Netherlands U18 with first gold since 2013
by Ivan TCHECHANKOV|03 APR 2023
The 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B finished in the most dramatic fashion in the Winter Palace of Sports in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Sunday. The last game of the tournament was actually a direct clash for the first place in which Netherlands made a comeback from 0:2 to 3:2 over China and won a promotion to next year’s Division II Group A. This is the first gold for the Oranje in U18 Championships since 2013 (Division II Group B), and fourth overall with the first two triumphs in 2001 (Division III) and 2007 (Division II Group A).

Before the last day of play in Sofia, Netherlands and China were undefeated. The Dutch team won against Australia - 6:1, Chinese Taipei - 8:1, Bulgaria - 5:1 and Belgium - 4:2 (from 0:2 after the first period). China, back in U18 IIHF competition for the first time since 2019, started with a 5:1 win over the host nation and continued with victories against Australia - 5:2, Belgium - 6:2 and Chinese Taipei - 8:4. The real final of the event was an entertaining battle of two teams playing fast tempo game with a lot of physical encounters on the borderline of the rules and many times over it, which resulted in a total of 78 penalty minutes.

In the first period Netherlands had five straight penalties and played 8:08 minutes shorthanded. The first three kills were successful, but on the fourth try China scored 69 seconds before the end of the period. Team’s captain Zihao Liu had his fourth tally of the tournament with assists from Peng Sun and Fanke Meng. 

“I felt that we were the better team, but we just didn’t have the opportunity to show that because we were killing so many penalties. And then when we finally were able to get our feet grounded on the ice and stayed out of the box, we were able to be consistent, to roll our lines. The guys who are used to play together to be back on the ice with each other instead of having mixed lines all the time”, explained Paul Vincent, the head coach of Netherlands. 

„There was no surprise from team Netherlands for me. I know Paul very well. He is a tactician. We go back a long way. Both teams have a lot of speed and used it. There were a lot of penalties, but this is the nowadays hockey and we have to adjust. Our guys are very emotional and sometimes you can’t control it”, said Daniel John Reja, the head coach of China. 

From the start of the second period the roles were reversed. Now China was in penalties’ sequence – three in just 1:54 and Netherlands had a full two minutes five on three power play, but couldn’t materialized it. In the middle of the period Maxime Rentmeester, later elected for the best forward in the tournament, was sent to the penalty box for elbowing and Zihao Liu scored another power play goal with assists from Zhihao Li (winner of the best defender award) and Fanke Meng for 2:0. The Dutch reaction was lightning quick – 108 seconds later Jorma van de Meerakker scored the only even strength goal in the game.

“After our first goal the Chinese players were nervous, because now they had to play defense instead of continuing going on what made them successful, which was forechecking, pressing and pressing. They decided to sit back and when you give a time and space to a team that can skate and think, this team will capitalize on that. They don’t play a lot of games in China and really don’t have a chance to truly master that defensive trap system, so if you move the puck around, you will open those holes and we did a great job of that”, said Vincent. 
After the first period the shot advantage for the Netherlands was 29-16. Under pressure the Chinese players made mistakes and were penalized four times in a row in the end of the second and the start of the third period. This sequence resulted in another five on three power play, this time for 1:26 min. With just 25 second left on this advantage Van de Meerakker scored the equalizer with a great shot from long distance through traffic after a pass from Didrik Bax-Kristiansen. Soon after though Kalle Kaptein was ejected from the game for charging and China had a five minutes power play and a chance go get the lead again. In this critical time, it was Sam Luitwieler’s turn to shine and the goalie did his job perfectly. Three and a half minutes before the end of regulation time Jorma van de Meerakker completed a hattrick and a full comeback of the Oranje with another power play tally after a pass by Bax-Kristiansen.

“I made some adjustments, but the players are those who have to succeed with the adjustments, to commit to them. They were able to execute them and we got the win, but ultimately, we had a great goaltending too and I can’t give enough credit to him and to our defense especially for shutting down their five-minutes power play. It was a great final game, because each line could play equally against any opposing line. The winner was decided on the effectiveness of the power play and penalty killing”, said Paul Vincent, the 48-years old American, who was selected №149 in 1993 NHL Draft by Toronto Maple Leafs. The center with a huge frame (196 cm/106 kg) played major junior hockey for Seattle Thunderbirds and Swift Current Broncos in the WHL (1993-95) and became a professional with stints in AHL, ECHL, UHL, IHL, WPHL and CHL before continuing his career in Europe - Norway, Netherlands and Belgium. His first coaching job was as an assistant in Eindhoven High Techs and for the National Teams of Netherlands at the U18 and U20 World Championships in 2012-13. The next two seasons he was head coach on club and National level in Belgium and in 2015 brought the Men’s team to equal best result in this century at the IIHF World Championships – silver medals in Division II, Group A. This was his comeback to the world stage after eight years absence. 

“The initial coach resigned and I had a call on December 19 for the vacant position. We started from there with 17 new guys (with no experience on the world stage) and 11 who will return next year. We were able to practice once a week for two and a half months. I’m a very detailed-oriented person, structured, and you have to be to win. They bought into it, they were willing to do it, because we have a lot of great offensive players, but offense doesn’t win championships. Great defense does it and when you are willing to commit yourself to play great defense it takes lots of practices. You have to learn where to go, where to be, talk about it, make mistakes, learn from mistakes and then you have the final result”, said Paul Vincent. The last time Netherlands played in U18 Division II Group A was in the period 2014-16. Before the triumph in Sofia the Oranje had these placings in Group B: 4-4-3-3.

“It was a great game on a fast pace. We had so many chances to score on a power play, but we didn’t and in the end, they scored with a man advantage. It’s frustrating, but these things happen in every sport. But my main priority is to develop these players. I’m not focused on results and standings. We had a one month training camp and were well prepared for the tournament. One day before our departure the flight was cancelled so we had to go to another city to take another flight to Belgrade and came late to Sofia by bus We had just one training before the start of the championship, but this is not an excuse. We were able to get going through the games”, explained Dan Reja, the 46-years old Canadian, who was selected №171 in 1994 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals. He played in one of the three major junior hockey leagues in Canada – OHL with London Knights and Belleville Bulls. His professional career started in ECHL, where he played for four teams, mostly for Louisville Riverfrogs, and continued in WCHL and CHL. Reja, a left wing, played also in Germany and Italy, He was an assistant coach for China in an U18 World Championship five years ago, when head coach was Steve Kasper. Later he worked as assistant coach for KRS Heilongjiang (MHL) and last season was Skills and Video Coach for Kunlun Red Star (KHL) and Skills Coach for the China’s Olympic Team.

China missed the opportunity to earn a place in the upper group and for the second consecutive time finished second. The previous time was four years ago, when in the last game in the 2019 IIHF U18 World Championship Division II Group B China made a comeback against Netherlands from 1:2 to 3:2. In the previous round the host Serbia won convincingly 6:1 over China and won the gold medals despite an earlier 1:2 OT loss to the Oranje.

Due to the circumstances, in the last day of the tournament in Sofia, every game was essential and each subsequent one carried more weight than the last. In the first game on the Sunday’s schedule Belgium needed a win in regulation time to prevent a relegation back to Division III Group A. Australia was leading 2:0 going into the third period and was able to secure the victory with 2:1 in the end. For the Aussies the result meant just one more year in the group, because they didn’t have a chance for a medal even if it comes down to a three-team tiebreaker with Bulgaria and Chinese Taipei. They had minus 1 goal difference in the games with those two teams. After defeating Belgium 4:0 and Australia 5:2, the host team looked almost certain for the bronze medals. Even a loss to Chinese Taipei with two goals was enough for Bulgaria to earn second third place this season after winning the bronze trophy in the U20 Division III in Istanbul two months earlier with almost the same roster (14 players). Bulgaria started slowly and with a penalty from the get go.

Chinese Taipei, which was with Belgium in Division III Group A last year, scored two goals in the first period, but in the second Bulgaria had an advantage (11-4 shots on goal) and cut the deficit on half with a goal from the captain Aleksandar Kozhuharov, his fifth in the tournament. In the third Chinese Taipei scored two goals on ricochets, Bulgaria didn’t have any luck with two posts as well and tried to attack in the end to no avail. With a 4:1 win Chinese Taipei got the bronze medals on a tiebreaker. The three teams finished with 6 points and exchanged victories with each other. Chinese Taipei had the advantage with plus 1 goal difference in these games, Bulgaria was with 0, Australia - minus 1.

The hosts won the award for the best goalkeeper (Kaloyan Stoyanov) and praise from Paul Vincent, the head coach of the champions, though: “The game against Bulgaria actually set the tone for us. Our first two games were relatively easier games. Against Bulgaria we had to learn how to win one-on-one battles. They were big, strong hockey team. We felt this was our hardest game before the one versus China and a game that prepared us for the final. They were fast and physical and forced us to focus on what we need to do to overcome their challenge. I can definitely say that Bulgaria was a big surprise”.