For the second consecutive year, Austria will be fielding a team in the World Juniors. Thanks in large part to COVID-19 putting a freeze on the promotion and relegation system we would typically see, Austria has been given a second chance at life in a sense. The star headlining Team Austria last year was Marco Rossi, but with him graduating to the American Hockey League, another member of the Ottawa 67’s is stepping into a big role with the nation.
This time, it’s Vinzenz Rohrer, who will look to lead Austria to their first-ever win at the World Juniors. The 27th overall selection in the 2021 CHL Import Draft is currently second on the 67’s in terms of scoring, with 22 points (including eight goals) in his first 28 games in the league. He has emerged as a valuable player for his club, but the focus has shifted to the World Juniors for him, where he is honoured to wear the colours of his country.
“I think that’s one of the greatest things for a hockey player, to represent your country,” said Rohrer. “It’s also for sure a great opportunity and the World Juniors is an unbelievable, big event for every hockey player. I’m really excited and looking forward to seeing my Austrian friends again because it’s been such a long time. I’m excited to play with them.”
“I played my whole life in Switzerland and not in Austria,” continued Rohrer. “I don’t know the whole roster, but from the last national teams and from Salzberg, [I know] a lot of players. Lucas Thaler, for example, we’re really close friends because of the national team.”
In Canada, the World Juniors are a special time of year. In millions of households, families gather around the television to watch the next generation of Canadian stars clash with other under-20 talents, but in Rohrer’s native Austria, that isn’t the case.
“It was really amazing when I heard that from my teammates,” said Rohrer. “They said when they were kids, their dreams were to play for the World Juniors before they wanted to play in the NHL. I was like ‘what?’ We are in that area now. It’s unbelievable here in Canada.”
“Maybe some watch the World Juniors for sure in Austria who are really interested in hockey, but in my sense, what I recognize in Canada is sometimes it’s not even only the hockey people who watch the World Juniors. It’s like a cultural thing on Christmas. They explained to me that it’s more of a culture of a nation of hockey, and it’s for sure not the same in Austria.”
With the 67’s, his head coach is none other than Dave Cameron, the same man who will be coaching the Canadian team at the World Juniors this Christmas. Playing in Pool ‘A’, Austria will have to face what some are calling possibly the best Canadian team in a long time, but for Rohrer and Cameron, it will be familiar faces, but this time on different benches.
“We talked a little bit in the locker room,” said Rohrer. “I also talked with [Chris Hamilton], the equipment manager, because he is also at the World Juniors. We just joked around a little bit, but when the coach that you play for is sitting on the bench next to you for Team Canada at the World Juniors, that’s just a thing that you will probably never forget.”
Experience with the national team is tough to come by for young players in the Austrian system. They will typically be playing against some of the lower division teams when they do play, but thanks to COVID, their playing time has been limited. For Rohrer, this won’t be his first time wearing the Austrian colours, but it will be his first time representing his country against the elite hockey nations of the world like Canada, or Finland.
“Peewee is kind of a half Team Austria thing. It’s not really the best 13-year-old kids playing in that team,” explained Rohrer. “I was the only ’04 on that team, so I had the chance to go two times. I played with the national team before, but with Austria, you play in the ‘B’ or the ‘C’ pool most of the time and play against teams like Hungary, or Italy.”
“Yeah, it is,” said Rohrer when asked if this is the first time he will represent Austria against top-level opponents. “Especially last year because of COVID, the under-18 tournament was cancelled, so this is the first real big Austrian representation for me.”
Austria isn’t known for fielding the elite teams that some nations boast, and while many players come into this tournament with limited national representation due to the pandemic, people have been asking if there’s a chance this team can even be competitive. With their past, it’s sometimes hard to imagine it in a regular year, let alone a year like this one, but Rohrer is taking some lessons he’s learned in Ottawa with him to Edmonton.
“When people ask me this question, even my parents and especially my teammates, you look at the results and how Austria is playing, the results aren’t the best,” the right-winger said. “I always think about our head coach right now, Norm Milley (who is filling in for Cameron while he is away at the World Juniors). He said a few days ago in the locker room, as a team, you shouldn’t be looking at the results, you should be looking at what you can control.”
“I think that’s a really big thing for us. If we always look at the results as Austria, it’s maybe not the best thing to do. I think what we have to do is just focus on ourselves and believe that we can win a game, too. Focus on the process that we play as good as we can play.”
Even if they do all of that, they have to be considered massive underdogs against the teams that they will be playing. Despite this, there is a belief that if they get some bounces, they could surprise some people. Rohrer admits that this would take a lot, but he says it’s possible.
“I definitely think so,” said the 17-year-old. “If I look at it as the side of Canada, they are for sure better players than us. I don’t want to make up a miracle here or anything, but they have to score. [If the game is close], they have the pressure. We don’t have the pressure that maybe other teams have.”
“We have to play good defence. If we play well and our goalie saves us a little bit and we have some sneaky rushes, I think we have a chance this year.”
“What I really learned when I was here in Ottawa is you have to put the puck in first. When we were in first, no one really expected that Ottawa was going to be in that spot. It’s just hockey. Some close games and some good bounces for us, but it can turn around real quick.”
No matter how the games go, this Austrian team has the chance to inspire kids to ask their parents to play hockey. Soccer is king in Austria and young kids don’t really have a chance to sit down and watch their country’s stars play hockey, but Rohrer knows that they could change that at the World Juniors.
“For sure, I’ve definitely thought about it,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable to be at the age of 17 and be in a position to show young kids, young hockey players in Austria and say ‘hey, we’re in the ‘A’ pool here. We’re playing against Canada.’ There is a way for Austrian’s to be elite hockey players, and that’s what our team has to represent.”
In the 2021 World Juniors, Austria made it known that they were looking to put themselves on the map. Luis Lindner mentioned that he wanted people to know where Austria is and that they are in fact not the same as Australia. That is something that Rohrer is also striving for, especially after experiencing it first hand just recently.
“The comparison with Australia comes every time I say I’m from Austria. Today at the bank, I said I come from Austria and they said ‘oh, kangaroos.’ I said ‘no, Austria.’ It’s always about proving something, but you don’t get into the mindset to prove others wrong. Believe in ourselves, do things right, and I think that will be the best outcome we can do.”
Ahead of the 2021-22 season, Rohrer made the decision to join the 67’s and venture to a new country and play a different style of hockey. For every import player, there is an adjustment period, and for many kids who make the move, it’s not easy. Rohrer has found himself in a situation as diverse as any in the OHL, and he credits that partly for the smooth transition into his new surroundings.
“That’s one of the biggest things that I also said to my parents and some coaches that contact me and ask what are the differences between here and Zurich for example. I always say to them that here it’s almost like a family. Everyone comes from a different place. One guy comes from four hours away in Hamilton, another comes from Mississauga and another comes from Sault Ste. Marie. They all come here to play hockey.”
“In Zurich, everyone played in the same system for six or seven years. There are always close friend groups. There are three or four players who are always together, then there’s another group of three that’s always together. Here, I can go to everybody and talk with them. Obviously, you have the guys that maybe you are little bit more friends than the other guys, but there’s just such a support in the team. When I came for the first time, we had a golf tournament and someone showed me the city, and then they always said if you need a ride, just call me. Someone invited me to his billet house and I knew him three days.”
“It’s just those little things that give you a lot of, not confidence, but it’s really nice when you are in a situation like me. It’s really unbelievable what they did.”
There is another import player who Rohrer has grown to be friends with on the 67’s. Vsevolod Gaidamak has relied on Rohrer when he has had difficulty understanding English this season. The two have helped each other in different ways, and their Euro connection has been a factor both on and off the ice early in each of the OHL careers.
“Seva [Gaidamak] is just an unbelievable guy,” said Rohrer. “Maybe it’s sometimes cute because he can’t speak that good of English and sometimes he does not understand stuff. I’m kinda the guy because I’m the Euro and I can do it a little bit and I kinda mess around with him a little bit. It’s just maybe the Euro connection that we have that we both come from Europe and maybe I just understand more. Even though I speak pretty decent English and can understand, but what I always say to the boys is if you say a sentence really fast and add adjectives like obviously, I try to tell them instead of a long sentence, say ‘I go get food’ or something like that really slow.”
If you ever see Rohrer on the ice, you would know him as the fun-loving and talkative kid who is always having a good time. When he’s away from the rink, however, he says he can be the quiet kid. There’s a good chance that his teammates wouldn’t believe that if you told them, but they wouldn’t question what a genuine and down-to-earth person he is.
“When I’m at home, I can be the quiet guy,” he admitted. “If we’re sitting around, I’m maybe not the guy that talks the most, but with hockey, I’m being with a lot of friends in the locker room. Sometimes I just realize how good I have it to be here in another country, to have the opportunity that I dreamed of when I saw Marco [Rossi] doing it. What I also try to do is appreciate everything I have here. My unbelievable billet, the whole organization with what they do for me, and maybe that kinda reflects on my personality too.”
“Really give it to other people and maybe spread out more love, good vibes instead of bad vibes that don’t have to be at that place.”
The World Juniors are another chance for Rohrer to improve on his NHL Entry Draft ranking. He was listed as a ‘B’ prospect when the list was released a few months back, but his ranking isn’t at the top of his priority list.
“It was a pretty funny story because I was at the gym at the point when the draft ranking came out and I was just doing chin-ups or something like that and then our goalie [Will Cranley] said ‘Oh! Vinni is a ‘B’ prospect!’ I was like, what is that? He said on the prospect list, but I was like what is that, because I’ve never heard of that.”
“The boys kinda explained everything to me and what everything means. I guess now I know a little more. You set goals for yourself, but I think I’m more of a person that I don’t focus too much on the outcome. Don’t think too much about the draft or how it would come out if I went in the third, the first, the second, or the fourth round. I don’t put my energy into things I can not control, so I just try to be a good person and a good hockey player. Just do the little things right and we will see how it turns out.
Regardless of what happens at the World Juniors, with the 67’s, or in the NHL Entry Draft, you can count on Rohrer staying humble and grateful for every opportunity that comes his way.