On December 26, the most significant international hockey tournament since September’s World Cup, the World Junior Championships begins in host cities, Toronto and Montreal. Many of the same problems in international hockey that were apparent at the World Cup might appear again here, only they are more significant because this is where they first become noticeable. You cannot fix the problems of the World Cup without fixing the problems of the juniors first. The two most significant questions of the tournament are is Canada so far ahead of everybody else and is there any improvement in the “B level” countries.
At least there is one significant improvement over the recent World Cup. There are 10 teams, not 8 and there are no hybrids like Team Europe and Team North America. All are national junior teams. There are two divisions; Group 1 has Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Denmark and Switzerland; Group 2 has Canada, United States, Russia, Slovakia, and Latvia. In other words, the “traditional big 7″ (including Slovakia which was mysteriously not allowed to ice a team at the World Cup and was the core of hybrid Team Europe) and supposedly the three best “B level” countries. But will there be any significant changes?
During the Sidney Crosby era, for the most part hockey has been a Canadian game at the top level. Canada has won 16 straight meaningful matches dating back to the Vancouver Olympics of 2010. Total domination. They have pulled away from the other “traditional big 7″ countries. It is not just that Canada has improved but that the other 6 countries are getting worse. At the World Cup the other 5 countries played horrible hockey and it was hybrid Team Europe who would be Canada’s opponent in the Final. Russia continued its terrible play since 2010. It is only a ghost of its once-mighty self. The USA could not win a game and Sweden could not beat either of the hybrids. This was typical of the whole tournament.
But it starts at the junior level and earlier. Canada’s CHL junior league consistently gives them an edge in development all the time. No wonder there is a line-up of American and European boys trying to join the league to compete against Canada’s top juniors. They know they will receive top training in preparation for the NHL and future international play. The national development programs of all the other countries in the world just don’t measure up. It is time for an overhaul based on the CHL model.
The other problem is the expansion in quality of hockey around the world, in this tournament symbolized by the play of the three “B level” countries, Switzerland, Denmark, and Latvia. Are they going to make an impact and finally be true contenders? Since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, there has been no real improvement in quality anywhere. The “big 7″ have not grown to a “big 10″ or better. Four decades of non-development.
Most hockey fans do not know that a great portion of the World Junior tournament has already been played. At the “1A Level” tournament in Germany, 6 “traditional B level” countries, France, Germany, Norway, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Austria have battled it out. Next year Belarus will take their spot at the top level in place of whoever gets relegated in this upcoming tournament. Norway will go down to “1B”.
There are about a dozen teams stuck at the “B level” of play since before 1972. After the Canada-USSR series, there was talk that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But it can never become that if the quality of play remains so bad outside the “traditional big 7″ countries.
Recently, Boston and Los Angeles held “development camps” for Chinese players. But China is so bad it is in one of the bottom levels of international play. The camps were fine but getting China to improve a little is not going to help the growth of international hockey now. Getting the dozen “B Level” countries over the hump so they can compete as equals with the “traditional big 7″ will. That will mean a significant growth of international hockey.
Ideally fans would like to see a World Cup, a World Junior Championship and other significant international tournaments with 16 teams or better, all with a chance to be the champion just like at soccer’s World Cup. And once all the B-levels are improved, then start working on the lower level countries. There are about 50 ranked countries playing hockey around the world. The goal should be to have inter-country games during the off years to see who makes the World Cup of Hockey every four years, just like soccer does.
Unfortunately there does not seem to be any coherent plan to develop hockey and improve quality. As noted above, there has been no significant changes in four decades. The quality of curling has improved around the world for both men and women but is that a fair comparison? Nevertheless the sport of curling has succeeded while hockey has failed.
Improvement starts at the junior level and earlier. The results of this tournament are signs about the development of hockey around the world. Are fans going to see anything significantly different or the same old thing?