Pressure On Canada To Win The World Cup

Canada is always the country which has the most pressure on it to win international hockey tournaments, be they professional, junior, or women. As the main originator of the game we all love and the original source of development for the NHL, Canadian hockey fans regard it almost as a divine duty to be just a little bit better than the other six great powers of the “big 7″, Sweden, Finland, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

But for this World Cup there is added pressure. For a start, this is the first World Cup since 2004. Canada won that tournament after a tough 3-2 victory over Finland in the Final. In the long 12 years since the last tournament no one knows except for the Olympic competition whether Canada’s best players are still tops in the world.

But what really puts added pressure on Canada this year is the result of the 2015-16 NHL season where not one Canadian franchise made the playoffs, a humiliating fate that had not occurred since 1970. Sure it can be blamed on the odds – American franchises outnumber Canadian ones 23-7 – the NHL draft, the Canadian dollar, etc., but coupled with the fact that a Canadian NHL franchise has not won the Stanley Cup since 1993, these top international competitions like the World Cup and the Olympics are the only way Canadians can reassure themselves that they are still the best hockey playing country in the world.

The World Cup and the Olympics are the only times when the absolute best of all Canada’s hockey talents come together to prove they are the best in the world. Sidney Crosby may play for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jonathan Toews may play for the Chicago Blackhawks, American franchises in the NHL, but now they are on one team playing for Canada. And the ghosts from the past will be on them. Bobby Orr at the first Canada Cup in 1976, and then later Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. All this will be felt by every player on Canada. They carry a burden no other team in these events has.

A bad result for Canada in this tournament, especially on home ice in Toronto, and there may be talk at official levels, in the press, and privately among the Canadian public about the decline of Canadian hockey. Canada has a type of collective “inferiority complex”; they do not like boasting and bragging, especially among themselves, though they do love praise from others, particularly from American television commentators – except in hockey. There they are the experts, the know-it-alls. Canada knows everything there is to know about hockey. They regard it as “our game” (though surprisingly curling is supposed to be officially Canada’s national sport). A torrent of excuses and self analysis will follow if there is anything less than victory or (horrors!) an early exit from the tournament.

So there is a lot at stake for Canada in this tournament, more than any other team. The rest of the teams can go home if they lose this tournament, suck it up and try to be better for 2020. But for Canada, if they lose this tournament, there will be a neurotic trauma that will haunt them for the next four years.

Bettman and Fehr Talk International Hockey Dreams – Not Its Problems

On the eve of the first NHL revived World Cup in 12 years, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr talked about NHL International Hockey developments. They talked about using the momentum building off the upcoming tournament to spark new international hockey initiatives.

They talked about a return of NHL exhibition and regular season games in other countries. They talked about staging future World Cups in other countries. They talked about future NHL Olympics participation. They talked about introducing a Ryder-Cup style international tournament. All commendable and welcomed. But they did not talk about international hockey’s worst problem; quality.

Since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, there have been 7 “great powers” in international hockey; Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. After that there is a sharp drop in the caliber of play. In the 44 years since 1972, only Switzerland and recently Denmark have shown any improvement in the caliber of play, dismal results for four decades of potential improvement and expansion in international hockey. Back in 1972, after the amazing Canada-USSR tournament, there were boasts that hockey would one day be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. The results of the past 44 years show that they are still at the starting point.

The upcoming World Cup is an open display of international failure. There are only 6 countries participating and Slovakia is not even being allowed to ice a team. At international tournaments where more than the “big 7″ participate, when one of the “big 7″ plays a “B level” country, in too many times to count, the result is likely to be a boring mismatch in which the “big 7″ team scores double digit goals. So to prevent such embarrassments in the upcoming World Cup, Bettman has created “Team Europe” composed of players from every other European country, and “Team North America” composed of North American NHL players under 23 years of age. It’s a bandage at best. It does not expand international hockey and it does not improve the quality of play. It is an open admission of failure to develop hockey in four decades.

The only reference to improved quality of play mentioned was when Bettman and Fehr talked about the Boston Bruins hosting clinics in China, the Los Angeles Kings hosting Chinese players at clinics in California, and the New York Islanders drafting a Chinese player in the 6th round of the 2015 draft. In focusing on China, it is obvious that money talks. Of course China is potentially the richest international hockey market in the world. The problem with choosing China is that it is ranked 37th internationally. Developing hockey in China is at best a long shot right now. It cannot help international hockey immediately.

To make matters worse is the state of international women’s hockey. Only Canada and the United States ice competitive teams and there have been threats to expel the sport from the Winter Olympics due to lack of international competition.

What Bettman and Fehr did not discuss are concrete plans to raise the standard of play in international hockey – now. What they did not discuss is ways to get the large number of countries stuck at the “B level” – Switzerland, Denmark, Slovenia, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Belarus, Norway – over the hump of mediocrity so that there can be a real expansion of competition in future World Cups and other international tournaments. Raising the level of play in these countries can help international hockey right now. Future World Cups should have 12, even 16 teams competing, all with a good chance to win it all. Getting the countries that are just below the “big 7″ in caliber of play up to equal status should be the number one job of international hockey right now.

If the NHL and the “big 7″ really want international hockey to grow they have to formulate concrete plans to raise the standard of play. It cannot be just occasional sporadic clinics but something continuous that brings immediate positive results. And while it is commendable to raise the standard of play in China and other lower level countries, these are long term developments and does not solve international hockey’s immediate needs. Raising the quality of play in those countries who can help you now should be the first priority.

All the exciting developments that Bettman and Fehr talked about are welcome news to international hockey fans, but quality of play is still the big albatross hanging around international hockey’s neck. When the day comes when Bettman and Fehr call a press conference where they lay out plans to really improve the quality of play in the “B level” countries, that will be a real, significant development, a revolution in international hockey. For now, all true international hockey fans can do is say, “All very nice”, and smile.

NHL Revived World Cup Cannot Remain As It Is

Now that the NHL has brought back the World Cup and plans to hold it every four years, the question is how to develop it because the current format is unsuitable. Compared to soccer’s World Cup and even to curling’s World Championship, hockey’s World Cup is pathetic. But the good news is that it has the potential to be something really significant on the international sports scene and just to get it back after twelve years in the wilderness is a step in the right direction.

Right now there are 7 “great powers” in hockey, Canada, USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and Slovakia is not even being allowed to ice a team. Instead there will be two made-for-competition teams, one called “Europe” which consists of players from every other European country, and “North America”, a team made up of North American players under 23 years of age.

The tournament in the current format is actually an admission of four decades of failure to develop international hockey since the famous Canada-USSR contest of 1972. Immediately after that thrilling event, there were boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world after soccer but after 44 years, the same 7 countries rule the hockey world. After the “big 7″ there is a sharp drop-off in the quality of hockey played internationally. Only in Switzerland and recently Denmark has there been any development in the direction of quality to ice a competitive team in tournaments like the World Cup.

Usually in tournaments where more countries than the “big 7″ compete, when a “big 7″ team plays a “B level” team in the opening round robin, the result is a boring mismatch, sometimes with the established country reaching double digits in scoring. It was to prevent such boring, pre-determined results that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman came up with the idea of Team Europe and Team North America.

But this can only be a temporary bandage. A “World Cup” that only has 7 competitive teams is not going to go anywhere or command much respect in the long-run. Even more laughable is the state of women’s hockey where only Canada and the United States ice competitive teams and there have been threats to expel the sport from the Winter Olympics.

So the hockey World Cup has to be broadened. 2016 is a good starting point but by 2020 there has to be improvement. No more Team Europe and Team North America but the admission of countries that play the same caliber of hockey as the “big 7″ and have a real chance to win the tournament.

There are 50 countries ranked in world competition but they vary widely in development. The most obvious solution is to pick some of the countries stuck at the “B level” and raise the caliber of play in them. That means during the next four years, the NHL and the national hockey bodies of the “big 7″ countries make a real investment in some of these developing countries to raise the level of play in them so that there can be a real expansion of international competition. Somehow curling has managed to do that; why can’t hockey?

Ideally, the World Cup should have 16 or more teams competing. Soccer’s World Cup starts with 32 teams. Right now 16 competitive teams is probably too high a goal to reach but a tournament of 12 competitive teams would be a significant development.

For 2020, Slovakia should be competing and Switzerland and Denmark should be developed further. That makes nine teams. Then pick some of the teams from the B level group (the more countries the better) and get at least three more up to the caliber of play of the “big 7″. Candidates include France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, Norway, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovenia, and Belarus.

The World Cup of Hockey has the potential to be just as exciting as soccer’s World Cup. It is up to the NHL and the “big 7″ countries to realize that potential by expanding the competition.

Gary Bettman: King Of The Background Men

Decades ago I wrote a poem called “The Background Man”, a poem about history’s unnoticed people who make things happen. He is the guy who hated Christ from the very first moment he saw him and then conveniently arranged to be in Jerusalem anonymously in a large mob to shout “Crucify him” when Pilate put him on trial. She is the woman who was a servant of King Charles I of Great Britain who passed along a secret warning to the opposition leaders in the House of Commons that Charles was coming in person to the House to arrest them, allowing them to escape thus triggering the English Civil War. He is the man who made it possible for exiled Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin to return to Russia from Switzerland through enemy territory in a sealed German railway car.

There are many unknowns who have anonymously played key roles in history but right now in sports, my candidate for the current title of “Best Background Man” is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Right now he is involved in an important anonymous duty, finding a suitable owner for a returned Quebec Nordiques.

As I have written in many previous articles, Gary Bettman made a tour in 2010 of the three cities that lost their teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and offered them reasonable terms for a return to the NHL; great fan support (no problem for all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and a suitable NHL owner.

When Canada’s richest man David Thomson, along with Mark Chipman expressed interest in bringing back an NHL team to Winnipeg, Bettman told them to be patient as he knew he might have an ownership crisis in Atlanta. So when operating a team from Atlanta became impossible, there was Gary with all the behind the scenes background work done, ready to announce that the Thrashers would be quickly shifted to Winnipeg.

Now he is faced with a crisis in Quebec City. Quebec, with Bettman’s encouragement built a first class NHL arena and now wants back into the NHL. But the potential owner, media giant Quebecor is unacceptable to the NHL because its majority owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau made personal racist attacks on NHL Board member Geoff Molson that were offensive not only to Molson but probably to the majority of the Board of Governors.

Bettman does not want to go back on his word to Quebec City, nor offend important people like the Quebec City Mayor and the Quebec Provincial Premier. When the Quebecor bid was turned down, neither the Mayor nor the Premier, who have every reason to publicly denounce Bettman as a double crosser, who did not keep his word after they spent nearly $400 million tax dollars on a new arena, have said not one negative word. Most likely as soon Bettman realized that Peladeau would not be an acceptable NHL owner, he went privately to both the Mayor and the Premier and told them to keep on building the arena while he dealt with the ownership problem.

Now Mario Lemieux, a lifelong Pittsburgh Penguin suddenly puts his ownership shares up for sale. Then Patrick Roy, vice-president and coach of his former team, the Colorado Avalanche suddenly quits. But both men also have strong ties to Quebec City and as French Canadian hockey heroes, would make ideal owners for a returned Nordiques. It would not be surprising that behind-the-scenes Bettman went to both men and asked them to front an acceptable ownership group and that it has the blessing of ex-Nordique Joe Sakic, the current general manager of Colorado. Stay tuned to see what else develops.

Bettman has done other significant background work. He found acceptable owners for Ottawa, Florida, and Tampa Bay. He negotiated the rich Canadian and American television deals. Phoenix somehow still survives with an NHL team. And he is probably working on finding two new western expansion cities to balance up the league conferences.

Here is a problem that has been around for nearly three decades: getting an NHL team into Hamilton, Ontario. But here is the starting point. If I am a potential owner with $500 million to spend, the first thing to do is get Gary Bettman on my side and then let him work in the background behind the scenes. Because if I want Hamilton in the NHL, that may be the only way to accomplish it.

Is Patrick Roy The Next Owner Of The Quebec Nordiques?

Everybody is questioning and speculating why Patrick Roy has resigned as coach and vice president of the Colorado Avalanche but to me it would not be surprising if it really has to do with the Quebec City situation.

First the background. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg, and offered them terms for readmission to the league; a great fan base, a proper NHL arena, and an acceptable NHL owner. Winnipeg is already back in and Quebec built a new arena with Bettman’s encouragement and applied unsuccessfully for an expansion franchise.

The NHL is publicly explaining that the reason for the rejection of Quebec is the low Canadian dollar and that Quebec is an eastern city and they need another western team to balance up the conferences, but that is not the real reason. The NHL wants nothing to do with Pierre Karl Peladeau, majority owner of Quebecor which sought to be the new Quebec owner. Peladeau is a supporter of the separatist Quebec political party Parti Quebecois, and squashed whatever little chance he had of joining the NHL Board of Governors by publicly questioning the suitability of Board member Geoff Molson owning the Montreal Canadiens because he was an anglophone Quebecer. Such blatant racism was offensive not only to Molson but probably to the majority of the English-speaking NHL Board. Bettman had no choice but to reject Quebec’s bid.

At the same time, that put Bettman on the spot. He is not going to make a tour of cities, offer them terms and then reject them when they make a strong attempt to comply like Quebec has. He is not going offend important people like the Quebec City mayor, the Quebec Provincial Premier, encourage them and their communities to spend nearly $400 million tax dollars on a new arena and then not accept them. The NHL’s and his own personal integrity is on the line. The NHL also wants that $500 million expansion fee. So right now behind the scenes, he is attempting to find a suitable owner for a new Quebec City team.

Is it just coincidence that Pittsburgh Penguin owner Mario Lemieux is trying to sell his share of ownership and that Patrick Roy resigns from Colorado? There is no real reason for Lemieux to sell his shares in the Penguins or for Roy to quit the Colorado Avalanche. Both men have strong emotional ties to the teams they are leaving. For Lemieux, owning the Penguins is a dream come true just as it is for Roy to coach and be vice president of the Colorado Avalance, and also work for his friend and teammate Joe Sakic.

There has to be some strong inducement for them to leave and the probable answer is involvement with a new Quebec City team and both Lemieux and Roy have strong emotional ties to Quebec City. They are also the ideal potential owners for Gary Bettman and the NHL; French Canadian NHL heroes with no political ties who would put the team and the NHL first above any other consideration. They would be welcomed to the NHL Board by Molson and every other NHL governor.

So while everybody is scratching their heads about Roy’s resignation, my guess is that he and probably Lemieux will be involved with a returned Quebec Nordiques, and that ex-Nordique Sakic knows and approves of it though he’ll publicly pretend that he does not.

Gary Bettman is moving behind the scenes and Roy’s resignation from Colorado may be the next step in solving the Quebec problem. There may be other former French Canadian NHL players who will make some unexpected startling decisions in the future too. And what about former Nordique players? Can the Stastny brothers and Michel Goulet be far behind?

Quebec City is coming back into the NHL. It is just a matter of time and finding the right people.

Europeans Really Won The 1972 Canada-Soviet Series

In the traditional month of September, the NHL revived World Cup will be played this year, the same month when the tournament that started it all, Canada-USSR was played 44 years ago in 1972. That tournament, won narrowly by Canada 4-3-1 revolutionized world and NHL hockey. Canada actually won it without its two best players at the time, Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull. Orr was rehabilitating from one his numerous famous knee operations that would ultimately end his career, and Hull had become a pariah to the NHL because he was the first big name to sign a WHA contract.

But the thrilling series is considered the ultimate in Canadian hockey though the 1976 Canada Cup won by Canada with Bobby Orr giving virtually his last great swan song by being named the tournament most valuable player, and the 1987 Canada victory in which Mario Lemieux got a chance to play regularly on the same line as Wayne Gretzky, with Lemieux scoring the winning goal against the USSR in the Final at the last minute in Hamilton (still shamefully excluded from having a team in the NHL), comes close.

But nothing will probably top the “Series Of The Century” in Canadian minds. School children were let out early to watch Game 8 from Moscow. There has been a commemorative postage stamp issued, books, and trinkets created. The two greatest Canadian players from the team most responsible for victory, Paul Henderson and Phil Esposito are now immortalized in Canada forever.

As noted above, the series revolutionized hockey. One of the things that made a lasting impression on Canadian fans was the great physical shape of the Soviet players. It was argued that one of the main reasons that the Soviet players were able to compete as “equals” to the famous NHL players was that they were in good condition physically and the Canadian players were not. From that time on under fitness guru Lloyd Percival’s guidance, woe to the NHL player who let himself get out of shape during the NHL off season. Now if he let himself drink beer and get fat, his very NHL career would be on the line. Better conditioning and fitness for every would-be NHL player was a permanent legacy from 1972.

The other lasting revolutionary change was the difference in attitude of most Canadians to European hockey. Before the 1972 series, most Canadians knew nothing about international hockey except the tiny few that played it and followed it. Canada used to win international hockey tournaments easily with amateur teams. The Trail Smoke Eaters were the last amateur team to win a World Championship in 1961.

But after 1961, the USSR and other European teams like Czechoslovakia and Sweden began to dominate international play and talk began to increase that Canada now needed to send its best players. But most Canadians including the majority of NHL players dismissed such an idea with contempt and laughter. They believed that they were so far ahead of everybody else that any competition would be a mismatched joke. No Europeans competed in the NHL and the majority of Canadians were content to remain ignorant about European hockey.

But as the defeats piled up and Canada no longer dominated international hockey, public pressure finally created the Canada-USSR series in 1972. So ignorant was Canada about the Soviets that there was even speculation in the Canadian media that a team of NHL “goons” would be sufficient to produce an 8 game sweep.

But a 7-3 humiliating thrashing in the first game in Montreal wiped out the ignorant Canadian attitude forever. Except for the game in Toronto, for the remaining games in Canada, the Soviets served up a course of humble pie. When the last of the Canadian section of games finished in Vancouver, Canada was being jeered and booed by their own fans, prompting Phil Esposito’s famous outburst that ultimately pulled Team Canada together.

Of course Canada went on to win the series on foreign ice in Moscow narrowly saving Canadian pride forever. But the closeness of the competition and the high standard of play changed Canada’s attitude to European hockey forever. Gone was contempt; respect took its place. Now every Canadian fan wanted to see frequent rematches, again and again. Soviet players particularly defeated goaltender Vladislav Tretiak became popular Canadian heroes. Canadians were faced with a choice and they gave an almost unanimous answer: They wanted to see the best hockey players no matter where they came from.

So within two years, the first European players Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom from Sweden crossed the Atlantic to join the Toronto Maple Leafs and the European penetration of the NHL began. Initially the invasion was from non-Iron Curtain countries. The first European who made a significant contribution to a Stanley Cup victory was probably Stefan Persson of the New York Islanders.

More frequent European competition against the NHL occurred. In 1976, the first Canada Cup was played. Russian club teams like Central Red Army made NHL tours. And still North Americans wanted to see more top European players. When the Quebec Nordiques joined the NHL after the WHA folded in 1980, one of their first moves to turn themselves into instant competitors was to arrange the escape of the first significant Czechoslovakian players to make an impact in the NHL, the Stastny brothers. And when the Iron Curtain ended in 1989, Russian players were finally free to make their fortunes in the NHL.

Today nobody blinks if an NHL team has a significant number of European and American players. And each NHL team is expected to have a large European scouting staff. At the junior level in the CHL, Europeans come to play and be developed. And when the World Cup is played this year, the players from the various countries will not be playing against strangers but against teammates and friends. Now the World Cup is simply a reshuffling of the NHL deck.

But there is still more integration to come. Europeans still have not really penetrated the NHL coaching, management, and executive levels yet though they do play significant roles in the NHL European scouting system. And will there one day be a European Conference of the NHL that competes for the Stanley Cup with Canadians and Americans now living and playing in Europe just like the Europeans do in North America?

It all dates back to the 1972 Canada-USSR series. The USSR may have lost that series, but in the long run, the Russians and the other Europeans were the big winners.

NHL Revival Of the World Cup Is An Admission Of Failure

After a dozen years in the wilderness, the NHL is bringing back the World/Canada Cup last played in 2004 with the hope it will now be played on a regular basis, once every four years. It should be an event to celebrate for every hockey fan in the world who wants to see international hockey develop. But without detracting from its revival, the format announced betrays the failure of international hockey since the famous Canada-USSR series of 1972.

For a start there will only be 8 teams, Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland – and two put-together teams, Europe, which is supposed to made up of players from all other European countries, and North America which is being made up of Canadian and American players under the age of 23. It is the creation of these last two teams that shows the betrayal and failure of international hockey.

Immediately after the amazing series of 1972, there was recognition in Canada and the United States that European hockey players, particularly Russian ones were just as good as their North American counterparts and there was an immense demand to see more international competition between them and the best of the NHL. There quickly evolved the big 6 of hockey powers; Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Czechoslovakia, which eventually split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

There were also frequent boasts that hockey would soon become the number 2 sport in the world behind only soccer. Hockey fans could dream of a truly world hockey tournament like soccer’s World Cup which currently starts with 32 teams.

But for all their talk about the promise of the future, hockey failed to expand and develop beyond the original 7 countries. In the 44 years since 1972, only in Switzerland and lately Denmark can it be said that the quality of hockey has significantly improved. When international hockey tournaments were held whether at the junior or professional level that had 12 or more teams, the big 7 would wipe out the other participants easily in the round robin first round. Most of these games against the lesser opposition would be boring routs in which the established hockey power might even reach double digits in scoring. Hence NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s attempt to avoid these embarrassments by creating Team Europe and Team North America.

But despite Bettman’s best attempts to make the revived World Cup more competitive, it does not disguise the overall failure of international hockey to develop and expand from the root seven countries. Slovakia is not even being allowed to ice a team, and Switzerland, the best of rest is not here either. These are dismal results for the past four decades.

Even more horrific is the state of international women’s hockey where only Canada and the United States ice competitive teams and there have been threats to expel it from the Olympics because of the lack of competitiveness.

It may surprise most knowledgeable hockey fans that hockey may well be the number 2 sport in the world. The loser of the A tournament gets demoted to the B level and the champion of the B level gets promoted up to next year’s A group. At the junior level there are at least 50 countries ranked so there are C, D, E, F, etc. tournaments too that are held each year. So there is no shortage of hockey players or hockey playing countries around the world.

The problem is that the quality of hockey drops off sharply after the big 7. As noted above, only in Switzerland and recently Denmark has there been any noticeable improvement. That is not much to show after 40 years. The “big 7″ countries simply have not done enough or cannot be bothered to spread and develop the game of hockey around the world to make it truly the world’s number 2 sport.

Even more embarrassing for hockey is the development of international curling during this time. It is now possible for even non-traditional curling countries like Korea and Japan in both men’s and women’s international competition to ice competitive teams that have a real chance to win the world championship and the Olympics. It may be an unfair comparison but curling has succeeded where hockey has failed.

If the big 7 countries would take the trouble to properly develop several of the countries stuck at the B level – Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Norway, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Italy, France, Belarus, Slovenia, and Poland – never mind the rest, it would be possible to have a World Cup of 12 or even 16 teams, where each team has a real chance for victory and there would be a danger that one of the “big 7″ might get demoted. But for 40 years they have done virtually nothing and as result there is now Team Europe and Team North America.

It is often said that when the NHL expands, the product gets “watered down”. There would be no problem of that happening if the big 7 developed even a fraction of the B level countries to a competitive level. There would be enough quality hockey players to not only stock Las Vegas and Quebec but the next 8 NHL expansion teams up to 40. There is no problem with the number of potential hockey players or hockey playing countries. The problem is that there is no leadership from above that wants to develop them.