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.

2 thoughts on “NHL Revival Of the World Cup Is An Admission Of Failure

  1. Remember when Germany was starting to look decent not too long ago? Italy? Japan? What the hell happened?
    Lacrosse has a similar problem with the big three (US, Canada, Iroquois) plus Australia with a sizable drop off after that. Yet, that sport is growing rapidly and the talent gap continues to narrow below the top four, with a few new teams encroaching on Australia’s spot every tournament. Why? Because American and Canadian players and coaches are working with the governing bodies in other nations to develop the sport. There are lacrosse teams in Africa (!) and South America because of missionary work. Lax players bring their love of the game to new areas and then receive support from the FIL.
    Perhaps the IIHF can learn from its younger counterpart and finally understand what it means to grow the game. With the deepest pockets, the NHL (and to a lesser extent the KHL) would be wise to help fund some of these initiatives as they will eventually be the beneficiaries of this growth. Not only would the league(s) receive untapped player markets by developing more international hockey, but they would also start gaining more fans in those markets. Here the league(s) can learn from the NBA and international basketball. Basically if the league wants to grow in terms of player pool and international fans, it needs to invest in the development of the international game.

  2. Thanks for responding Adam. I agree with all your points. I have been writing several columns about this problem on other blogs. The problem is that I am writing about general trends. What really needs to be done is a series of articles about specific factors why hockey has not grown. There have been Canadians and coaches from other countries who have worked abroad but how many and how effective have they been? Is there a lack of native funding? How much do the “big 7” countries invest in developing hockey in other countries and how is the funding being used? How much media coverage does hockey get in other countries and does this play a role? How is hockey organized in other countries as opposed to the big 7? Does hockey get funding from official bodies or the government and if so how much? Are sports like lacrosse, basketball and curling much easier to learn and that makes it easier to develop at a higher level? Compared to the sports we have listed, lacrosse, basketball, curling, hockey is much more violent and is this a reason why the sport has not grown? These and other factors need to be explored more thoroughly. Still after 40 years, you would think there would be more development than what has been shown. Thanks for responding

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