The IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A gets under way today at the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham.
It’s one of the most prestigious ice hockey events ever to be held in the UK as Great Britain plays host to Italy, Korea, Lithuania, Poland and Romania in the six-team group.
Two places in the World Championship top division are up for grabs in Nottingham this week. Host nation Great Britain and rival Italy were relegated from the elite group a year ago and are looking for an instant return. But they will face competition from a Korean team looking to reprise the highs of 2018, a newly-promoted Poland, last year’s bronze medallist Lithuania and a rejuvenated Romania. The teams finishing first and second in the group will be promoted to play in the 2024 top-level World Championship in Prague and Ostrava in Czechia.
Top seeds Italy are ranked 17 in the world and like GB were relegated from the top division last season, having played in the top division since 2019. Italy are coached by former NHL bench boss ‘Iron’ Mike Keenan, who coached New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994. The veteran head coach is back in action for the first time since he left Kunlun Red Star in November 2017, and returns to international hockey for the first time since the 1993 World Championship.
His Italian players do not have the stellar quality of Keenan’s Canada Cup winning teams, but there is plenty of World Championship experience here. Thursday’s 5-3 victory over Korea in an exhibition game in Nottingham saw Alex Petan, Luca Frigo, Daniel Tedesco and Brandon McNally among the scorers in a game dominated by Italy’s power play.
Lithuania are ranked 23 in the IIHF and third in the tournament. They warmed-up with games against Estonia and Ukraine and have former EPL forward Mindaugas Kieras as an assistant coach. In 2019, Lithuania placed last in Division IA and faced relegation. However, the pandemic and then the suspension of Russia and Belarus earned the Baltic nation a reprieve – and the team made the most of its opportunity.
Last year brought bronze, Lithuania’s best ever result in IIHF play. Emilijus Krakauskas was the leading scorer on that team with 6 (4+2) points. However, this season saw him play just one game for Lausanne in the Swiss League. Defender Simonas Vavilovas, 16, could complete the rare distinction of playing U18, U20 and men’s World Championship tournaments in the same season. He’s divided his club campaign between Odense’s youth system and adult hockey with Energija Elektrenai in the Latvian championship.
Fourth seed Korea sit at 21 in the world rankings and are GB’s opening-night opponent. Incoming head coach Woo Jae Kim is looking to bring the good times back to a Korean team that played at the 2018 Olympics and featured in that year’s World Championship top division. Kim was an assistant on those teams. However, results this year have been tough: heavy back-to-back losses against Kazakhstan last week followed losses in February against Italy, Hungary and a 0-10 horror show against Slovenia. Jungwoo Jeon, top scorer in last year’s tournament, could lead the offence again after helping Anyang Halla to win the Asia League this season. Sanghoon Shin is in good form, with 52 (30+22) points for Atlanta Gladiators in the ECHL.
The number 87 will feature heavily around the Korean camp as they remember long-time national team player Minho Cho, who passed away from cancer in October 2022. Saturday in Nottingham will be their first IIHF match without their number 87 and a tribute will be paid before face-off.
Poland, perennial Division 1 competitors, sit at fifth seed and 22 in the world. They are GB’s opponent on Sunday afternoon. Poland impressed last year in Division IB, and looked a class above its rivals in Tychy. Now there’s a sense that Polish hockey is returning to the level where it belongs, and recent results bear that out. In April, the Poles won exhibition games against top tier opposition from Latvia, Slovenia and Hungary, suggesting that the newly-promoted team will be no pushover in Nottingham. Forward Aron Chmielewski is one player to watch after a successful spell with Ocelari Trinec in Czechia, while his clubmate Alan Lyszczarczyk was Poland’s top scorer a year ago.
Look out for a strong defence as well: in Division IB, the Poles allowed just four goals in four games. Their pre-tournament preparation included games with Latvia and Slovenia. Forward Patryk Wronka previously played in the UK with Belfast Giants, while defender Pawel Dronia won DEL2 playoffs this week under coach Pete Russell.
The sixth seeds are Romania, the world ranked number 24. They won Division 1B in 2019 and have held their own in this division in the campaigns since. Their president has declared these games in Nottingham as “David versus Goliath match-ups”. The Romanians finished fifth in last season’s competition, failing to win a game in Ljubljana. Scoring was a problem, with just eight goals in four games. Yevgeni Skachkov had a hand in five of them, but the 38-year-old is not part of the squad coming to Nottingham.
Slovak head coach Julius Penzes’ team draws heavily on players representing Romanian clubs in Hungary’s cross-border Erste Liga: Corona Brasov and Csikszerada provide most of the personnel for the championship. This season sees several new players join the roster: goalie Szilard Beres and forwards Andrei Dan Filip, Vladislav Teamriuc, Balazs Gajdo, Matyas Kovacs, Zoltan Molnar and Yevgeni Lymansky are all in line for World Championship debuts on a new-look roster.
Finally, to the hosts, Great Britain. They come into the event second seeds behind Italy, and ranked 18th in the world. They last played in Division 1A in 2018 when famously Robert Farmer scored with 15.9 seconds left against Hungary to give GB the point they needed to secure gold and promotion to the top flight.
The host nation led Austria 3-1 in a top-flight survival showdown last year, only to fall to defeat in the third period. This time, Pete Russell’s team is buoyed by the return of star forward Liam Kirk, who was unavailable in Tampere due to injury. In 2021, he led the World Championship in goals and GB fans are looking to him to fire the team back to the top. New faces on the roster include defender Nathanael Halbert, Nottingham-born but Canadian trained, plus fellow dual-nats Sam Ruopp and Johnny Curran. However, there’s no room for Ben Davies, scorer of the memorable overtime winner against France in 2019 as Britain grabbed its first top-flight victory for more than half a century.
The warm-ups were encouraging, with the Brits splitting two games against Latvia before beating Hungary twice in the past 10 days. And head coach Russell arrives days after leading Ravensburg Towerstars to the DEL2 championship in Germany. After four warm-up games in the past week, two each versus Latvia and Hungary, Great Britain trimmed their training squad to the final 23 names for the tournament.
It’s the highest level of ice hockey hosted in the UK for a generation and we look forward to sharing the experience with hockey fans from around the UK and around the world. The puck drops this afternoon on the first of 15 games in seven days with the prize of top flight competition next season on the line.
IIHF World Championship Division I Group A schedule
Saturday 29th April
Poland v Lithuania – 12:30
Romania v Italy – 16:00
Korea v Great Britain – 19:30
Sunday 30th April
Lithuania v Romania – 12:30
Great Britain v Poland – 16:00
Italy v Korea – 19:30
Tuesday 2nd May
Romania v Korea – 12:30
Italy v Poland – 16:00
Great Britain v Lithuania – 19:30
Wednesday 3rd May
Korea v Poland – 12:30
Lithuania v Italy – 16:00
Great Britain v Romania – 19:30
Friday 5th May
Poland v Romania – 12:30
Lithuania v Korea – 16:00
Italy v Great Britain – 19:30