If you are an anti-nationalist or are just plain tired of hearing boorish “USA USA!”, “Go Canada Go!” and other nationalistic chants from other countries that fans utter at international sport events, the revived World Cup Of Hockey has created two teams just for you. One is “Team North America” composed of North American players under 23, and “Team Europe” made up of players who do not play for such “big 7″ countries like Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic.
North America and Europe are competing in the World Cup tournament because of the unspoken admission of failure to develop the quality of hockey outside of “big 7″ boundaries. There is a sharp drop in quality of play after the “big 7″ teams. In the 44 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, only Switzerland and recently Denmark have shown any progress in icing teams that can compete effectively with the “big 7″.
By rights, the revived World Cup roster should have been completed with Slovakia (a “big 7″ country that for some mysterious reason is not being allowed to ice a team) and either Switzerland or Denmark. But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, mindful of the difference in hockey quality, created North America and Europe to spare audiences the usual spectacles of Canada 10 Norway 1, Russia 12 Austria 2, USA 8 Latvia 3, etc. So instead we will see Sweden 5 Europe 3, USA 6, North America 4, much more competitive games.
But one thing North America and Europe are not supposed to do is win. These two teams are competing simply to prevent the embarrassments listed above. At the end of the tournament, they will receive a pat on the head for a good dog’s day’s work done when they finish in the expected 7th and 8th position. That is all that is expected of them.
But what would really be fitting and embarrassing is for these two teams – Europe in particular – to do well in this tournament. The revived World Cup in its current format is simply an admission that the NHL and the “big 7″ have done a poor job in four decades of improving the quality of hockey played around the world. After the 1972 tournament, there were frequent boasts that if hockey continued to develop, it would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But now even curling has more competitive teams than hockey in world play.
There are no shortage of teams and hockey players. There are 50 ranked countries in hockey competition. But the same 7 countries remain in the top 7 positions just as they did back in 1972.
At a recent press conference, Commissioner Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr outlined future developments for international hockey with the conspicuous absence of any concrete plans to improve the quality of international play. The best they could say was that Boston and Los Angeles were hosting clinics for Chinese players. But China is ranked 37th, a long way off from icing a competitive team against even the “B” ranked teams, let alone the “big 7″.
What the NHL and the “big 7″ should be doing is creating concrete plans to improve the caliber of play for the large number of countries stuck at the “B level” of play; Switzerland, Denmark, France, Latvia, Germany, Austria, Norway, Kazakhstan, Italy, Belarus, Poland, and Slovenia. These are the countries whose development can help World Cup play right now. It is from these countries plus Slovakia that will compose the roster of Team Europe.
In the four decades since 1972, this group of countries remain stuck in the mud, spinning their wheels playing a brand of hockey that is below the caliber of the “big 7″. So this tournament is a chance to see if a combined effort might produce a competitive team.
It would great if this team did well in the tournament, a chance to embarrass the NHL and the “big 7″ for the little they have done in 44 years. Of course if either Europe and North America won, Bettman will be glad to accept all the praise for his “good idea”, but it will not hide the fact that hockey is still not being properly developed internationally.
I don’t know about you but I’m partial to having a Europe-North America Final just to see what the consequences might be. I’ll be happy to fly the imaginary Europe and North American flags. And if it does finally lead to real plans that can actually improve the quality of hockey in other countries, so that in 2020 a real World Cup can be staged with 12 or even 16 competitive teams, so much the better.