Underdog Germans hope to surprise

It's one thing to play the David to one Goliath. But what about three separate Goliaths? Or seven?

Such is the task facing the Germans in the World Cup of Hockey.

Of the eight nations taking part in the most important hockey tournament this side of the Olympics, seven can make a legitimate claim to championship aspirations.

And then there are the Germans (cue the "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others" music, please), the tournament's speed bag, on paper at least.

"Any kind of hockey person has to know we're the underdogs in this tournament," said former Vezina Trophy winner Olaf Kolzig, shortly before training camp opened in Europe. "We're going to have to play a pretty stifling style of hockey."

Maybe, maybe not.

Under former coach Hans Zach, the Germans slowly clawed their way from 20th in the world to eighth playing a down-tempo, four-men-across-the-blue-line style of play. Think Muhammed Ali's rope-a-dope on ice and you get a sense of the pace the Germans employed.

It worked on many levels because those were the limited tools with which the Germans had to work. But this version of the German national team is as talented as any the country has produced. And, under new head coach Franz Reindl, they will open it up a bit and try to take advantage of that talent and maybe the completely understandable tendency of opponents to look beyond them to the higher-profile teams in the tournament.

"We are optimists, but we are realistic, too," said Reindl, whose team lost Wednesday to Czech Republic 7-4 after tying Russia 3-3 in its first World Cup tuneup. Germany play Finland on Thursday in Helsinki.

"Our position is to make surprises; we cannot lose," Reindl said. "I think we have a lot of skill on our team. I like to be a positive-thinking person, and the players think positive and move forward. So when the opportunity presents, we will attack the play. We have a young, fast hockey team. We will not stay too defensive."

A closer examination of the German lineup shows that Reindl, a member of the German's 1976 bronze medal team and part of a national team that made its first appearance in this tournament in the 1984 Canada Cup, may be onto something.

The offensive pop will come from speedy Marco Sturm and his San Jose teammate Marcel Goc, who was a surprise contributor to the Sharks' run to the Western Conference final this spring, and Buffalo's Jochen Hecht. And another young Shark, Christian Ehrhoff, will anchor a defense that includes Philadelphia Flyers prospect Dennis Seidenberg and Goc's older brother, Sasha.

"For us, for Germany, while we are not the favorites, we've got nothing to lose," said Marcel Goc. "I think we have a pretty good team. I don't think we have to hide from anybody."

If there is a mantra the Germans might adopt, it would be, "Remember the Belarus" -- a nod to unheralded Belarus' stunning upset of powerful Sweden at the Salt Lake City Olympics. In that quarterfinal game, Belarus kept hanging around, scored a late, fluky goal and eliminated the Swedes.

In the World Cup of Hockey, the outcome of the three preliminary games merely establishes seeding for the start of three one-game elimination matches to determine a champion.

"There's no question there's less pressure on us because there are fewer expectations," Kolzig said.

And if the pre-tournament assumptions are correct, that a more physical, NHL-style of play will be on display, then that, too, plays into the German game plan.

"Germany plays more of an NHL style of hockey," Kolzig said. "There's lots of hitting, there's lots of grinding We play the North American teams tough.

"It's a good group of guys. In 1996 we upset the Czechs. Beating them 7-1 made a statement."

Having the veteran Kolzig, 34, in the lineup should only prove to stabilize the German dressing room. In an effort to put behind him a long, miserable season in Washington, Kolzig took part in the World Championships this past spring and relishes his role as elder statesman.

"I've gone from young prospect to goalie in his prime to grizzled veteran," Kolzig said. "I just look at it like I want to have fun playing hockey again. I just want to put last year behind us."

The presence of those NHLers not only improves the German's chances of an upset in one or more of the elimination games, it tells the broader story of the evolution of German hockey. It is why, in spite of the underdog label, the tournament will be watched very closely in Germany, where Cologne has already been the site of one exhibition game and will host one pool game.

"The media scrutiny in Europe is a lot worse than in North America," Kolzig said.

Getting blown out is not an option, he said.

"They want you not to embarrass the country," Kolzig said.

The German players understand this is a terrific opportunity to shine a brighter light on a grassroots hockey program that is slowly evolving.

"These guys are heroes in our country," Reindl said. "We see it this summer; there are a lot of fans watching the summer games [exhibition games involving players from the German elite league], and it's because of the World Cup. We have a big chance. We can put the hockey in the middle of it because in Germany it's soccer, soccer, soccer and Olympics and nothing else."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.