Norway’s Morten Vaernes is happy with his team’s progress with one month to go until the 2017 World Para Ice Hockey Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, believing that they can reach the podium again between 11-20 April.
Norway’s last medal performance at a World Championships came with silver in 2009, the year before they won bronze at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics.
Since then, whilst they have remained in the top flight, they have struggled to maintain or improve their form.
However, having been pleased with his team’s performance at a recent international hockey tournament against Italy, South Korea and Canada, Vaernes believes they are on the up.
“We were in pretty good form against Italy and Korea. We have struggled before with them. But we now felt like we controlled them, so hopefully we will be able to beat them,” he said.
“It felt pretty good afterwards.”
On an individual level, Vaernes is also happier in his new position on the offensive line, believing he has “good chemistry” with fellow attackers like Loyd Remi Solberg.
“I’ve been moved up to playing as a forward. I feel like I have my best play playing forward because of my speed and I’m able to use that more when I’m playing forward. I can use my strength more.”
But Vaernes is not fooling himself about the mountain that Norway have to climb if they want to challenge the dominance of teams like world and Paralympic champions the USA and Canada.
“I look at Canada and the USA and they have a lot of speed. We have to be able to neutralise it. The other thing is play in our zone, defensively. We have to be able to pick up players faster and be able to neutralise our opponents faster than we do at the moment.
Long-term there is optimism in the Norwegian camp about what will happen post-PyeongChang 2018. Vaernes spoke of a development programme being carried out by the National Federation, involving training camps and recruitment of potential new players.
But for now Vaernes is keen to start the World Championships campaign. Aside from their medal hopes, Norway need to finish in the top five teams to advance directly to the Paralympic Winter Games.
“I am excited to see how much we have progressed and improved during this year. I think we have improved a lot from Buffalo [2015 World Championships] all the way up to now. Every player has now become better, the team has become better overall.”
The 2017 World Para Ice Hockey Championships A-Pool will take place in Gangneung, South Korea, from 11-20 April.
World and Paralympic champions the USA, Worlds silver medallists Canada, Norway, Italy, Germany, South Korea and Sweden are amongst the teams expected to compete.
The top five teams will advance directly to PyeongChang 2018, whilst the bottom two teams will play at the qualification tournament later in 2017.