So it is now a World Cup Final between Canada and hybrid Team Europe, the only team without a national anthem. And the third best team in the tournament was probably Team North America. This was the last thing anybody needed or wanted.
It was a great idea to revive the World Cup as a regular event that had been lost in the wilderness for twelve years. It was a chance to pit the national teams of the traditional “big 7″ countries against each other plus some improved invited guests. What started out so promising instead has become a clear mirror as to the state of international hockey (More about this in a future article). The five teams that should have given Canada its toughest competition have been an embarrassment instead.
Poor NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He wanted to improve the competition level in this tournament by excluding “B level” countries and creating united conglomerates which he christened Europe and North America. This was to prevent embarrassments like Canada 10 Norway 1, Russia 8 Latvia 2, and USA 7 Poland 0, etc. The creation of these two hybrids showed that Bettman recognized that during the previous 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972, virtually nothing had been done to improve the level of play outside of the “big 7″. Back then, there had been boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport behind soccer. Instead after four decades, excellence in hockey is still confined to its same narrow base as it was back then. So North America and Europe were created to provide competitive games but they were not supposed to win.
The first mistake was to exclude Slovakia, a “big 7″ country from icing a team in the tournament. Slovakians would form the heart of Team Europe. But what Bettman could not foresee was the truly dismal effort the national teams, other than Canada would give.
Start with Team Finland 0-3. Their excuse was that it was a young team just learning the ropes of international competition. They claim they are happy with the result. The future they insist, “is bright”. If that is true, that is at least the most credible excuse. Hope reigns for the future. It is far worse for the others.
Moving along we come to Team USA, now everybody’s favorite whipping boy in the tournament. According to their management, they were put together to “beat Canada” supposedly the best team in the tournament, but instead started out by being shamefully shut out by Europe, supposedly the worst team and then it was downhill from there. Neither former Conn Smythe Trophy winner goaltender Jonathan Quick nor Ben Bishop who took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final was particularly stingy, but you cannot win if you do not score and USA scored a grand total of 5 goals in 3 games prompting excluded veteran Phil Kessel to tweet taunts at the team.
Actually if you really want to rub it in on USA remind them of the Hollywood sports fantasies they so love to create. In hockey’s case the Americans cooked up the Mighty Ducks, a team of hacks who somehow manage to become champions of the world. Of course not wishing to offend Canada and lose its market, Disney always had Canada defeated off camera by some bad guy European country leaving it to the Ducks to save North American hockey. The Ducks have yet to play and defeat a Canadian team. This of course has prompted howls of ridicule and contempt from every child north of the 49th Parallel. Needless to say, the Ducks were not at this current tournament to save the day. They might have beaten Team USA though.
Russia and the Czech Republic can hardly hold their heads much higher than the Americans. Once feared as usually the second and third ranked hockey powers of the world, this tournament underlined how far they have tumbled compared to Canada. In fact it is hard to remember when the Czech Republic has iced a truly competitive team capable of winning tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics. They started off with a shameful 6-0 shutout by Canada, clearly showing that did not belong on the same ice, failed to defeat supposedly bad Europe, and then managed to eke out a win against the even sorrier Americans. One can hardly wait for a rematch with Canada.
As for Russia, the World Cup showed once again why this Alexander Ovechkin-led team has never won a medal at any Olympics in which he is supposed to be Russia’s best player and why he has never even been to the Eastern Conference Final with the Washington Capitals. Billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby whom he is supposed to have a rivalry with, Canada made sure that his name never appeared on the score sheet against them proving once again that Crosby is a difference maker while Ovechkin is not. He wants to play for Russia again during the 2018 Olympics whether the NHL participates or not, but given his team record both internationally and with Washington in the playoffs, it would be better to give someone else a chance.
How far has Russia fallen when compared with Canada? Russia gave up 47 shots in only 3 periods to Canada and the 5-3 score is more of a tribute to the heroic goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky than any virtue by the rest of the Russian team. Goaltending is probably the only position where Russia is competitive with Canada anymore.
Finally we come to Sweden which was billed with Canada as one of the tournament favorites. Sweden is usually described as a team that wins by its skating and offensive skill ability. They managed to beat Russia led by Ovechkin who again failed to rise to the occasion and “rookie” filled Finland. Balanced against those meager achievements was their failure to beat either of the hybrids. Henrik Lundqvist showed why he is the Ovechkin of goaltenders in the NHL and why he has never won the Stanley Cup, giving up two overtime winners to both North America and Europe.
If Sweden was really one of the favorites, they should have beaten every opponent with authority, the way Canada did. And their vaunted skating ability was nowhere to be seen. Against Europe in the semi-final, they looked like a tired, old team plodding along, not one out to prove that they were a real challenger for Canada as the best in world.
So that just leaves Europe which was supposed to be the joke of the tournament as Canada’s opponent in the Final. Gary Bettman of course will accept the applause for his “good idea” in creating these two hybrids, but inside he can hardly be pleased. North America and Europe were created to provide interesting, decent competition. They were not supposed to win. But this debacle is not Bettman’s fault. Who would have predicted before this tournament started that every national team except Canada would play like turkeys who did not belong, leaving the door wide open for two low ranked hybrids to prove themselves.