Dissecting the home ice curse

Column: Will the Canadian hosts buck the losing trend?


The Russian players after the semi-final loss to Finland, 2007 in Moscow. Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio

QUEBEC CITY – Hockey players are fond of taking it one game at a time, and proclaiming that history doesn’t mean anything. But when no host team has won an IIHF World Championship since the Soviets in 1986, that has to give Team Canada pause.

Realistically, though, the “home ice curse” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In 10 of the 21 World Championships completed since 1986, the hosts were not first-class hockey powers and had no legitimate chance of going all the way: 1987 (Austria), 1990 (Switzerland), 1993 (Germany), 1994 (Italy), 1996 (Austria), 1998 (Switzerland), 1999 (Norway), 2001 (Germany), 2005 (Austria), and 2006 (Latvia).

On top of that, the IIHF did not stage World Championships in Olympic years in the 1980’s, meaning that nobody had a title shot in 1988 when the Soviets won gold at the Winter Games in Calgary.

Also, when exactly does a curse become a curse? The mere fact that Sweden didn’t prevail in 1989 or Finland in 1991, three or five years after Viktor Tikhonov’s troops took it all in Moscow, would hardly have been considered a big shock at the time.

The curse still isn’t up there with King Tut’s tomb, or even the Muldoon Curse (a malediction supposedly pronounced by fired Chicago coach Pete Muldoon that “prevented” the Blackhawks from winning their division from 1927 to 1967--it was actually all invented by a sportswriter).

History suggests that if Canada can make it through the quarter-final, their chances of breaking the curse are very good. Under the format in place since 2000, the Canadians have only lost twice in the semis (2000 and 2006) after winning in the quarters, while QF success spurred them on to the gold medal game on four occasions (2003, 2004, 2005, 2007), three of them victorious (2005 being the exception, when they lost to the Czechs).

But that said, some failures on home ice under pressure from fans, friends, family, and media really stand out. Here are the five most disappointing host team performances in the history of the curse:

1995: Swedes lose to Finns in Stockholm

It wasn’t just the fact that Sweden failed to win gold at Stockholm’s Globen Arena. It was the way their defeat transpired.

Tre Kronor seemed like a team of destiny after Daniel Alfredsson’s overtime goal ousted the defending champion Canadians in the semi-finals. But the Swedes flopped versus their hockey archrival, Finland, in the final. Led by the “Tupu, Hupu, Lupu” line of Jere Lehtinen, Saku Koivu, and Ville Peltonen, plus a Swedish coach in Curt Lindstrom, the Finns marched to a 4-1 win. To cap off the humiliation, “Den Glider In”, the bouncy official tournament song, was gleefully co-opted by blue-and-white supporters.

2000: The collapse in St. Petersburg

On paper, Russia’s roster for the first World Championship it had hosted since 1986 looked virtually unbeatable. With stars like Pavel Bure, Sergei Gonchar, Alexei Yashin, Alexei Zhamnov, and Valeri Kamensky, the host team was expected to run roughshod over its opponents.

Yet after an 8-1 tournament-opening victory over France, everything went downhill. To the horror of Russian fans, journalists, and players, the home side inexplicably lost four straight games to the USA, Switzerland, Latvia, and Belarus before registering a meaningless win over Sweden to end their tournament. Finishing 11th was the worst result in Russian hockey history. It was a tough way to inaugurate the new arena in St. Petersburg built for the tournament.

2003: The Helsinki “katastrofi”

When the host Finns drew Sweden in the quarter-finals, the potential for disaster was there from the get-go. So many times Tre Kronor had found ways to destroy Finnish hopes (like the 1992 and 1998 IIHF World Championship finals), Finland’s 1995 gold medal win in Stockholm notwithstanding.

When the game at Hartwall Arena started, it looked like the Finns, led by Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, were finally ready to chase away the ghosts of the past. Just 6:44 into the second period, they were up 5-1 on the strength of a Selanne hat trick, and Swedish coach Hardy Nilsson had yanked Tommy Salo out of the nets. Happy times in Helsinki!

But then, faster than Paavo Nurmi, it all disintegrated. The Swedes stormed back with five straight goals, including P-J Axelsson’s winner with 4:54 left, and ousted arguably the most talented team Finland had ever sent to the Worlds. The word “katastrofi” made the headlines the following day.

2004: Czeching out early

In Prague, the Czechs came out looking not only to win gold for the first time since 2001, but also to razzle-dazzle their fans. They had the requisite big-name roster: Jagr, Havlat, Rucinsky, Prospal, Straka, Hamrlik. They had a perfect record with six straight wins heading into the quarter-finals. What they didn’t have was an answer for the brilliant dekes of American defenceman Andy Roach, who beat Tomas Vokoun in the shootout for a 3-2 USA win. The Czechs would turn the tables on the Americans in the very same quarter-final shootout situation in Vienna the following year, and go on to win gold. But you can bet they would rather have done it on home ice.

2007: Moscow’s reign ends

The Russian offence at last year’s tournament was ridiculously dynamic, starting with the AK Bars Kazan troika of Alexei Morozov, Sergei Zinoviev, and Danis Zaripov, and continuing with superstars like Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. After dispatching the Czechs 4-0 in the quarter-finals, Russia’s perfect record at World Championships held in Moscow (1957, 1973, 1979, 1986) was intact. But when Mikko Koivu scored the 2-1OT winner for the Finns in the semi-finals after a failed pokecheck by goalie Alexander Eremenko, another glorious epoch in Russian hockey history came to an end. As Team Canada went on to capture gold, the Russians were left to dream of revenge on Canadian ice.




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