Well the revived World Cup that has been in limbo for 12 years is over and I have already written two sequel articles about its ultimate meaning plus several other articles about the problems and hopes that it has uncovered and raised. It is time to summarize everything that occurred and try and point out a path for the future.
First of all, bringing back the World Cup was a great idea and has succeeded in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr’s main goal in establishing a credible basis for taking the concept forward in the future. They chose the right city to revive it, Toronto, got lots of the NHL alumni including many players from outside Canada involved, and the off-ice activities were a great success. But they also uncovered some serious problems…
Goliath And Paying For The Sins Of The Past
All the tournament proved was that it was a total mismatch right from the start and that international hockey is now paying for its failure to improve the quality of the game during the past 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972. The creation of the two hybrid teams, Europe and North America was an open admission by Bettman that there is a serious gap in quality of play between the traditional “big 7″ and the next “B level” group of countries – about a dozen teams in all – and that very little has been done in four decades to improve the quality of play. The same “big 7″ in 1972 are still the same “big 7″ in 2016.
At the same time the tournament revealed that there is a new serious gap in hockey quality in international play between Canada and the rest of the world. North America and Europe were created to improve the quality of competition and finish a credible 7th and 8th. They were not supposed to be the third and second best teams in the tournament. The play of the five national teams who were supposed to be Canada’s toughest opponents was appalling. The tournament became a Goliath without any David to oppose him. Before the first puck was dropped, it was merely a matter of getting through the games so that Canada could be crowned king as quickly as possible. Canada has too much talent, is too well trained, and too well coached. Everybody else was playing for second place.
Only Real Moment Of Drama
Almost everybody predicted Canada would win this tournament. It was only a matter of how easily they would do it, and except for the play of Europe and North America, there were few surprises. So the only real moments of drama were when ex-teammates/rivals of the Montreal Canadiens, goaltenders Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak faced off in the Final. It might have opened the old debate about which goaltender should have been kept and whether they should both still be teammates. Certainly Montreal sorely missed Halak when Price got hurt last year. Price won this tournament but Halak was not far behind him so the debate is still open. The hockey gods mischievously arranged this classic match-up. Do they plan to have a Montreal Canadiens-New York Islanders playoff round rematch at the end of the upcoming season?
The Sound Of Silence…
Bettman and Fehr held a press conference in which they outlined further tantalizing developments for international hockey including additional tournaments and whether to hold the World Cup in more than one city, how it should be awarded to cities in the future, if it should be played in countries outside of Canada… Everything except discussing ways about bridging the quality problem listed above which is the most serious problem standing in the way of developing the World Cup. Expect more mismatches at the 2018 Olympic Games and the next World Cup in 2020 unless the problem is finally faced up to and dealt with honestly by raising the level of play in the remaining six countries, and at the “B level” group of countries up to the level of Canada.
The Solution Is Below The Pros
The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is the finest developer of junior talent in the world. There is a line-up of American and European boys who want to get into the league to prove themselves against Canadian junior competition because they know if they distinguish themselves, they will have earned a ticket into the NHL. But what does that say about your own national systems if you have to go to Canada to get proper training and development? Penalizing the excellence of Canada is not the solution (making them play with one arm tied behind their backs?). Bettman and Fehr should be talking about ways the NHL and whoever is running the national organizations of the rest of the hockey playing countries outside of Canada to overhaul their junior systems and maybe even those below that level and create systems that are either modeled after the CHL or something better. The other countries have to be able to produce hockey players of the quantity and quality that Canada does. Right now no other country has any hope of competing against Canada at this time or in the future unless this is done. So serious is this problem that the very future of international hockey is at stake. The problem is even more serious in women’s hockey where only the United States and Canada ice credible teams.
Quality Wins Over Quantity
Canada has a population of approximately 35 million people placing it in the middle of hockey-playing countries. Certainly countries like Russia, USA, Germany, France, and Italy with much larger populations can produce enough players to ice credible teams to play against Canada. Canada’s vast lead in quality of play over everybody else proves that it is a triumph of quality training and development, not simply a matter of mass numbers. It is a matter of developing enough quality players in your junior system. And if Canada can do it, so can smaller countries like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Latvia and the rest.
On Your Mark The Place To Start
One thing that got revealed because of the World Cup was where to begin the process of reform. Besides the remaining six traditional countries, the composition of Team Europe that played so well showed that the “B level” countries who have made the most progress are Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. Ideally it would be great to get as many “B level” countries up to Canada’s level but just getting those three countries up to the higher standard of play would be a real revolution in international play especially when it is remembered how little has been done in the past 44 years. If I want to improve the quality of international hockey and broaden its base as fast as possible, I know the three countries to begin with.
Missing In Action 1
Slovakia, a “big 7″ country was not allowed to ice a team. They had the most players on Team Europe. They have to be brought back for 2020. They can hardly do much worse than the sorry efforts, Sweden, Finland, USA, Russia and the Czech Republic gave.
Missing In Action 2
Germany, Denmark and Switzerland have to have teams in 2020. They have to PERMANENTLY join the “big 7″ so at least there will be a “big 10″ in international play for the future.
Missing In Action 3
Canada had two of its top stars, Connor McDavid and Duncan Keith not on its roster. Canada still won easily. Nobody noticed their absence.
Missing In Action 4
Where is that American team that always wins international competitions and saves the day? You know who I mean, not Team USA but the Mighty Ducks. They were noticeably absent during this tournament. Somehow this team of hacks always wins. For some reason (probably because Disney does not want to offend Canadians and lose their market) this team has yet to play a Canadian team. Instead Canada is always defeated off camera by some villainous European team. Sorry Americans, I couldn’t resist. This is called “putting your foot in your mouth” and “shooting yourself in the foot”. Come on Americans, seriously, the creation of this hip hip hurray, “patriotic” rubbish that earns the contempt and ridicule of every Canadian child who knows anything about hockey, plays at least a minor role in the illusion that the USA can compete on equal terms with Canada. Well, maybe the Ducks could have beaten Team USA.
It fits hand in glove with the other sports myths Americans love to believe in, particularly about baseball. What Americans should be doing is the hard work of overhauling their junior program so that they can REALLY compete with Canada permanently in the future. Then make a biographical movie about the man that accomplishes this. He will have earned it. Meanwhile cast your Ducks, the Bad News Bears, and other unrealistic American sports myths into the ash can.
Reason To Be Thankful For The Return Of The World Cup
Pittsburgh goaltender Marc Andre Fleury who should have been dropped off the roster along with his big contract during the off season after the job Matt Murray did in the playoffs now amazingly gets another chance. Murray got injured as the goaltender for Team North America. At least for now, Fleury is Pittsburgh’s starting goaltender again.
Best Coaching Job
The runaway winner is Canada coach Mike Babcock, and his all star NHL coaching staff who got their team to play consistently up to the standard they were expected to be at. There were no holes exposed in any aspect of team play. And he did this without Keith and McDavid.
Ralph Krueger took Team Europe which was supposed to be the joke of the tournament to the Final where they played two credible games against Canada. A few years ago he was the coach of Edmonton and managed to get that woe-begotten team to nearly the .500 level, but he was fired after only one year. Since then, he has switched to soccer. But if he wants to come back to hockey, he has made himself the leading contender for any upcoming NHL coaching position that opens up. He can almost pick the NHL team he wants to coach. Las Vegas or Quebec in two years?
The tournament produced a tie in this odious category which showed why these two players are where they are in the NHL. First Alexander Ovechkin of Russia continued to show why he should not be rated on the same level as Sidney Crosby. His Russian teams have not won a medal with him as their best player. They lost to Canada after giving up 47 shots in the semi-final. Believe it or not, this was actually an improvement over Russia’s showing in the last two Olympics in Vancouver and on their home ice of Sochi where they were eliminated in only the quarter finals by Canada and Finland. This is exactly the equivalent of Ovechkin’s NHL career where his Washington Capitals have yet to make even the Eastern Conference Final.
Meanwhile Sweden’s goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist showed why he is the Ovechkin of NHL goaltenders. He was able to beat sorry looking Finland but when he played against the two hybrids he gave up two overtime goals that were ultimately the reason why Sweden finished out of the money. In the NHL, he has managed to get the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final once. They have yet to win the Cup.
The Best Excuse
Team Finland, 0-3 blamed its defeats on having too many rookies to international competition on its roster. That had better be the right reason because at least it is the most credible of excuses for a bad performance. At least there is hope for the future. What can Russia, Sweden, USA, and the Czech Republic say for their efforts?
Surprisingly Europe and North America were a success but they were only supposed to provide credible opposition, not be the second and third best teams in the tournament. They certainly deserve consideration about being brought back in the future. If they are, I would make one change. I want to see Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland competing in 2020 so I would change the composition of Europe to the best players from the remaining “B level” countries, Austria, France, Norway, Poland, Italy, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, and Belarus.
Every time the NHL expands, the complaints pour in that the NHL’s quality is being diluted and the game is watered down. Well, Mr. Bettman if you want to maintain the high standard of your league, you will effectively address and solve the quality problem by developing the quality of the “B level” countries who have been stuck at that level since before the NHL players began playing internationally in 1972. The more countries you develop, the more of an abundance of good players you will have to not only stock Las Vegas and Quebec, but the other eight teams you want to bring into the NHL before you retire, up to the next symmetrical level of 40 teams.