China NHL Games: Congratulations?, Hilarious Hypocrisy?, Or Bitter Acid Stupidity?

What I expected was displayed at the NHL website about the first NHL exhibition games in China. Three articles – a game summary, a diary article, and most predictable of all, a wholesome article about how the NHL broke the ice and made new fans in China; describing the excitement, especially among the young, impressionable children; how many patrons in a crowd of only 10,000 in Shanghai were wearing NHL jerseys; how many attended the clinics that the Los Angeles Kings offered; how the NHL made its first tiny baby step in the world’s largest population of 1.3 billion; how historical this was; etc. How sweet and lovable.

I’d be prompted to offer my congratulations to Gary Bettman and the NHL – and they do merit some – except when I think about what they could have done, what they SHOULD have done. Hockey is so minuscule in China that at last glance, the Chinese national team was ranked 37th in the world. What will be the end of all this incision? China moves up to 35?

Meanwhile – since before 1972 [when NHL players first began playing in international tournaments against teams from other countries], there have been a group of countries including Germany, Austria, Poland, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovenia, Norway, Hungary and Belarus who have been stuck at the “B level” of quality of play, just below the traditional “big 7″ countries of Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, and Finland. In the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match, only Switzerland and Denmark can be said to make much progress. That is not much to show for 4½ decades when it was said back in 1972, that hockey would become “the number 2 sport in the world” behind soccer.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman just revived the dormant World Cup last year and wants to spread the game internationally. The China games are part of this plan. But “realistic” Bettman won’t tackle the real problem. For his revived World Cup there were only six national teams. Usually in international games in other tournaments, games between “big 7″ countries and “B level” ones are boring mismatches, slaughters that put fans to sleep and only fatten up the scoring statistics of “big 7″ stars. To prevent such mismatches, Bettman cooked up two hybrid teams for his revived World Cup, Team Europe and Team North America. Even Slovakia was not invited to send a team.

If he really wants to spread the game internationally – and have a larger, more meaningful hockey World Cup, one that one day might rank with soccer’s World Cup – there has to be a plan to get at least the “B level” countries up to the standard of play of the traditional powers. That would mean a real expansion in prestige for international hockey.

But there is no plan. Instead the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks make a tiny dent in 37th ranked China. In 45 years, hosting once-a-year clinics, and sending out of work NHL coaches to “B level” countries to improve things is not enough. International hockey has not been developed or improved. It’s every country for itself with no well thought out plan to improve the quality of the game. The World Cup could be played by at least 16 national teams. Right now it is played by only six and there is no hope of broadening it in sight. Hockey cannot expand without resolving the quality of play problem. The “B level” countries are still where they were back in 1972. That’s over a dozen teams that could make a significant expansion of international hockey.

It is even worse on the women’s side. Only Canada and the United States can ice quality teams. Women’s hockey has been threatened with expulsion from the Olympics because of the lack of competition. In contrast, international curling, for both men and women, has made real improvements world wide. Maybe it is an unfair comparison or perhaps there is a lesson there somewhere.

Meanwhile while the NHL pats itself on the back because of China, a hilarious piece of hypocrisy has developed for Bettman and the NHL. South Korea has joined at least the ranks of the “B level” countries. Yes, that same South Korea which will host the Winter Olympics next year in 2018 at Pyeongchang, that Gary Bettman and his NHL owners see fit to abandon, has improved its men’s hockey team so much that next year they will be promoted to the top level of the World Championship tournament where they will take on the traditional “big 7″ teams for the first time.

After being awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics, the South Koreans obviously did their hockey homework. They were nowhere in the ranks of hockey a few years ago, but some smart people who knew what they were doing improved the team so much that it can make its debut at the top level of next year’s international tournament. How good is this new, upstart country? Nobody knows. There will be a clearer picture when they play the traditional top bananas next year.

South Korea is where the NHL should have sent the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings, not 37th ranked China. But Pyeongchang is not as glamorous at Shanghai and Beijing and the population of South Korea is “only” 50 million, not 1.3 billion. Money, not the betterment of hockey is talking. Bettman wants hockey to grow internationally, but the NHL pulls out of “unglamorous” South Korea, the one country that has made a real climb in the hockey ranks internationally. If South Korea does anything significant at next year’s World Championship, it will be awfully embarrassing for Bettman and the NHL. If the South Koreans play well enough to stick around at the top level, or [horrors!] actually win a medal, will Bettman be forced to invite them to his 2020 World Cup?

It’s bad enough already. Reward a country that has really improved its hockey program by snubbing their nation of 50 million people by pulling out of their Winter Olympics. That’s a great policy for the NHL which could have a brand new market of 50 million people to tap. But South Korea, like the “B Level” countries is not 1.3 billion China.

So we come to our conclusion judgment of the NHL’s experimental China exhibition games. Congratulations NHL, you have made a little tiny dent in expanding international hockey. For that we grant you a halo over your head. But when it is thought about what could have been done, what should have been done, perhaps it would be a more appropriate response to roll on the floor in hilarity or sit bitterly ruing at the opportunities that have been wasted.

 

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