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.