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Monday, May 20, 2024

Conflicts chill ice hockey action

UPDATED: Some of Norway’s top ice hockey players found themselves out in the cold this week because of conflicts on and off the ice. Mats Zuccarello Aasen, currently playing in the prestigious Stanley Cup for the New York Rangers, is suddenly unwelcome on Norway’s own national hockey team because of a sponsorship deal, while some players on the national team were banned from matches in the Ice Hockey World Championships because of unsportsmanlike conduct. The Norwegians later failed to advance in championship action.

Mats Zuccarello Aasen is caught in a conflict back home in Norway over a sponsor deal. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Michael Miller
Mats Zuccarello Aasen is caught in a conflict back home in Norway over a sponsor deal. He’s missing world championship action because he’s playing in the NHL Stanley Cup instead. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Michael Miller

Both the Stanley Cup and the World Championships are playing out at the same time, and media attention would normally be placed firmly on the matches themselves. Norwegian media, however, has been distracted by coverage of conflicts involving individual players.

In the world championship action in Stockholm last week, Norway’s national team lost its second match in a row but didn’t give up hope of making it to the quarter finals. The Norwegian team has been playing in the group that includes the Czech Republic, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Belarus and Slovenia.

Norway had six points at the conclusion of its first four matches after beating both Slovenia (3-1) and Denmark (3-2), but losing 5-1 against Sweden on Wednesday night and 7-1 against Canada the night before. Coach Roy Johansen remained optimistic, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “all the players are making a fantastic contribution and giving 100 percent. We must accept it when we lose against a better team.”

That’s what happened later in championship play. After beating Belarus (3-1) but losing to Switzerland (1-3), the Norwegians also lost badly to the Czech Republic on Tuesday. That knocked them out of further championship action.

Some of Johansen’s players had already gotten into trouble. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who plays professionally for Färjestad in Sweden, was banned once again from playing in Norway’s match against Belarus on Saturday after making what was called an “ugly” tackle against a Swedish opponent. Tollefsen had to appear at a hearing before the championships’ disciplinary committee late last week and lost.

Both Tollefsen and his Norwegian and Färjestad teammate Marius Holtet were also banned from playing in the match against Canada earlier in the week after making other bad tackles against opposing players in Norway’s earlier match against Denmark.

Johansen said he felt Norway was being disciplined “extra hard,” and suggested that small nations like Norway were being treated tougher than the larger nations in the match.

Commercial clash
Meanwhile, Norway’s player in the prestigious NHL, Mats Zuccarello Aasen, was clearly feeling that he was being treated in a tough manner as well. The Norwegian hockey star was losing some of his shine back home over a sponsor deal with a betting agency that competes against Norsk Tipping, which helps finance Norwegian sports.

Zuccarello Aasen gave up his spot on the national team and is missing the world championship action because of professional obligations: His team, the New York Rangers, was heading for the Stanley Cup and since it collided with the championships, he had to withdraw. Now Norway’s national hockey association has announced it doesn’t want Zuccarello Aasen on the national team as long as his deal with Norsk Tipping’s competitor is in effect.

The ice hockey conflict seemed frozen by the end of the week. Some contend that spots on the national team should be based on sports merit and not on individual players’ commercial deals. Others feel Zuccarello Aasen has been disloyal to the Norwegian system that nurtured him and shouldn’t be allowed to play for the national team.

“As a national team player, I represent the team and what it stands for,” Zuccarello Aasen himself told NRK. “But as a private person, I must be able to cut my own deals if I want to.”

The hockey association (Norges Ishockeyforbund) disagrees and Norsk Tipping’s spokesman lashed out at Zuccarello, too, telling Norwegian website Nettavisen that Zuccarello “built himself a career that to a great degree was financed by Norsk Tipping. He wouldn’t have become a hockey player without Norsk Tipping, because without Norsk Tipping’s funds for athletics (from betting), he’d be playing rollerskate hockey on an asphalt parking lot.”

Hockey officials have blasted Zuccarello’s manager, Kevin Skabo, for allegedly giving Zuccarello bad advice. Skabo wouldn’t get involved in a fight with Norsk Tipping right now: “We’ll take up this discussion when the Stanley Cup is over,” Skabo told news bureau NTB. ” Norsk Tipping can believe what it will, but both the Stanley Cup and the World Championships are underway right now and that’s where the focus should be.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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