Historic gold for France
Historic gold for France
U18 team goes to top flight first time
French hockey is on the crest of a wave right now, and Les Bleuets – the young Blues – are making history by winning promotion to the top division of the U18 World Championship for the first time.
An impressive performance in Bled, Slovenia, saw Romain Guibert’s squad wrap up top spot in the group with a game to spare thanks to a late winner over Norway. Enzo Guebey, a defenceman who plays his junior hockey in Geneva, Switzerland, got the vital marker in the last second, lifting the French out of reach of closest rival Kazakhstan. A 5-0 loss to the Kazakhs in Thursday’s dead rubber did nothing to deflate the euphoria around the team.
A morale-boosting warm-up win over Germany set the tone, and France repeated that success with a 4-2 victory in the opening game. Next came Denmark, and the same scoreline again. Hungary caused a scare before going down 6-3 and other results in the group meant that defeating Norway was enough to secure the gold.
“Of course, we are very proud, and very happy,” said team manager Christine Duchamp. “Today we didn’t finish quite how we would wish, but this has been a historic tournament for us.”
Prior to the tournament, the French camp was optimistic: assistant coach Anthony Mortas spoke of going to Slovenia as a contender rather than an outsider, and that confidence was richly rewarded.
“Our federation has done a lot of work over the years and I think we have seen better players emerging each year,” Duchamp added. “Our clubs are working a lot on [developing youngsters] and we felt our team was better than last year, when we only lost games by the odd goal. This year we felt we were stronger, and we had a real chance to win it.”
A close relationship between the clubs and the French Ice Hockey Federation has made a big difference. Changes in the rules for the French championship – at all levels, from the top-flight Ligue Magus down – made it easier for U18 and U20 players to get ice time in the senior championships. In Grenoble, Alexandre Texier played 40 games for Bruleurs de Loups in the top league, contributing 10+9=19 points along the way. He took that form to the World Championship, producing five points in five games, while Hugo Sarlin (Angers Ducs), Louis Olive (Amiens Gothiques) and Teemu Loizeau (Lukko Rauma, Finland) scored three goals apiece to lead the team’s goal scoring.
“Most of our players this season played for different teams in our men’s leagues,” said Duchamp. “During the season, we saw them improving a lot. Many players in Grenoble had the chance to play in Valences, players from Amiens could play with the farm clubs there. They played against men and it helped our team a lot for this championship.”
The rise of French hockey since 2008, when Les Bleus defeated Italy in the relegation round to survive in the elite pool, has been rewarded at a senior level. The men’s national team has since battled its way into a quarter-final (in Minsk, 2014) and is looking forward to co-hosting the 2017 edition next month with Germany. Now it’s time for the youngsters to emulate the senior team and try to establish themselves in the top tier.
“When we look at the senior team, it’s inspiring for the young boys,” Duchamp added. “After the seniors won promotion, in that first season they just had to survive year after year in the top division. Then, we could get more ambitious and try to go further.
“Next season will be very difficult. We have to go step by step because it’s our first time in the top division. But it’s going to be great experience; now we have to work hard and try to stay at that level. And before that, of course, we want to celebrate what we achieved here.”
The 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship is set to take place in the Ural region of Russia, in Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk.
Although France skated off with gold, one point ahead of Kazakhstan, the scoring race was dominated by two Norwegians. Mathias Emilio Pettersen, of Omaha Lancers, led the way with 4+8=12 points, ahead of Robin Mathisen (Stavanger IK) on 10. The pair shared nine points in a crushing 10-1 demolition of newly-promoted Hungary. Germany’s Dominik Bokk was third also with 10 points (7+3) and finishing the tournament as top goal scorer.
Denmark, relegated from the top flight last season after a heart-breaking shoot-out loss against Latvia, was left to battle for third place with its Nordic neighbour and medalled after a 5-4 victory against Germany on the last day while Norway took fourth place ahead of Germany. At the foot of the table, Hungary struggled to adapt to life at a higher level and failed to win a single game.
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