This is the first article of a series called Closing The Gap, which will focus on the gap between the “Big 7” and “B-level” countries, and how it could be closed.
Every sport has certain countries that are always top competitors at the international level. Soccer has countries like Germany, England, Spain, Argentina and Brazil, while the USA, Dominican Republic and Cuba own baseball’s international stage.
The sport of hockey is said to have 7 main competitors for the international crown: Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In reality, there are only six; Slovakia hasn’t won gold since 2002, and are currently ranked as the world’s 11th best hockey power by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
The countries behind the “Big 6” are commonly referred to as “B-level.” These countries are Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Belarus, Slovakia, France, Latvia, Denmark, Austria and South Korea.
If you follow international hockey, or have watched men’s hockey at a previous Olympics, you will have noticed the distinct gap between these two tiers of countries. If a B-level country managed to defeat a Big 6 hockey power, it would be a huge upset. Most games like that end in a blowout in favour of the traditional hockey power.
This talent gap leads to boring, lopsided games between Big 6 and B-level nations.
The recent World Junior Championship included 4 of those blowouts. On December 26, the United States defeated Denmark 9-0. A day later, Canada beat Slovakia 6-0, and then proceeded to light the lamp against Denmark the following day, winning by 8 goals. Switzerland lost 7-2 to Sweden that same day.
The abyss seperating the two tiers of international hockey causes one-sides contests like these, which lack the back and forth excitement of a game played between two near equal teams. It also generates repetitive tournaments with predictable outcomes. A B-level team has only won an international tournament once; Slovakia won in 2002, and they are sometimes considered to be in the top tier of hockey powers.
Closing the gap would be a huge step forward for international hockey. It would bring more exciting games, and less predictable final scores. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to this problem, but it can be done. We’ll get into possible solutions in a later article; before we try to remedy the problem, we have to understand why it is happening first.
There are two main factors that could contribute to certain countries being better than others: development and popularity.
Development is how well a prospect is brought along, and how his game grows as he ages. Countries that develop players well give prospects the chance to hit their full potential. Countries with top notch minor and junior hockey programs should develop players well.
Canada is known to be one of the best countries in the world when it comes to player development. As a Canadian who grew up playing hockey, I am familiar with the Canadian minor hockey system.
In Canada, high level teams practice 3-4 times a week, with a game or two every 7 days as well. Teams are also given the chance to work with skills coaches, and in some cases, former NHLers. The best players will also often engage in one in one coaching with skills coaches on a regular basis. A lot of players will play spring hockey as well, and some participate in roller hockey leagues during the summer as well. Players are encouraged to hone their skills on their own time as well, working on shooting and stickhanding. Outdoor rinks are fixtures in the backyards of those serious about their NHL dreams. Young players spend a lot of time focusing on hockey throughout the whole year.
Essentially, in Canada, kids that are serious about hockey will play it year round, and spend a lot of their down time practicing.
At the junior level, players will spend most of their time outside of school focusing on hockey as well, and work with top notch coaches.
It is my understanding that the life of a serious young hockey player in most other countries would be similar, including the tier two nations.
The only notable difference would likely be the quality of the coaching. I’ll expand on this in the next article in this series.
It is no coincidence that the Big 6 countries are also the top 6 countries in terms of hockey playing population. If a large amount of people in a country play hockey, that country should produce more good hockey players than one that has fewer people playing the sport.
Top hockey countries have more hockey players than the B-level countries, meaning that there is a correlation between the amount of hockey players in a country and the quality of players coming from that country.
Essentially, this means that if hockey can become more popular in B-level countries, the amount of quality hockey players that come from that country should increase, shrinking the gap between those countries and the ones in the top tier.