It was mostly more of the same at the recently concluded 2017 World Championships held in France and Germany. For me, the biggest surprise concerned an individual, not a team. Henrik Lundqvist joined Sweden after his New York Rangers were eliminated and made a bit of a breakthrough for himself by defeating a favored Canadian team in the final 2-1. That’s the maddening thing about Lundqvist, probably the most frustrating and unpredictable goaltender in the NHL. He beats tough Montreal and then loses to lowly Ottawa. He can’t beat Gary Bettman’s hybrid teams, Europe and North America in last year’s World Cup. And now just as everyone is ready to write him off, he gets Sweden over the hump against a tough Canadian side.
The only other surprise was the disappointing showing of Slovakia, a “big 7″ hockey country that played on the same standard as the “B-level” countries. Their only victory was an overtime one against last ranked Italy. Slovakia could not even beat the other “B-level” countries it faced and finished 14th overall, narrowly missing demotion. This is a shocking finish for a country that has won the World Championship and provided most of the players for upstart Team Europe in last year’s World Cup.
But it is the same old thing that really is the story of the 2017 World Cup. Except for the bad play of Slovakia, the final 4 were a reshuffling of the “big 7″ countries. Russia defeated Finland who were trying to rebound from a bad World Cup for the bronze medal. The World Championships are composed of 16 countries, the kind of tournament that the revived World Cup should be aiming for. The tournament has the usual “traditional big 7″ countries and 9 others from the “B-level”.
There are so many “B-level” teams that they can’t help winning some games and making the second round. And there was the usual token upset game, this time by Switzerland defeating Canada. But as soon as the second round commenced, all “B-level” teams were swept out of the tournament as usual. In the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972, there has only been one single silver medal won by Switzerland in 2013. There have been no break throughs by the lesser countries to a permanent higher level in quality of play. There has been no growth of the “big 7″ to even a “big 8″ or better in 45 years. For the record Slovenia and Italy will be demoted to Division 1.
This is hardly a success for a sport whom Canadians were boasting that would become “the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer” immediately after the revolutionary success of the Canada-USSR match in 1972. All that has been done through the years is that the NHL hosts a few clinics abroad and some out-of-work coaches from all the “big 7″ countries seeking a new challenge go to a “B-level” or lower country and try to improve its prospects. It is not enough.
The only other surprise was not at this tournament, but at the Division 1 tournament held in Belfast, UK, and Kiev, Ukraine. Taking the place of Italy and Slovenia will be Austria, and (surprise, surprise) South Korea. I don’t know everything about the World Championships but next year may be the first time an Asian team other than Kazakhstan plays in the tournament. This might be South Korea’s World Championship debut.
But not only is this a momentous change, this is a direct slap in the face to Gary Bettman and the NHL who recently spurned playing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Those who have an axe to grind against Bettman will certainly be cheering for the South Koreans next year, especially when they play Canada and the United States. Those creatures called “the hockey gods” (These mystical creatures, if they really exist have a perverted, ironic, and sometimes cruel sense of humor already on display in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. They decreed a shocking loss by favorite Chicago in only four games and arranged for coaches Mike Yeo and Todd McLellan to eliminate their old teams, Minnesota and San Jose.), have stepped onto the World Championship stage with a vengeance. South Korea, dismissed by Bettman and the NHL could prove to be a real embarrassment for them.
But that is the only real thing to look forward to in 2018. Next year, I expect to see more of the same. Any real surprise would be some visionary appearing on the international stage with a real plan to improve the quality of hockey after 45 years of stagnation. Meanwhile congratulations to Sweden, Lundqvist, Austria and South Korea. They are the only notable things to comment on in this year’s tournament.