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.