KOSICE – For the last six years, it’s been one up, one down. Austria finds itself in that in between position of being not quite good enough every year to be a top-level nation but superior to Division I nations, no doubt. The longest success came between 1998 and 2005 when it was in Pool A every year.
Reinhard Divis and Bernd Brückler are both injured and not coming to Slovakia, leaving the goaltending duties to Jürgen Penker, Rene Swette, and Fabian Weinhandl, a large task, indeed, for this trio of goalies with minimal experience. Penker played one game in 2005 and 2009, while the others have never played a top-level game. A challenge, to say the least.
He was 17 when he played in his first World Championship in 1994, and now Gerhard Unterluggauer is nearing the end of a great international career. This will be his 13th top-level Worlds (to go with appearances at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics). He is joined by Jeremy Rebek who, despite being a week older than Unterluggauer, is in only his third top-level Worlds. At the other end is 20-year-old Stefan Ulmer, the only defenceman on the team playing outside Austria. He played this past season for Lugano and has a fine career ahead of him. Philippe Lakos has also been a mainstay on the team for nearly a decade, and Matthias Trattnig will be appearing in his tenth championship. The back end has plenty of experience but will be put to the test for not being particularly big or fleet of foot.
There’s bad news and more bad news up front. The bad news is that the best player ever to come out of Austria, Thomas Vanek, is not coming to the team even though the Buffalo Sabres are out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has a bad finger. The more bad news is that sensational New York Islanders rookie Michael Grabner is injured and won’t make it. As well, veteran Thomas Pöck, citing family reasons, has also pulled out, putting all the more strain on the forwards who are here to produce the offence for a team very much lacking in goal production. Oliver Setzinger, another player loyal to the program for a decade, will be here to help out. He’s the only other forward playing outside Austria, Setzinger skating for Lausanne in Switzerland. Markus Peintner is another long-standing star with the team, and it will be interesting to see how the babies on the team perform at this high level. Thomas Hundertpfund is only 21 and Michael Schiechl only 22, and they are making their first appearance in the senior World Championships.
The 56-year-old Bill Gilligan has been everywhere. As a player he began in the old WHA with the Cincinnati Stingers. The American also played for Team USA at the 1978 World Championship and started coaching in 1984. He has coached extensively in Switzerland and Austria in that time, including 1992 and 1993 Worlds with the Swiss national team. This is his first year as head coach of Austria, and he faces a daunting task and then some to keep the team in the top pool for next year.
In Group C with Norway, Sweden, and the United States, Austria will have to beat Norway to avoid the Relegation Round. Best case, the team can do this and at least finish in the 9th-12th range. Worst case, 13th or 14th. But without Vanek, Austria will have a tough time qualifying to play in Finland/Sweden next year.