, 30, specializes at screening goalies and collecting power-play goals on screens and deflections. Teammate Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, 21, has speed and skill to burn, but is sometimes hindered against top opposition by his lack of size and strength. He is generously listed at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, but looks to be a head smaller than even many undersized opponents. To his credit Zuccarello-Aasen never backs down.

Team Norway is also likely to have the services of Anders Bastiansen, another player with Swedish Elite League experience. Bastiansen, 28, produced six points in seven games during the 2008 Worlds.

The Norwegian national team leans heavily on a veteran leadership group who are familiar to European hockey fans but little known in North American. Players such forward Tore Vikingstad (Hannover Scorpions of Germany’s DEL), 38-year-old defenseman Tommy Jakobsen (EC Graz 99ers of Austria’s Erste Bank Liga), defenseman Mats Trygg (Cologne Sharks of  the DEL), forward Mads Hansen (Brynas IF of Sweden’s Elitserien) forward Morten Ask (EV Duisberg Foxes of the DEL) and goaltender Pal Grotnes (Fredrikstad Stars) are perennial selections for the Norwegian national team. Barring injury, all are shoo-ins for roster spots in Vancouver.

Grotnes, 31, will be a very busy man in next year’s Olympics. For the Norwegians to have a prayer at winning any of its games, the goalie will have to duplicate his efforts from the 2008 Worlds. Most notably, Grotnes made 50 saves – many of the mind-boggling variety – in the 2-1 loss to Canada. He’s a big goaltender (6-foot-2) who is good in close, but will give up some rebounds.

There is a lot of youth on Norway’s senior national team, and several players under the age of 25 have shown promise. In fact, at last year’s Worlds, Team Norway featured 10 players who were age 22 or younger. The most prominent of these players was Zuccarello-Aasen. Many of the other next-generation talents also stand a good chance of going to Vancouver, including Farjestad forward Marius Holtet, defenseman Jonas Holos, Valerenga Oslo’s Lars Erik Spets and Martin Roymark of IHK Sparta Sarpsborg.

Team Norway has little chance of advancing past the preliminary round in next year’s Olympics. They have drawn an exceptionally difficult pool, going up against Team Canada, Team USA and Team Switzerland. But while it’s unlikely that Norway will beat any of these opponents, it’s not impossible. If Grotnes stands on his head again and if the club can scratch out a few clutch goals, anything can happen.

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