I don’t know whether to shake NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s hand or give him a good shakeup. Perhaps both, especially when it comes to international hockey. There he was doing many of the right things again, everything except competently addressing the main problem with international hockey.
The occasion was his official comments on the NHL’s return to playing regular season games in Europe after a six year absence. The city chosen was the Swedish capital, hockey hotbed Stockholm, and the two games were a home and home series between the Ottawa Senators and the Colorado Avalanche. Last year it seemed like a mediocre match up because Colorado had a bad team. But the recent improvement of the Avalanche and the unexpected consummation of a major trade for Matt Duchene, involving both the Senators and the Avalanche provided extra spice for both the Swedish media and the fans. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that tickets were selling better to both games now than when the NHL broke off its European regular season games, six years ago.
Bettman is an international hockey teaser. He is definitely sincere about improving international hockey. He brought back the World Cup last year. He brought a decent match to Stockholm this year and hopes to increase the number of games and the number of countries to play regular season games in future years. Earlier this year, the NHL played preseason games and hosted clinics in China and Daly says the NHL wants to play more preseason games there next year. And the two chief NHL officials made the predictable tributes to the contribution of Swedish hockey to the NHL.
But as usual, neither Bettman nor Daly made any comment about solving the main problem that is hurting the expansion of hockey internationally, the quality of play outside the traditional “big 7″ countries, Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. It is not that Bettman doesn’t know about it either. When he brought back the World Cup in 2016, he created two hybrid teams, Team Europe and Team North America. This was because most games between the traditional 7 against teams outside the “big 7″ countries are usually boring mismatches and Bettman was having none of that in his revived World Cup. Even Slovakia did not send a team, though it contributed the most players to Team Europe.
There are about 50 countries who play hockey internationally and a dozen of them have been stuck at the “B Level” quality of play – just below the top level of international play – since before the Canada-USSR match of 1972 when NHL pros played against international competition for the first time. Only Switzerland and Denmark have shown any real improvement and in Bettman’s eyes, were still not good enough to be invited to his revived World Cup. Daly spoke about playing regular and preseason games in cities of these “B Level” countries in the future but interest in international hockey is not going to grow until these countries can ice teams that have a real chance to win medals and championships.
What is needed is a comprehensive plan including investment money and serious talks involving the NHL, the governing international bodies of the traditional “big 7 countries” and the governing bodies of at least some of the countries – particularly those countries stuck at the “B Level” of play, to increase the standard of play internationally. Until that is done, all of the NHL and Bettman’s good intentions are going to be stunted. If Bettman wants his World Cup of hockey to start attaining the status of the World Cup of soccer, the international base has to be significantly expanded. A World Cup of 16 competitive national teams should be a reasonable goal for the future.
The lack of any plan to improve the quality of international play is bad enough for the NHL but there is a potential big embarrassment coming as well which was not addressed by Bettman and Daly. They pulled the NHL out the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea next year just when the South Korean national team managed to join at least the “B Level” countries and will compete in next year’s World Championship against “big 7″ teams for the first time. Thus we have the Commissioner of the NHL hopefully talking about expanding hockey internationally while at the same time pulling the league out of the Olympics of maybe the one country that might be good enough to at last turn the “big 7″ into a “big 8″.
Nobody knows how good this South Korean team is. But they have come from nowhere to be promoted to the top ranks of international hockey. Probably what is expected is that they will get their toes wet, lose every game, get a good learning experience and then be demoted back to the next lower level. But if they do anything significant and manage to stick around at the top level for the future, it will be embarrassing for the NHL which has snubbed the South Korean Olympics and a potential new market of 50 million people. The NHL should be talking about playing preseason games in Seoul, not just China. But at this official conference, there was silence by the NHL about this other potentially significant issue.
Instead there were Bettman and Daly doing and saying a lot of good things about the future of international hockey. There is a lot of good potential in the dreams they are talking about and what they are offering, but until they honestly deal with the real problems that are hurting the growth of international hockey, they will not get the rewards they plan to harvest.