The 2018 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, New York are simply more of the same. There are 10 national teams participating and they accurately tell the state of international hockey not only at the junior level but at the top level that fans will see at the World Championships, the World Cup, and at the Olympics.
It is all based on quality of play. First there are the usual “big 7″ countries, Canada, USA, Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland. Then there are the 2 “1A” countries, Switzerland and Denmark. Since before 1972, the date of the Canada-USSR match when NHL professionals first started play in international competitions, only these two countries have made any progress in quality of play. Right now their level of play is probably somewhere midway between the “big 7″ teams and the huge glut of “B Level” teams they have emerged from. Despite their improvement, after four decades, there is still only a “big 7″, not a “big 9″
The tournament is rounded out by Belarus, sole representative of the large number of “B-Level” country teams who have been stuck at that level of play since before 1972. The remainder of this group includes, Austria, Germany, France, Norway, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. Belarus has the usual expectations; lose every game or maybe pull an upset or two and then be regulated to the lower level. Back in 1972, after the Canada-USSR match, there were boasts that hockey would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. After 45 years, there has been no expansion of the game.
There are two writers on this blog, Sam Happi and Alson Lee who specialize in writing about developments in junior hockey, about who will be the top choices in next year’s NHL draft. So the World Junior Hockey Championship will have special importance for them. This year in Buffalo, they will get to write articles on this blog for the Buffalo fans about whom the horrible Sabres – who right now have the second best chance of getting the number 1 draft pick – who will likely be their top draft pick next year.
The NHL and the powers that be in international hockey make it easy for Alson and Sam Happi to write articles. Since there is no organized plan to improve the quality of play internationally, they can divide their time accordingly. My guess is that they spend 93% of their time writing about the development of the traditional “big 7″ juniors, 5% on players from Denmark and Switzerland, and 2% on anyone else they find interesting.
It’s not that the NHL doesn’t know there is a problem. Gary Bettman gave himself away at the revived World Cup when he created the hybrid teams, Team Europe and Team North America. He did not want any boring mismatches between the “big 7″ and “B Level” teams. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team.
Team Europe, the eventual runner up in the tournament deserves special notice. It was mostly made up of – you guessed it – players from Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany. The latter 3 countries are the obvious ones to develop first if hockey is to grow from a “big 7″ base to a “big 10″ or better. By rights the World Junior Championships and other top tournaments ought to be played by 12 teams, or better yet 16. There will be 16 teams at next year’s World Championship. International women’s hockey is so horrible that only Canada and the United States ice competent teams and there have been threats to expel the sport from the Olympics because of lack of competition.
Bettman has made a lot of statements about how he wants international hockey to grow, most recently when he went to Stockholm, Sweden, to oversee the return of NHL competition to Europe when Ottawa played Colorado. But as usual, he said nothing about improving the quality of play at the lower levels. Over the years since 1972 there have been brief NHL clinics in “B Level” countries and out of work NHL coaches have tried their hands at coaching and improving things abroad at that level. It has obviously not been enough. If Bettman and the other powers that be in international hockey really want the sport to grow, to have a World Cup of hockey that approaches the stature of the World Cup of soccer, the quality of play problem has to finally be faced up to honestly and dealt with. Until then, it will be the usual stagnation.
For me, the most interesting aspect about next year’s World Junior tournament is two notches down. As everyone knows, Bettman pulled the NHL out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. But the South Koreans had done their hockey homework well after being awarded the Olympics and during the intervening years set out to improve the quality of play of their national team. And lo and behold, at next year’s World Championships, the South Koreans have come out of nowhere and will play in a top tournament against “big 7″ teams for the very first time.
Probably all that is expected is that the newcomer South Koreans will lose every game and then be regulated. Nobody really knows how good this upstart is because they have never played against top competition before. But their promotion means they are at least as good as the established “B Level” teams. If they do anything significant and manage to stick around at the highest level for the immediate future, what a potential embarrassment for Bettman and the NHL who claim they want to improve international hockey and then snub maybe the only country who may finally turn the “big 7″ into a “big 8″ by pulling out of their Olympics. What a wonderful way to welcome a potential new NHL market of 50 million people.
At the junior level this year, the South Koreans have been promoted from Division 3 to Division 2, so they have been improving at that level too. That’s still 2 notches away from the top level of junior play, but for me at least, they are the team to keep my eye on. Will they win their tournament and get promoted to Division 1? If the South Koreans show something at next year’s World Championships and also keep climbing at the junior level, maybe in a couple of years, Alson and Sam Happi will have to expand their coverage and work a bit harder to cover all the developments at the junior level.