Myth Vs Reality: International Baseball Vs. International Hockey

The revival of the World (formerly Canada) Cup of Hockey that I am currently writing about reminds me about another subject that I wrote a few articles about on another blog a few years ago, the World Baseball Classic. And since I recall it, it is appropriate to make a few comparisons between the state of international hockey and the state of international baseball.

Two obvious differences are cost and climate and baseball has the advantage in both. It is far cheaper and easier to learn to play baseball and become good in the sport than it is to develop a young hockey player. Children from poorer countries can learn to play baseball while to learn to play hockey properly means at least being able to afford a pair of skates and lots of protective gear. And while baseball can be played almost continually year round, to be played properly, hockey must wait for winter in the polar regions of Canada, the northern United States, Scandinavia, and Russia or build and maintain expensive indoor rinks. That makes it easier to get more recruits for baseball than hockey.

As result of greater participation, international baseball does not have a quality problem like international hockey. In the 44 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, the top 7 teams are still the same; Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden. After the “big 7″, the quality of play drops off noticeably. Baseball has no such problem with far more countries able to field quality teams. But there lies the main problem with the growth of international baseball, that retards its development – and it is all due to American mythology. Hockey has no such problem.

In the aftermath of the near defeat of Canada by the USSR in 1972, a revolution in thinking about international hockey occurred. It was now recognized by Canadians that Europeans and Americans were catching up in the quality of play and that the best players in the world no longer exclusively came from Canada. Shortly after that, the first Europeans started to penetrate the NHL which has led to the development of the league as fans know it today; a multi-national league with the vast majority of its players coming from the “big 7″ countries. Canada is usually the favorite, one step ahead of the other “big 7″, but it is no longer an upset if one of those other countries win major international tournaments. And the attitude of Canadians to these tournaments has changed too. Winning events like the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Women’s Championship, and the World Junior Championship are considered major achievements by Canadians.

But in contrast to Canada’s sensible revised thinking about international hockey, the United States clings to laughable, unrealistic myths about international baseball and its own domestic product. In contrast to international hockey tournaments which are treated with respect by North Americans, the World Baseball Classic is constantly belittled and treated with disrespect by Americans. This helps to hide an ignominious fact; the host country has never won a medal.

Instead American fans like to pretend that they “don’t send their best players” or some other unrealistic excuse or they simply ignore the results and the facts. But the repeated World Baseball Classic results prove that Americans are not the best players of baseball any more. No matter. Americans like to still claim that the true champions and the “real tough” competition lies within Major League Baseball.

In three of the four major professional sports that are played in the United States; baseball, football, and basketball, Americans like to proclaim that the winner is the “world champion” instead of just being the mere champion of the United States. Actually the only true international championship in any of these sports that ever occurred was when the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball participated in the “World” Series. The NHL used to call itself and occasionally still does use the term “world champions”, but now usually uses the more correct title of Stanley Cup Champions thanks to the developments in international hockey.

American chauvinism is hurting the development of international baseball. Their continued disrespect for the World Baseball Classic is simply boorish. Some American commentators like former MLB player and television commentator Tony Kubek used to dream of a true world championship between the MLB winner and the champion of the Japanese leagues, but the American attitude to international play makes such a dream impossible to realize.

And the myths and disrespect hide another brazen fact; American baseball fans are being cheated by their own myths and self-deception. The NHL with a few exceptions can truthfully say that the vast majority of the best players in the world play in its league. But the results of the World Baseball Classic show that a large percentage of the best baseball players – maybe even the majority – do not play in Major League Baseball. So American fans are paying top dollar for a product that may be far from being the best possible. And yet they continue to pour scorn on the World Baseball Classic and insist that the only true champion is the one who wins the “World” Series.

As the future second President of the United States, John Adams stated when he was defending the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” Despite all the advantages that international baseball has as opposed to international hockey, as long as Americans continue to cling to their myths, the prospects for developing hockey internationally may be much brighter than for baseball. The main problem with international hockey is that its top quality is limited to seven countries. But if this can be overcome, international hockey can look forward to bright future developments, while international baseball remains in the dark ages.

Canada And The Hybrids Deserve Each Other

So it is now a World Cup Final between Canada and hybrid Team Europe, the only team without a national anthem. And the third best team in the tournament was probably Team North America. This was the last thing anybody needed or wanted.

It was a great idea to revive the World Cup as a regular event that had been lost in the wilderness for twelve years. It was a chance to pit the national teams of the traditional “big 7″ countries against each other plus some improved invited guests. What started out so promising instead has become a clear mirror as to the state of international hockey (More about this in a future article). The five teams that should have given Canada its toughest competition have been an embarrassment instead.

Poor NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He wanted to improve the competition level in this tournament by excluding “B level” countries and creating united conglomerates which he christened Europe and North America. This was to prevent embarrassments like Canada 10 Norway 1, Russia 8 Latvia 2, and USA 7 Poland 0, etc. The creation of these two hybrids showed that Bettman recognized that during the previous 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972, virtually nothing had been done to improve the level of play outside of the “big 7″. Back then, there had been boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport behind soccer. Instead after four decades, excellence in hockey is still confined to its same narrow base as it was back then. So North America and Europe were created to provide competitive games but they were not supposed to win.

The first mistake was to exclude Slovakia, a “big 7″ country from icing a team in the tournament. Slovakians would form the heart of Team Europe. But what Bettman could not foresee was the truly dismal effort the national teams, other than Canada would give.

Start with Team Finland 0-3. Their excuse was that it was a young team just learning the ropes of international competition. They claim they are happy with the result. The future they insist, “is bright”. If that is true, that is at least the most credible excuse. Hope reigns for the future. It is far worse for the others.

Moving along we come to Team USA, now everybody’s favorite whipping boy in the tournament. According to their management, they were put together to “beat Canada” supposedly the best team in the tournament, but instead started out by being shamefully shut out by Europe, supposedly the worst team and then it was downhill from there. Neither former Conn Smythe Trophy winner goaltender Jonathan Quick nor Ben Bishop who took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final was particularly stingy, but you cannot win if you do not score and USA scored a grand total of 5 goals in 3 games prompting excluded veteran Phil Kessel to tweet taunts at the team.

Actually if you really want to rub it in on USA remind them of the Hollywood sports fantasies they so love to create. In hockey’s case the Americans cooked up the Mighty Ducks, a team of hacks who somehow manage to become champions of the world. Of course not wishing to offend Canada and lose its market, Disney always had Canada defeated off camera by some bad guy European country leaving it to the Ducks to save North American hockey. The Ducks have yet to play and defeat a Canadian team. This of course has prompted howls of ridicule and contempt from every child north of the 49th Parallel. Needless to say, the Ducks were not at this current tournament to save the day. They might have beaten Team USA though.

Russia and the Czech Republic can hardly hold their heads much higher than the Americans. Once feared as usually the second and third ranked hockey powers of the world, this tournament underlined how far they have tumbled compared to Canada. In fact it is hard to remember when the Czech Republic has iced a truly competitive team capable of winning tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics. They started off with a shameful 6-0 shutout by Canada, clearly showing that did not belong on the same ice, failed to defeat supposedly bad Europe, and then managed to eke out a win against the even sorrier Americans. One can hardly wait for a rematch with Canada.

As for Russia, the World Cup showed once again why this Alexander Ovechkin-led team has never won a medal at any Olympics in which he is supposed to be Russia’s best player and why he has never even been to the Eastern Conference Final with the Washington Capitals. Billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby whom he is supposed to have a rivalry with, Canada made sure that his name never appeared on the score sheet against them proving once again that Crosby is a difference maker while Ovechkin is not. He wants to play for Russia again during the 2018 Olympics whether the NHL participates or not, but given his team record both internationally and with Washington in the playoffs, it would be better to give someone else a chance.

How far has Russia fallen when compared with Canada? Russia gave up 47 shots in only 3 periods to Canada and the 5-3 score is more of a tribute to the heroic goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky than any virtue by the rest of the Russian team. Goaltending is probably the only position where Russia is competitive with Canada anymore.

Finally we come to Sweden which was billed with Canada as one of the tournament favorites. Sweden is usually described as a team that wins by its skating and offensive skill ability. They managed to beat Russia led by Ovechkin who again failed to rise to the occasion and “rookie” filled Finland. Balanced against those meager achievements was their failure to beat either of the hybrids. Henrik Lundqvist showed why he is the Ovechkin of goaltenders in the NHL and why he has never won the Stanley Cup, giving up two overtime winners to both North America and Europe.

If Sweden was really one of the favorites, they should have beaten every opponent with authority, the way Canada did. And their vaunted skating ability was nowhere to be seen. Against Europe in the semi-final, they looked like a tired, old team plodding along, not one out to prove that they were a real challenger for Canada as the best in world.

So that just leaves Europe which was supposed to be the joke of the tournament as Canada’s opponent in the Final. Gary Bettman of course will accept the applause for his “good idea” in creating these two hybrids, but inside he can hardly be pleased. North America and Europe were created to provide interesting, decent competition. They were not supposed to win. But this debacle is not Bettman’s fault. Who would have predicted before this tournament started that every national team except Canada would play like turkeys who did not belong, leaving the door wide open for two low ranked hybrids to prove themselves.

More Ignominy For Russia And Ovechkin

Well Russia improved; they made the semi-finals, the score was not the 7-3 laugher it was in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and they managed to defeat the Canadian “B” team (disguised as Team North America) along the way. Other than that, this World Cup is just another signpost about how far the country once ranked as the second best in the world, if not the best, has fallen in comparison to Canada.

And of course during this “Ovechkin era”, Canada made sure that Russia’s leader had a clean sheet again; his name does not appear in the scoring statistics. His team got treated the same way his Washington Capitals get treated, they either get upset by inferior opponents, or they cannot create an upset themselves. They are willing to let Alexander Ovechkin get lots of individual honors, but no team glory which severely tarnishes his career and reputation. He can drown his sorrows with his spiritual ancestor, Marcel Dionne, who had a similar career.

Statistics tell the story. You are not going to win a game if you give up 47 shots in three periods. That the score was only 5-3 can be attributed to Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Goaltending may be the only position where there is any parity between Russia and Canada anymore.

Before the game, Team Canada tried to play down the “special rivalry” that has existed between them and Russia since 1972 and they were right. Russia is simply another team now, to be kicked aside in same manner the Canadians kicked aside the USA, Europe, and the Czech Republic.

Russian hockey is simply not what it was. In years past it had individual stars but it was the team collectively that shone together. Now Russia has some stars but no team. Ovechkin came into the NHL with the promise to be the first non-Canadian to be as good as the best Canadian, in this case Sidney Crosby. But Ovechkin’s career is only a shadow of Crosby’s who has two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, one in which he scored the decisive goal, and probably will add a World Cup Championship to his shelf of honors after this tournament is over. Crosby is a difference maker; Ovechkin is not.

Today Russia is no longer one of the two teams to beat. They do not scare anybody anymore. And that is sad. Russia versus Canada used to be the game everyone looked forward to, the marquee match of every international hockey tournament. Now it is just another game.

Ghosts Of Montreal Canadiens Past: Price Versus Halak

There are only two things wrong with today’s Team Europe-Team Canada match. First, Canada should have lost to Team USA making this a must-win game for Canada and that the game should be held in Montreal, not Toronto.

On paper at least, this was supposed to be the worst mismatched, laughable game of the whole round-robin of the World Cup. Instead it has the potential to be one of the most dramatic and it is all because of the potential two goaltenders involved, ex-teammates/rivals, current and former Montreal Canadiens goaltenders Carey Price of Canada, and Jaroslav Halak of Team Europe.

Flashback to the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs when Price and Halak were teammates on the Montreal Canadiens. Neither had established himself as the number one Montreal goaltender and there was little to choose between them. But when the Stanley Cup playoffs started, eighth place Montreal handed the starting position to Halak who was probably the main reason Montreal fashioned major upsets over first place Washington led by Alexander Ovechkin, and then an even bigger upset over defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Philadelphia finally ended Montreal’s hopes in the Eastern Conference Final.

But the then Montreal management (since replaced) decided that Montreal was not big enough for both Price and Halak and that one of them had to go. They decided to keep the younger Price and traded Halak to St. Louis leaving Montreal fans wondering ever since if they kept the right goaltender or if both should have been retained.

Price of course has since become a Vezina Trophy winner, Montreal’s main hope for success and Halak has done well with St. Louis and now with the New York Islanders. Does Montreal miss Halak? Not the way Price has developed but they sure could have used him last year when Price got hurt. Halak would have probably put Montreal into the playoffs and might have taken them deep into the later rounds.

The Montreal goaltender controversy was supposed to be over, a minor blip in hockey history that would soon be forgotten. But now the mischievous hockey gods have decided that Halak who is a ghost in Price’s closet from long ago to appear again in the flesh to oppose him at the highest level in the World Cup.

Unfortunately Canada beat the United States making today’s game with Europe meaningless except for who will play who in the semi-finals. But can you imagine if Canada had lost and had to win today and had to face Halak who would be given the chance to put Canada and Price out of the tournament?

Instead today’s game is anti-climatic except that Team Europe is not supposed to be this good and now has a chance to test themselves against the tournament favorite. But do the coaches even start Halak and Price or keep them on the bench for a potential future rematch in the World Cup Final?

As mentioned earlier, Canada should have lost, and this game played in Montreal. The hockey gods in their own perverted way have set up this potential match-up. Maybe it will not occur today, but it might occur later with even more perverted, dramatic intensity in the World Cup Final.

Composition Of Team Europe Shows Which Countries To Develop First

Now that underdog Team Europe which was not supposed to win a single game at the revived World Cup is now 2-0, part of the future for the World Cup should be apparent. Right now in 2016, the goal was just to get the tournament revived again. For 2020, the goal should be to expand the participants.

The idea for Team Europe and Team North America was to avoid embarrassing mismatches between traditional “big 7″ countries and other countries stuck at the “B level” in quality of play. Team Europe is composed of players who do not play for Sweden, Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic.

The composition of Team Europe is important to note. The heart of Team Europe is 6 players from Slovakia, a “big 7″ country that for some mysterious reason was not allowed to ice a team. Next comes 5 players from Germany, and 4 from Denmark and Switzerland. Austria, France, Norway and Slovenia are represented by one player.

The composition of the team is not surprising. Switzerland and Denmark are probably the two countries who have shown the most improvement in quality of play during the past 40 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972 and Germany is simply a large, populous country that cannot help developing a few good players.

Therefore the goal for the next four years when the next World Cup is scheduled to be played should be to bring back Slovakia and develop the quality of Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany so that they can ice teams of their own that have a real chance to win major tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics. Get these countries up from the “B level” of play so that there is now a “big 10″ group of teams instead of the traditional “big 7″.

At a recent press conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr mentioned that the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings were hosting clinics to develop players in China. But improvements in China, currently ranked 37th in the world cannot help spread the game of hockey or expand the World Cup and other important international hockey tournaments right now. The priority should be focused on getting the large group of countries stuck at the “B level” of play – Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland are tho obvious places to start, and then the other four countries listed above, up to the level of play of the traditional “big 7″ countries. Kazakhstan, Latvia, Italy, Belarus, and Poland are other countries stuck at this level.

If the World Cup of Hockey is to attain the stature and status of its counterpart in soccer, the number of participating countries have to increase and the quality of play among ALL the tournament participants has to be improved. Ideally the World Cup of Hockey should aim for a 12 or even 16 member tournament. But even a ten team tournament with Slovakia back and Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland playing up to the level of the traditional “big 7″ teams PERMANENTLY in the future would be a major achievement for international hockey, considering how little has been done to improve the quality of play elsewhere in the previous four decades.

The World Cup of Hockey has unlimited potential for growth but its potential cannot be realized until the quality of hockey is improved outside of the traditional “big 7″. The achievement of the current tournament and Team Europe is that it has shown clearly with which countries the process of improvement should begin.

State of International Women’s Hockey Mirrors The Men – Only Much Worse

I’ve mentioned this topic briefly in a few of my recent articles on this blog about the upcoming revived World Cup and now it is time to go into more details. I have criticized the state of men’s international hockey for the past several years, specifically that in the four decades since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, no other countries have joined the “big 7″ – Canada, Russia, USA, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic and Slovakia – in quality of play. Switzerland and recently Denmark nibble at the periphery of the group but still are not the equal of the big 7. In all there about a dozen countries still stuck at the “B level” of hockey quality and the rest of the ranked 50 countries are much worse.

But if the state of international men’s hockey is bad, the state of international women’s hockey is horrendous where the very existence of the sport is threatened. At least the men can boast of a “big 7″; the women only have a “big 2″, Canada and the United States. Due to lack of competition there have been threats to expel women’s hockey from the Olympics.

Statistics tell the ugly story. The first World Women’s Hockey Championship was held in 1990, and did not even get played on a yearly basis until 1999. Since it started Canada and the United States have always finished 1-2; there has NEVER been a championship featuring another country. The real competition among other countries is for third place, most credibly by Finland. Among the other competitors are Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, and China. The other 7 ranked countries are much worse.

It is obvious from the results for both men and women in the past 40 years that nobody seems to have a clue about developing competitive hockey internationally at the highest level. Somehow curling in BOTH men’s and women’s competition has achieved competitive credibility. Maybe it is an unrealistic or unfair comparison but curling has succeeded where hockey has failed.

Women’s hockey has always been secondary to men. They don’t command the respect, prestige, or resources available to men, and it is fair to point out that compared to men, women’s hockey is a new development. In my opinion the main reason for the state of international hockey for both sexes being what it is, is because nobody regards the topic serious enough to do anything about it. In a recent press conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr outlined some projected developments for international hockey – with the conspicuous omission of any plan to raise the standard of play. The best they could do was mention that the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings were hosting a few clinics for low ranked China.

If women want to move ahead of men in international hockey competition, the opportunity is there on a platter. Surely finding a way to raise the standard of play internationally has to be THE number one problem to be solved because the very existence of international women’s hockey depends upon it. Nobody can take the sport seriously at the international level if there are only two competitive countries.

I know resources are limited for women as compared to men but someone has to sit down and work out ways and means of raising the standard of play for women’s hockey outside of North America. In the long four decades since 1972, there has never been a study about why the standard of international hockey play has not grown nor any organized plan about correcting the problem. Host a few clinics, send a few out-of-work coaches from the “big 7″ countries abroad seems to be the only things that are done and it has not worked.

If one wants a lesson from history, just think of the English Civil War of 1642-1646. The Royalists were actually winning against the superior resources of the Parliamentarians until Oliver Cromwell correctly diagnosed the problem and urged Parliament to create a reorganized New Model Army along his ideas. Someone has to do the same for international hockey, especially for the women.

If women want to win the “battle of the sexes” in international hockey, this is their opportunity. Find a way of raising the standard of international hockey play outside of North America and women will be far ahead of the game.

Rookie Tourney: Habs v Leafs – Potatocam saves the Day

Well, while speed killed last game, tonight was all about the rough stuff. The Habs mauled the Leafs physically out of the gate, laying on the body and not allowing them room to use their wheels. As an aside, there are webcams with better resolution than the cameras used in OHL arenas, so a lot of plays, players, and even the puck were hard to see clearly.

The period started, as I mentioned, physically. The Habs were on the body early and often, and their work paid off quickly. Off a 2 on 2, a small saucer pass, that didn’t really change the angle too much, was blasted by Antoine Bibeau’s glove far side by Daniel Audette. I’m not a fan of the goal, and I think Bibeau should have been further up on his crease, but the pass shouldn’t have gotten through in the first place. This seemed to wake the Leafs up a little, as they started to push the throttle a bit more, but it came at the expense of defensive responsibility. While there were several odd man rushes against, it was off one of these that the Leafs tied it up on a counter. I’m not sure who was the man defending the rush, but I’m not happy with them, as they failed to cover the pass and veered towards the passer, but luckily Nicolas Mattinen was back in time to interrupt a chance on net. From there the play turned up the ice and Keaton Middleton – a defender from this year’s draft class – came off the bench and wristed a floater on net that beat Fucale. The period ended with the Leafs starting to throw their weight around a bit, and boy did that set the tone for period 2.

The Leafs stopped caring about the Habs being physical, and threw hits of their own instead. Andrew Nielsen had a heavy hit in his own corner, Timashov threw his body down to block a shot, and the Leafs 3rd goal of the period was a result of Justin Holl taking the reverse hit to poke the puck out to Tobias Lindberg. However a few shifts before that, in what was an oddity of the night, Tony Cameranesi broke around the outside with SPEED and fired a shot on Fucale, which he then followed to the net and finished. All in all, the Leafs turned a 6-6 shot count to end the first to a 13+ shot surplus at the last shot count I heard announced all game. Also in a little awesome moment, William Bitten shoved into Bibeau, so Bibeau turned into a gardener and planted him into the ice.

The Leafs carried the play for the most part in the third period. They continued with the physical play and kept pressure on the Habs, but Fucale stood his ground on some good chances by the Leafs. Lindberg took a holding penalty to prevent a clean 2 on 1, but needn’t have bothered as 4 seconds into the penalty kill the Canadiens tipped the puck in off a point shot, couldn’t see who it was (thank you based potatocam). The Leafs followed with a dominant shift by Freddie Gauthier, Dmytro Timashov and Trevor Moore, with Montreal hemmed in their own zone. Nikita Scherbak took Andrew Nielsen into the boards in front of the ref, after the whistle, with no call, and like a pretend tough guy grabbed onto Neilsen’s visor to yank his head around when the refs were there to save him. A shift later Nielsen was given a slashing penalty for knocking the stick from a Montreal player’s hand, which Montreal capitalized on via Mike McCarron’s 2nd of the night as the announcers informed me, solving the mystery of who scored Montreal goal number 2. As a second aside, not thrilled with the reffing in this game. Dermot then took a legitimate tripping penalty, leading to the 3rd Habs powerplay in a row. Marner had a shorthanded breakaway stolen at his own blueline by the linesman, but the Leafs killed the powerplay. In the last 2 minutes, off a shift with Freddie the Goat’s line, Nielsen kept the puck in at the line, walked in to the top of the circle and breezed a puck through Fucale’s legs (I think) to put the Leafs back up at 4-3. The Habs pulled their goalie on the next shift but to no avail as the Leafs kept the Canadiens out of the dangerous areas of the ice to close out the game. Leafs go 2 for 2, 4-3. Final shots: Not announced but I’d like to believe we outshot them.

 

Standouts

Keaton Middleton – Used his big frame well throughout the game despite the fact that he was clearly inexperienced, and scored the first goal of the game.

Martins Dzerkials – Was the only player other than the entire Marner line really able to use his speed in the 1st, and was also noticeable in 2nd

Marner line – See yesterday’s assessment on all 3 players, it will apply here. Slick passing, offensive chances, good chemistry and a goal from Tobias Lindberg. If we ever split the big 3 between 3 lines, I could see this line flourishing at an NHL level.

Travis Dermott – Made himself involved in the play but passed up on a few opportunities to shoot in favour of passing.

Nicolas Mattinen – Brought more physicality to his game tonight, was still great position-wise and was directly responsible for breaking up that 2 on 1 I mentioned in the 1st.

Nikita Korostelev – Good release, needs to learn to play away from the puck more, but showed he wasn’t afraid to take the body on the backcheck

Antoine Bibeau – Made a lot of saves on many odd man rushes, showed feistiness and a green thumb. First goal was weak in my opinion but was pretty solid other than that. Needs to show a step forward this year.

Andrew Nielson – Was the last man back often, and was physical catalyst. Needs to keep his emotions in check, as refs will always call retaliation.

Tony Cameranesi – Showed good puck pursuit in scoring the 2nd goal and had some good looks on net besides that.