Closing The Gap: How Can Hockey Become More Popular in B-Level Countries?

This is the 2nd post of the Closing The Gap series, where I take a look at the gap between the Big 6 and the B-level countries.

In the first post of this series, I explained the reasons for the gap between the two top tiers of international hockey. The two factors that bear the responsibility for the gap are development and popularity.

In the initial post, I described the developmental factor as:

“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.”

While detailing the other factor, popularity, I wrote:

“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.”

If we can even out those factors, these B-level countries should improve.

Unfortunately, we don’t have some magic wand that we can wave to do so. It will require time and effort, but it will be worth it in the long run.

This year’s Olympics offer a glimpse into what all international tournaments would look like. NHLers were not allowed to participate in Olympic hockey, so the event only had players playing in the AHL on AHL-only deals, or in European leagues like the KHL (Russia), SHL (Sweden), and Liiga (Finland). The tournament saw “B-level” team Germany upset Sweden and Canada for a spot in the finals, and the Czech Republic came 4th, ahead of USA, Sweden and Finland. When we get upsets like these on a fairly consistent basis in international tournaments with NHLers, like the IIHF World Championships and possibly future Olympics, that is when we will know that the gap has been closed to an acceptable level.

That’s the end goal. To get to that, we need to even countries out in the two factors mentioned above.

When people are trying to put their fingers on the reason for the gap, the initial thing that typically comes to mind is development. The Canadian Hockey League is thought to be the top developmental league in the world due to a variety of reasons; the most prevelant of which are the top notch coaching available in Canada’s top junior league, as well as the structure of the league, which is fairly similar to the NHL in that both have a North American style of play, and share rigourous schedules with extensive travel. The similarity between the two leagues means that CHL players are developed for the NHL style of game, which should lead to better results and a shorter transition period.

However, I don’t see the fact that CHL players are built for the NHL game as a significant factor in the gap. Top underage players in top European countries are developed the same way as players that will never play in North America; the players that play out their entire careers in Europe. If this truly was a factor, “Big 6” European countries like Russia, Finland and Sweden wouldn’t be producing NHL talent at a similar rate as Canada.

The only possible development-altering difference between the “Big 6” and the “B-level” countries in terms of development is the quality of coaching, and I believe that has a minimal effect.

In my experience, as long as the instruction isn’t terrible, coaching doesn’t have as much as an effect on the growth of a player as is commonly believed. A lot of coaches have similar styles: typically there are coaches that use positive reinforcement, where good plays by players are rewarded, and then there are the ones that believe in negative reinforcement, where players will hear a lot from their coach when they make a mistake. Most coaches will waver between the two, but lean towards one side. Whichever way they prefer to do things, with either positive or negative reinforcement, will only play a very minimal role in the final skill level and potential of a player, if any.

The approach a prospect takes away from the rink is what sets apart the NHL players from the beer-leaguers. Every NHL player had a childhood that revolved around hockey. If you want to go pro, you have to extremely serious about the sport. That means that the majority of your free time must be spent improving your skills; some do it with a backyard rink, while others spend hours every day shooting at the net placed in their driveway.

To grow international hockey, the focus shouldn’t be levelling out development across countries. That may help a bit, but growing the popularity of hockey in the B-level countries will have a considerably larger impact. If more kids play hockey in a country, there will be more serious hockey players within the borders, and more quality NHL players will be produced.

This means that if we want to end the seperation between the two tiers, we have to increase the popularity of hockey in these tier two countries. There are a few ways to do this. Improving the media coverage of hockey in these countries, particularily television coverage, is one, and increasing the amount of NHL games played in these countries is another, while bringing in NHL players to talk to young kids and setting up a program to give kids used hockey equipment couldn’t hurt either.

To get a better idea of how hockey coverage differs from “Big 6” to “B-level” countries, I spoke to three European hockey fans, two of which reside in “B-level” countries, while one lives between “Big 6” borders.

In the “Big 6” country, the top men’s hockey league has its games televised regularily, and NHL games are shown often, if you are willing to pay roughly $65 USD a month for them. If you aren’t willing to fork over the cash, you can watch just one game a month. Both NHL and European hockey are fixtures in the newspapers, and the NHL coverage has an emphasis on the players that call that country home.

The two hockey fans I spoke to that reside in “B-level” countries offered similar responses to my questions. Both agreed that NHL games were broadcast very sparingly at no cost, with just about 8 games total televised per season. Games still aren’t common if you pay for television, with a maximum of four games per week, but typically less. Coverage of European hockey on TV is not common either, with an average of just two games shown on a weekly basis. Hockey doesn’t receive the same attention in the newspapers as it does in the “Big 6” country, with European hockey attracting a fair amount of coverage, and NHL hockey getting little.

It’s clear that there is a recognizable difference in hockey coverage between these two tiers, with stick and puck getting a noticably higher amount of media coverage in the “Big 6” countries.

There is undeniably a gap in media coverage, as would be expected. Closing this gap should also have an impact on the gap that is the topic of this post: the gap between the “Big 6” and “B-level” international hockey powers.

But how can that be done?

It doesn’t require a creative fix, or any creativity, for that matter, because unfortunately, the average fan cannot do much to help out with this one. It has to start with the higher-ups, the media companies, the IIHF, and the leagues, both the European organizations and the NHL. More hockey needs to be televised and written about in these “B-level” countries, with the emphasis on the television component.

The goal of all the efforts I’m going to suggest in this post is to increase the number of hockey fans, particularily those under 18, in these places. I’ve stressed time and time again that more kids playing hockey = more quality hockey players. The important part of that equation is the first part: more kids playing hockey. That’s what will fill the hole. It all comes down to the kids.

The fact that it does all start with children has the unfortunate effect of a delayed impact. Once measures that help are put in place and we begin to see results in terms of an increase in hockey-playing kids, which will already take multiple years on its own, we still won’t see international hockey begin to grow for at least another decade or so, and it will take at least 15 years of that to achieve full balance, and that’s if everything goes just right, as it nearly never does. It could easily be 20 years until the gap is closed, and 25 may be a better ballpark, as it accounts for the bumps in the road along the way.

It’s a long game, but in the end we will be left with a brand of international hockey that has a dozen teams with legitimate #1 hopes, rather than six or seven like today.

To get there, both the European leagues and the NHL need to work with television providers to get more games on TV. The NHL should be involved with the talks between the European leagues and the providers as well, as an organization with plenty of money and experience with TV deals. If the providers need some extra incentive to get a deal done, the NHL should be helping with that, as it will ultimately be good for hockey in the long run.

Hockey needs to be an option on TV for European sports fans looking for something to occupy their time for a few hours. They may discover they like it, and it will then be exposed to the kids that they may have. When kids see hockey on TV growing up, it will become an option for them as a sport to play.

Closing this media gap will be good for international hockey going forwards, but more must be done as well. The NHL played two games in Sweden this season, and just announced that they will play more in Sweden and Finland next season as well. Games in European “Big 6” countries are a good start, but what will really make a difference is games in the “B-level” places. The Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils will both conclude their training camps with games in Germany and Switzerland against European clubs next year, a solid start for NHL hockey in these countries. Next year, this should progress to NHL vs NHL games in those countries next season, while also continuing the NHL vs European club trend, which is a fantastic idea. It allows then to engage European fans while playing the “Europe vs North America” narrative. Upcoming years should also bring NHL contests in Denmark in Latvia, two “B-level” markets. Also, South Korea was just treated to some Olympic hockey; why not follow that up with a preseason game or two? South Korea just established themselves as a “B-level” country, and that’s a market for growth.

Tapping into European markets with NHL hockey will be key for international growth. If the NHL can use this tool while ensuring that it doesn’t lose its marvel, these international games could be responsible for a huge amount of international growth. If the NHL helps orchestrate some TV deals involving European hockey leagues in “B-level” countries that close the coverage gap, they would be two for two in oppurtunities for enormous growth in international hockey.

Unfortunately, not all of this is gonna happen. I believe the NHL truly will do something similar to what I suggested with the European NHL games, but it is extremely unlikely that they take any course of action to assist in closing the media gap.

Once again, the NHL is standing in the way of growth for international hockey, just as they did by blocking NHL players from the Olympics.

By keeping the best players in the world out of a top international hockey tournament in a newly growing hockey country, the NHL passed on the chance to introduce their product to a country that had recently raised their status at the international level from “C” to “B” level, and the chance to spark even more growth in that country.

The NHL could still save itself by taking this chance to grow international hockey and attempt to orchestrate a closed coverage gap, but based on their track record, it’s far more likely that this goes down as another oppurtunity for international growth spoiled by the NHL.


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