No need for the late Nostradamus and Paul the Octopus to appear at the recent World Junior Championships. Anyone with reasonable knowledge of World Junior hockey could have shown up and done a good job with predictions:
1. Belarus lost every game was demoted. Predictable
2. Their regulation opponent would be either Denmark or Switzerland. In this case Denmark. Predictable
3. The third worst team in the tournament would either be Denmark or Switzerland. This time is was Switzerland. Predictable
4. The only excitement of the first round was how the “Big 7″ teams would be seeded for the second round. Predictable
5. There would be zero or one token upset game. There was only one when Slovakia beat the United States. Predictable
6. There would be the usual slaughters like 8-0. 9-0. 7-2, 8-2, 6-1. And if you guessed that the losing teams were Denmark, Belarus, Switzerland, and Slovakia you would be right again. Predictable
It would have been nice to report about the return of Czech Republic hockey to respectability but alas that is not possible, not after playoff round scores of 7-2 by Canada and then 9-3 by the United States. The only element of unpredictability was who would win among Canada, Sweden, and the United States. If you are cheering for those countries, it’s great, but if you want international hockey to grow in prestige, it’s a disaster. It’s been over four decades since Canada-USSR in 1972 and international hockey at the men’s, women’s and junior levels has not grown one inch. So much for the boasts back then that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. The main reason for the lack of growth is that nobody has done anything to raise the quality of play outside of the traditional “Big 7″ countries.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman indirectly recognized the problem when he revived the World Cup and then created hybrid teams, Team North America and Team Europe. He did not want any embarrassing scores in his tournament like those listed above. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. During the tournament and at the revived NHL regular season games in Europe between Ottawa and Colorado, Bettman gave a lot of tantalizing proposals for developing hockey internationally but about the main problem that is holding its growth back, he said not one thing.
He did mention the usual thing that has happened during the past four decades. Boston and Los Angeles would hold a few random clinics in China. Every little bit helps but what is laughable is that when last I looked, China was ranked 37th of the approximately 50 countries that play international hockey. But China is the biggest market in the world with over one billion people which the NHL would like to exploit. It is money, not the good of the game that is doing the talking. Hosting a few clinics in China and then letting Los Angeles and Vancouver play exhibition games there does nothing for the game now.
Meanwhile there is a huge glut of countries, now joined by South Korea that has been stuck at the “B Level” level of hockey quality below the “Big 7″ since before 1972. This group includes Switzerland, Denmark, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia, Norway, and Hungary. Raising up the quality of play from as many members of this group can help international hockey right now. Bettman should have another good reason for doing something at last. He probably intends the NHL to grow to 40 teams before he retires and each time he adds a new franchise, the critics say that the league is getting watered down. That wouldn’t happen if the quality of play in the 14 “B” countries were raised to the level of the “Big 7″. He would have a huge glut of top talent to draw from, enough to stock 48 teams, not just 40.
While all this is going on in the World Cup of hockey, what is happening to its counterpart, in the World Cup of soccer? Well first of all, the World Cup is expanding from 32 teams to 48. That’s probably too much to expect from hockey but surely it is not unreasonable to turn the World Cup, the World Championship, the Olympics, the World Women’s Championship and the World Junior Championship into 16 team tournaments played by “Big 16″ or even “Big 20″ teams instead of a measly “Big 7″. In 2010, during the World Cup, two teams, Spain and the Netherlands that had never won the Cup, predicted accurately by Paul, made it to the Final. Fat chance of that happening in any tournament of international hockey. Paul would only have to scratch his head with a tentacle, yawn, go to sleep, and leave the predicting to amateurs.
There are two writers on this blog, SamHappi and Alson Lee who specialize in writing about developing players in the junior level who could become high draft picks for the NHL. SamHappi’s overwhelming choice, based on the World Junior Championship is Rasmus Dahlin of Sweden. Since I don’t know any better, I’ll go along with him. But it is highly probable that SamHappi never saw the best junior player because the best possible player was stuck playing in the Division 1A, or 1B levels of junior competition, undeveloped, his potential unrealized. As I wrote in an article on this blog, there is a huge glut of lost hockey talent not being developed because nobody can be bothered to raise the standard of play. The European Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky could have come and gone.
There is an article on this blog written by Alson long before I joined, that is still popular, about why goaltender Benjamin Conz was never drafted into the NHL. In that same article I wrote, I was able to provide at least a partial if not total answer. Conz is a Swiss goaltender so it is likely that nobody knew about him. “European scouting” probably means that an NHL European scout spends 90% of his time scouting in Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, 7% of his time in Denmark, Switzerland and Germany, and the remainder elsewhere. There is no need to scout outside those countries when everybody knows that the standard of play is much lower.
And as long as nobody can be bothered to do anything, this will continue. No hockey tournament will start to gain the stature of the World Cup of soccer until the core base of international hockey is widened. If it was widened to where it could be, SamHappi and Alson probably couldn’t handle all the articles that could be written and be forced to specialize. Until that happens, expect to see more of the same in Victoria and Vancouver next year in 2019. Next year, Kazakhstan gets promoted in place of Belarus with a chance to go 0-4 in the preliminary round. See, I’ve made my first prediction already.