LILLEHAMMER – A new hockey skills king has been crowned. Eduard Casaneanu of Romania won gold at the 2016 Youth Olympic Men’s Skills Challenge, defeating several other contestants in the Grand Final in Lillehammer, Norway.
"It’s amazing. I didn’t think I had a chance when I came here, I didn’t dream of winning, but I got the opportunity and it went well," he said.
Sebastian Cederle of Slovakia won silver and Eric Betzold of Germany took home the bronze.
"It’s an outstanding feeling to get a medal after this thrilling final," said Betzold. "I was third in the qualification and first in the summit last summer so I had high expectations."
Casaneanu, who came into the Grand Final as the second-overall seeded challenger, placed first in the Fastest Shot and second in the Fastest Lap and Puck Control skills, earning the Miercurea Ciuc native enough points to win gold.
Like the women's Skills Challenge two days earlier, it was again a competition that came down to the wire. The opening Skill, Fastest Lap, was won by Hungarian Natan Vertes. Vertes cruised to the final after his first two opponents, Germany’s Eric Betzold and Austria’s Benjamin Baumgartner, both fell during the course.
He went up in the final against Casaneanu, who previously admitted that the skating challenges weren’t his favourite, but who nevertheless beat out Lithuania’s Dino Mukovoz and edged Finland’s Aleks Haatanen by four tenths of a second to advance to the final heat.
In the final Vertes fell behind initially but shifted gears on the final turn and burned through the finish line with a time of 17.16.
The Shooting Accuracy competition was dominated by Lithuania’s Dino Mukovoz. He began by successfully converting all four targets in the first heat with seven seconds still left on the clock against Norway’s Sander Dilling Hurrod.
In the next heat against Austria Mukovoz stayed dialed in. After missing his first three shots he went 4-for-5 in 17.5 seconds to move past Baumgartner. But his best heat by far came next against Vertes. The Lithuanian went 4-6 in just 12 seconds, the top performance of both the Grand Final and qualification phases.
In a Lithuania vs. Finland final heat it was the underdog that came through. Mukovoz opened the heat nailing both the left and the right top corner targets, finishing 4-for-10 and getting the four points.
The top-seeded contestant from the qualification round, Slovakia’s Sebastian Cederle, had a rough start through the first two skills and was in need of points to stay in the medal running.
Cederle caught a break in the first round of Skating Agility as Casaneanu tripped over his skates, the Romanian visibly frustrated going to the bench knowing he missed out on an opportunity to get points.
But then in the second semi-final heat Cederle lost out to Benjamin Baumgartner, setting up a Germany-Austria final heat as Betzold outraced Vertes in the other semi. Cederle's missed points here would loom large later on, as Casaneanu ended up with just two points more than the Slovak in the final ranking.
Baumgartner came through with the four points when Betzold incurred a time penalty. The win pushed Baumgartner into second behind Vertes, with Mukovoz, Casaneanu and Haatanen close behind with six points each.
Next up was Fastest Shot. The contestant with the biggest cannon coming out of the qualifying round was Casaneanu, who averaged over 140 km/h.
Casaneanu got things started and didn’t disappoint, setting the pace with a shot of 145.5 km/h and not shooting slower than 140.5 the rest of the way.
Cederle missed the net on his first shot attempt but managed to recover and on his second post a 136.3 km/h shot, good enough to beat Vertes’ 134.10 and give the Slovak a fighting chance at a medal.
In the final though the Slovak was no match for Casaneanu, whose 142.6 km/h blast won the skill and gave him a share of the overall points lead.
In what was one of the most hotly contested skills of the event, Passing Precision, bottom-ranked Norwegian Sander Dilling Hurrod defeated Cederle in the first heat, putting the top seeded Slovak’s medal hopes in serious jeopardy.
Haatanen finished his targets ahead of Casaneanu, opening the door for Vertes to gain some ground if he could advance. Vertes looked to have barely beating Betzold in what would have been a key win, pumping his fist in celebration. But following an official review it was determined that he never hit his last target and so was disqualified.
That left the door opened for Cederle and the other contestants. No. 4 ranked Dino Mukovoz who opened strong, going 5-for-5 against No.3 ranked Baumgartner to give him a chance to rack up a few extra points, but not enough as he lost to Betzold in the next heat.
So it would be Aleks Haatanen against Betzold, Betzold just barely beating the Finn in a tense contest, coming down to one miss by Haatanen. That victory put Betzold on the fast track to a medal.
So going into the last Skill the gold medal was up for grabs, with Casaneanu at 11 points and Betzold and Vertes right behind him with 10 each.
A big opening heat was Baumgartner vs. Casaneanu. During the race Baumgartner lost the handle on the puck in the transition from the first segment to the segment, giving Casaneanu a big opening win and setting him up for a chance to win the gold in the semi-final.
Vertes went up against Hurrod and needed a win to keep pace with Casaneanu, and unfortunately for the Hungarian he also lost control of the puck near the same area as Baumgartner.
That left Haatanen as the only possible challenger to Casaneanu for gold, and in his heat against Cederle the Finn stumbled and lost, giving the heat to Cederle, and the gold to Casaneanu to the delight of the Romanian crowd.
"I’m really proud to win a medal for Romania," he said. "I don’t have words. I hope I will hear the anthem again as a player."
With silver still on the line Cederle beat Casanuanu by just under a second, giving the Slovak the extra point needed to leapfrog Betzold for the silver.
"It feels amazing to win an Olympic medal. I’m sad though that it wasn’t gold. I didn’t expect a medal after the first two tests where I didn’t do well but in the end I saw that I could win a medal," said Cederle.
Casaneanu's gold, along with Sena Takenaka's gold in the women's event, concludes the second-ever Youth Olympic Skills Challenge.
The Skills Challenge was an event unique to the Youth Olympic Games, which brought together male and female athletes from 36 countries around the world. The next one will take place in Lausanne 2020.