Well NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s annual state of the union address sure did not turn me on. There were the North American goodies he handed out; an all star game to Tampa Bay, an outdoor game for Toronto and Washington. International prizes; the return of NHL regular season games to Europe (Ottawa and Colorado); and preseason games between Vancouver and Los Angeles in China. Of problems discussed, only that of video review was mentioned. No resolution of the biggies; a new Quebec team, the New York Islanders arena, and the Arizona mess. And the continued cold shoulder to South Korea.
The NHL’s snub of “unglamorous”, Pyeongchang, South Korea, the host of next year’s Winter Olympics could not come at a worse time for Bettman. The Commissioner who has taken active steps to promote the game around the world by the steps listed in the first paragraph and his revival of the World Cup, recently got some unpleasant news on the international scene. During the last World Championship, South Korea got promoted to the top level and next year will compete for the first time against the traditional “big 7″ countries of hockey in a major international tournament.
Bettman and the NHL are focused on the bigger fish, low ranked China, the biggest potential hockey market in the world. Hence the Vancouver-Los Angeles games. But obviously the South Koreans have been doing their hockey homework and now are good enough to at least compete successfully against the dozen “B-level” countries (Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland, etc.) that the NHL and the “big 7″ countries have so conspicuously failed to develop quality-wise in the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972.
How good is this team that has come out of the low-ranks of nowhere? What is probably expected is that they will get their toes wet against the top competition for the first time next year, lose every game, get demoted back to Division 1, and be thanked for spreading the game of hockey. But nobody really knows. If South Korea does ANYTHING significant at next year’s World Championship, it is going to be a real hornets nest of trouble for Bettman and the NHL.
What if South Korea wins a game or two and manages to stay at the top level permanently? What if they are good enough to beat a traditional “big 7″ team, especially Canada and the United States? What if they are good enough to win a medal or (horrors!) win the tournament? That’s going to make the NHL’s rejection of the South Korean Olympics scandalous. Will Bettman be forced to invite them to the next World Cup? Will he have to schedule NHL exhibition and regular season games in Pyeongchang and Seoul?
Already South Korea is an embarrassment to the NHL and the “big 7″ by its climb into the top ranks. In 45 years, the “big 7″ have never been able to expand the quality of international hockey to even a “big 8″. If South Korea shows that it belongs permanently in the ranks of the hockey great powers, it will only highlight how little the NHL and the “big 7″ have developed hockey in over four decades. If South Korea makes a big splash, its method of developing hockey should be copied immediately by every other low ranked country in the world.
What is Bettman going to do if South Korea does anything significant? Paste a brittle smile on his face and mumble congratulations? In its quest to land the big fish of China, the NHL has snubbed a potential market of 50 million people. And to rub it in, potentially the only country that may be good enough to join the great powers and make international hockey a “big 8″ at last. Hey Gary, if South Korea does anything good, your NHL owners and teams are going to want to sign their players to NHL contracts. You’re going to have to add Korean to English, French, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, German, Swedish and Finnish to the list of languages at the NHL’s website.
It’s funny that international curling never has this problem. That teams from non-traditional curling countries like Japan, Russia, China, and (yes) South Korea can ice teams that are good enough to compete and win major championships for BOTH men and women. But then international curling is light years ahead of international hockey in developing its game around the world.
Meanwhile the number of quality international hockey teams for men is 7 and the number of quality teams is 2 for women. That’s wonderful development in 45 years. So much for the boasts back then that hockey would become “the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer”. Already South Korea has done more to raise its game in a short period than all of the “B-level” countries in 45 years.
Bettman could have used his state of the union address to reverse the NHL’s position which is unpopular with many players and head off the potential damage and embarrassment that may come. Instead he kept the cold shoulder up against a potential new hockey market of 50 million people. That’s a wonderful way to develop hockey. That’s a wonderful way of welcoming a new huge reservoir of hockey talent. This is a great way of showing hypocrisy by saying you want to develop hockey around the world and then snubbing a country which actually has done it. Everybody cheer for the South Koreans next year. I know I will.