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2009: the year of the puck

National team coach Ralph Krueger points to a poster of player Goran Bezina promoting the ice hockey world championship

(Keystone)

Fresh from its success co-hosting the European football championships, Switzerland is preparing to host another major sporting event.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Hockey Championship will be played out from April 24 until May 10 in Bern and Zurich. But will it be as big a hit with the public as Euro 08?

Four months before the teams hit the ice, there is little public interest in Switzerland in what has been billed as the country's major sporting event of 2009.

"That is quite normal," said Gian Gilli, general secretary of the organising committee. "The public does not look that far ahead, and at the moment there is more interest in the other sport events taking place this winter. But I am not anxious; the real hockey fans are ready to celebrate."

Over 17 days the 16 best national teams in the world will play a total of 56 matches in Bern and the Zurich suburb of Kloten.

Of the 450,000 tickets on sale, 120,000 have already been taken. To cover their costs, the organisers need to sell 300,000.

"Hockey does not have the same impact as football," explained Gilli. "What is more, we are organising 56 matches in Switzerland as opposed to just 15 during Euro 08. It's difficult to shift tickets for the less interesting matches."

Eleven years after the first world championship in Switzerland, the event offers a chance to drum up new interest in the country's second-biggest team sport.

"We want to make ice hockey even more popular among the Swiss," declared Gilli. "It's an opportunity for the public to watch hockey being played at an amazing level."

But the annual nature of the tournament – and the fact that it coincides with the playoffs of the North American league (NHL), featuring the best players in the world – seriously dampens interest in the event in some countries.

"These are things we just have to accept. As organisers, we can do nothing about them," said Gilli.

Swiss team

The level of interest in this championship will depend to a large extent on the performance of the Swiss team. It was at the world championship held here in 1998 that the Swiss last managed to break through to the semifinals. Will they manage it again in 2009?

"The route to qualification for the quarterfinals will be strewn with obstacles, as always," trainer Ralph Krueger told Swiss television recently.

"But I'm sure that if we make it to that level of the competition, the support of the public in Bern could give us that extra boost to help us excel."

Since he took over as national squad coach 12 years ago, the Canadian-German has led his team to qualify eight times for the world championships quarterfinals and has brought the Swiss side into the eight best national teams.

But it would be quite a feat for Switzerland to win, such is the gap between the Swiss team and the best teams of the world: Russia, Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Another great feat?

But the Swiss team have managed some major achievements in the past. The victories over Russia at the 2000 world championship in St Petersburg and the success against Canada and the Czech Republic at the 2006 Olympics are the best examples.

In any case, with their ultra-defensive strategies and an offensive game based on counter attack, Switzerland have for several years had the means to pose problems for better teams.

And even if some observers criticise the Swiss for playing too much of a wait-and-see game, Krueger has proven his effectiveness in making ice hockey the most competitive Swiss team sport on an international level. The 2009 IIHF world championship could be the opportunity to silence the detractors once and for all.

For the Swiss players, holding the world championship at home is a great chance to showcase themselves to talent spotters from around the world. The dream is to one day make it to the NHL and make a name for themselves there following the example of Mark Streit, Jonas Hiller, Martin Gerber and Luca Sbisa.

Not a money spinner

Even if Swiss hockey benefits from the IIHF championship in terms of improving its image and infrastructure, the economic benefits are not likely to be huge, Gilli admits.

'We will generate a lot of hotel nights in and around Bern and Zurich. But let's not pretend otherwise – the long-term financial impact on the economy and tourism will be modest."

Rather, it is Switzerland's image as a country that can organise major sporting events which is again set to benefit.

With no violent incidents having ever marred the 73-year history of the ice hockey world championship, the organising committee can be relaxed about the arrival of supporters from around the world.

swissinfo, Samuel Jaberg

IIHF World Hockey Championship Switzerland

- Take place from April 25-May 10 in Bern and Zurich.

- The Bern ice rink can accommodate 11,600 spectators; Kloten can hold 6,800.

- 16 teams will take part in the tournament. Switzerland's first three matches in group B will be against Russia, Germany and France.

- The three best teams of each of the four groups will then take part in an intermediate stage with two groups of six teams, from which the eight quarterfinalists will emerge.

- From the quarterfinal stage each match will be a knockout.

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