Resourceful Fiala key to Swiss victory over Czechs
Switzerland's Jason Fuchs and Czech Republic's Lukáš Klok during the IIHF World Junior Championship at the Air Canada Centre on December 27, 2014. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)
Kevin Fiala doesn't just score big goals for Switzerland.
He saves his hockey federation a bundle in stick tape.
The Nashville first rounder's economical blade set-up earned him a lot of second looks after he scored the Swiss' first two goals in a 5-2 win over Czech Republic Saturday evening at the Air Canada Centre.
“One strip (of tape) on the forehand and (one on the) back,” the 18-year-old said with a shrug.
That's it. Even beer leaguers looking to save a few bucks in supplies would wrap around a few more times on their blades than the Swedish Hockey Leaguer.
“You see it's becoming a bit of a growing trend,” Swiss coach John Fust said, “but as long as Kevin keeps scoring goals, I'm not going to say anything to him.”
This is nothing new, according to long-time friend and teammate Noah Rod.
“I know this guy for 10 years, he's like my brother,” Rod said. “He does that and he scores. For me, Kevin has the greatest hands in this tournament, so it's normal. It doesn't matter the tape on your blade if you have great hands like him.”
Shortly after the under-18 championships last spring, Fiala was called up to play for the Swiss at the world championships.
He had two assists in seven games.
“It was a surprise,” he said. “I was just enjoying the moment. It was big. You're at under-18s, there are juniors there, and worlds, you're standing next to Alexander Ovechkin and other NHL players. It's cool.”
Weirdest “tape job” I’ve ever seen, courtesy of Kevin Fiala. pic.twitter.com/prF5daFroO— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 27, 2014
This wasn’t so cool: Sweden's Adrian Kempe, who scored twice in his team's opening win, couldn't play against Denmark because of illness. Word was the Kings' first rounder was suffering from gastroenteritis, or “infectious diarrhea”.
“He should be fine next game (Monday against Russia),” head coach Rikard Gronborg said. “I'm not a doctor. All they tell me is he couldn't play this game. He started feeling bad (Friday night) and he definitely couldn't play.”
No one's packing an NHL building in downtown Toronto for a Sweden-Denmark world junior game.
Or Switzerland-Czech Republic on Saturday evening.
But everything is relative.
The announced crowd at the ACC for the Swedes' 5-1 win was 13,018, and about 100 less for the nightcap.
Last year at home in Malmo, Sweden lost the gold medal to Finland in overtime before 12,023 -- part of an all-time tournament attendance record for the event when it's held in Europe.
The 2012 tourney held in Calgary and Edmonton is still the granddaddy of them all in terms of attendance. It averaged 14,688 per game for a record total of 455,342.
But here's the thing: a similar game – Sweden-Latvia on Boxing Day – drew 12,544 to the Saddledome in Calgary. That's under the number in Toronto, which lost out on its bid to hold the event three years ago.
No matter how many people show up, you can't walk five feet around the rink without bumping into another NHL scout. Toronto is teeming with big-league bird dogs.
This two-city format forces scouts to make a choice: Bell Centre or ACC.
The Toronto pool is regarded as the more competitive of the two to watch in person.
Budgets also play a role. No one uses Toronto and saving money in the same sentence too often, but look at it this way: this is a prime chance for NHL teams to see more European talent without actually, you know, flying around Europe for a couple of weeks.
The Maple Leafs dressing room won't be used until the playoff round. It's reserved for (guess who?) Canada when the host team finally arrives in Toronto.
The diplomatic way to describe the rest of the teams' dressing rooms? Cozy, at best.
Don't go to sleep on the Swedes. This was, from a lot of sources, supposed to be a year of transition for them.
“We have a winning tradition with our Swedish national teams,” head coach Rikard Gronborg said. “We want to keep it going and that's why it's so important for us. What a lot of people say, you can't pay attention to here. I think we've got a team built for a smaller rink and we're big on the back end.”
They shouldn't wilt in those one-goal games that are sure to come. But if the Swedes have one reason to chew their fingernails, it's the power play.
They have scored three times with the man advantage so far, but they surrendered an awful lot of odd-man rushes to Denmark, who couldn't bury their shorthanded chances.
If they do the same against Russia or Canada and the U.S., they will get lit up.
“It's being too lazy on the power play,” Swedish captain Jacob de la Rose said. “We have to move the puck faster and we've got to be open for each other. The power play (against Denmark) was not good enough.”
Danish coach Olaf Eller, father of Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller, emptied the coaching bag of tricks against the Swedes.
He called a timeout after falling behind 2-0. The Swedes scored again in the final minute of the first period. He pulled his starting goalie Georg Sorensen after 20 minutes. The backup, Thomas Lillie, couldn't stop the first shot he faced, 13 seconds into the period.
“I wanted to show the players we have confidence to turn the game around, but against strong team like Sweden (it didn't work),” he said. “We played well on the power play, but they scored. That's the way it goes sometimes.”
HOME FOR THE WORLDS
This was John Fust's greatest day.
He coached the Swiss to a 5-2 world junior-opening victory over the Czech Republic Saturday at the Air Canada Centre in the city he grew up learning and loving the game of hockey
“It's a fantastic feeling for my family,” the 42-year-old said. “My parents and in-laws were here, and my parents haven't seen me here in terms of hockey for 25 years since I left playing for the Wexford Raiders.”
Fust's dad used to take him to the old Maple Leaf Gardens and he has been to the ACC many times to watch games. But to oversee this kind of victory brought back a flood of memories.
“I grew up here going to (elementary) school at the Crescent School at Bayview and Yonge,” he said. “I have more friend requests to talk after the game than I do for media. Managing my time is a priority but it's been enjoyable.”
The Swiss have nine players who play in North American for Canadian Hockey League clubs. That's nearly half the team and it's the job of Fust, the former Princeton University forward, to blend them together.
So far, so good.
“We had a very short time for preparation, much shorter than any other country,” he said. “It's been a difficult process to find our identity and get our system ironed out, but after (they tied it 2-2), we relaxed and started playing our game.”
They scored four straight goals. The winner came off the stick of Noah Rod, the San Jose second rounder whose father Jean-Luc played for the Swiss juniors at the 1984 event in Sweden.
“They lost to Canada, I think, 20-0,” Noah said.
It was actually 12-0, but it probably felt like more.
The Swiss have one win but little chance to bask in its glow with Russia on deck.
If Fust works some magic, Sunday could be even greater than this day.