Final Appraisal Of 2017 World Junior Championship: A Bit More Honesty

Thanks to the press conference just before the medal round games, hosted by IIHF Hockey President Rene Fasel, Hockey Canada President and CEO Tom Renney and Hockey Canada COO Scott Smith, there was a bit of honesty that was missing during the recently revived World Cup of Hockey where NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director talked about international hockey’s dreams but not about its significant problems to make those dreams a reality. Among the significant problems which the Triumvirate at least touched on:

1. High ticket prices.

The Triumvirate admitted to high prices but claims all the money is spent on investing in hockey for children.

2. Hockey means more to Canada than anywhere else.

Where are the next two WJHC going to be held? In Buffalo right next to the Canadian border and British Columbia.

3. The best training for young hockey players in the world is Canada and the CHL.

When asked about returning the tournament to Europe Fasel admitted that European boys would rather play in Canada “than to play at home where junior hockey isn’t so popular”. He might have added for the CHL to admit more Europeans so that they could get better training, get better experience playing more frequently against Canada’s best juniors, and to be better prepared to enter the NHL.

4. Competitive Balance.

Fasel admitted that Latvia was not as competitive as it should be (including the usual 10-2 drubbing by Canada) but remained optimistic. Next year Belarus will be given an opportunity to try and make a dent in the “traditional big 7″.

The above admissions were at least partial honesty. But what was NOT said was even more significant.

1. High ticket prices.

Exactly how is this money being spent? Where does it go? It isn’t correcting the competitive imbalance between the “big 7″ and the rest of the world.

2. Hockey means more to Canada than anywhere else.

European boys would rather play in Canada “than to play at home where junior hockey isn’t so popular”. That says it all. That is an admission that competitive hockey is not being developed properly elsewhere. That is an admission that European hockey will always lag behind Canada and hinders the growth of international hockey. Time for a serious overhaul. What are you going to do about it?

3. The best training for young hockey players in the world is Canada and the CHL.

Here are a couple of statistics we would like to know. How many members of the victorious American team play in the CHL? How many members of the European teams play there? If you have to send your best young players to your arch-enemy Canada to get proper training, your own development programs are not doing the job.

4. Competitive Balance

It has been four decades since Canada-USSR in 1972 and the “big 7″ remain the “big 7″ and not the big 10 or better. Europeans want to increase the number of teams 12, (that would be better) but you can’t do that until you do something about the quality of hockey at the “B level” and below. Significantly there were no concrete plans announced by the Triumvirate to improve the quality of hockey outside of the “big 7″ just like there were none announced by Bettman and Fehr during the World Cup. Increasing the quality of play so that there is a “big 10″ or better would be a real revolution in international hockey but nobody seems to have a clue about what to do or be bothered to find a way to do it. And as long as that non-action will be around, the growth of hockey will be retarded.

Here are some of the other significant results of this year’s WJHC:

1.  Shocking fall of the champions

Finland which won two of the last three WJHC nearly got regulated. The main problem was they could not score goals. Perhaps too many of their top juniors have now graduated to the NHL (symbolized by Patrik Laine joining Winnipeg) for their system to replenish. But Finland felt it so deeply that they did the almost unprecedented thing and fired their head coach before the last round-robin game which they subsequently won. One hopes for a comeback next year.

2. Doesn’t belong

Latvia was non-competitive during the entire tournament, a black mark not so much about the Latvian boys who were trying their best but about four decades of doing nothing to improve the quality of hockey outside of the traditional big 7. Next year Belarus gets a chance to show if they can escape this ignominy.

3. 7A and 7B

Switzerland and Denmark showed some competitiveness but in the end were eliminated in the first playoff round. If the powers that be would do something to help these two countries get over the hump permanently, future tournaments would have a “big 9″ instead of a “big 7″ where Switzerland and Denmark would have a real chance to win a medal if not the entire tournament. In the entire 40 years of the WJHC, the ONLY non-big 7 medal was a measly bronze by Switzerland in 1998. Congratulations on spreading the growth of hockey.

4. Divided you fall

Maybe the Czechs and the Slovaks are happier having their own countries but since they decided to split, they have done virtually nothing at the junior hockey level. Slovakia collected a bronze medal in 2015. The last time either of these countries amounted to anything significant was 2001 when the Czech Republic won the tournament.

5. At the junior level at least, the gap is closing on Canada

Unlike the top level of competition during the Sidney Crosby era, (16 straight Canadian wins since 2010) especially during the recent World Cup in which the national teams of the other big 7 countries played horrible hockey and hybrid Team Europe made the finals, at the junior level, some of the countries played competitive hockey. The United States won the tournament (In contrast to the World Cup where they could not win a game.) and Russia and Sweden iced competitive teams. Canada has only won this tournament once since 2010. One expects a comeback by Finland. One would love to believe the Czechs and the Slovaks will finally get their acts together after nearly 20 years of mediocrity. One wistfully would like to believe that the powers that be will do something to get Switzerland and Denmark over the hump so that they can really compete.

6. Get rid of shoot-outs in the medal rounds

Shoot-outs in hockey like penalty kicks in soccer are a sucky way to end dramatic competition. At least in the Final game, play like they do during the NHL playoffs, extra periods until somebody scores. Congratulations to the United States on winning the tournament but it would have been better if they had won the last game by other means.

The final summary of this year’s tournament is that except for the victory of the United States and the fall of Finland, it was more of the same. The Triumvirate at least talked about some of the problems in international hockey but significantly declined to offer any solutions. What they did not say was more significant than what they did say. When that changes, international hockey will change for the better.

Unreformed World Junior Championship Still Has The Same Problems

On December 26, the most significant international hockey tournament since September’s World Cup, the World Junior Championships begins in host cities, Toronto and Montreal. Many of the same problems in international hockey that were apparent at the World Cup might appear again here, only they are more significant because this is where they first become noticeable. You cannot fix the problems of the World Cup without fixing the problems of the juniors first. The two most significant questions of the tournament are is Canada so far ahead of everybody else and is there any improvement in the “B level” countries.

At least there is one significant improvement over the recent World Cup. There are 10 teams, not 8 and there are no hybrids like Team Europe and Team North America. All are national junior teams. There are two divisions; Group 1 has Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Denmark and Switzerland; Group 2 has Canada, United States, Russia, Slovakia, and Latvia. In other words, the “traditional big 7″ (including Slovakia which was mysteriously not allowed to ice a team at the World Cup and was the core of hybrid Team Europe) and supposedly the three best “B level” countries. But will there be any significant changes?

During the Sidney Crosby era, for the most part hockey has been a Canadian game at the top level. Canada has won 16 straight meaningful matches dating back to the Vancouver Olympics of 2010. Total domination. They have pulled away from the other “traditional big 7″ countries. It is not just that Canada has improved but that the other 6 countries are getting worse. At the World Cup the other 5 countries played horrible hockey and it was hybrid Team Europe who would be Canada’s opponent in the Final. Russia continued its terrible play since 2010. It is only a ghost of its once-mighty self. The USA could not win a game and Sweden could not beat either of the hybrids. This was typical of the whole tournament.

But it starts at the junior level and earlier. Canada’s CHL junior league consistently gives them an edge in development all the time. No wonder there is a line-up of American and European boys trying to join the league to compete against Canada’s top juniors. They know they will receive top training in preparation for the NHL and future international play. The national development programs of all the other countries in the world just don’t measure up. It is time for an overhaul based on the CHL model.

The other problem is the expansion in quality of hockey around the world, in this tournament symbolized by the play of the three “B level” countries, Switzerland, Denmark, and Latvia. Are they going to make an impact and finally be true contenders? Since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, there has been no real improvement in quality anywhere. The “big 7″ have not grown to a “big 10″ or better. Four decades of non-development.

Most hockey fans do not know that a great portion of the World Junior tournament has already been played. At the “1A Level” tournament in Germany, 6 “traditional B level” countries, France, Germany, Norway, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Austria have battled it out. Next year Belarus will take their spot at the top level in place of whoever gets relegated in this upcoming tournament. Norway will go down to “1B”.

There are about a dozen teams stuck at the “B level” of play since before 1972. After the Canada-USSR series, there was talk that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But it can never become that if the quality of play remains so bad outside the “traditional big 7″ countries.

Recently, Boston and Los Angeles held “development camps” for Chinese players. But China is so bad it is in one of the bottom levels of international play. The camps were fine but getting China to improve a little is not going to help the growth of international hockey now. Getting the dozen “B Level” countries over the hump so they can compete as equals with the “traditional big 7″ will. That will mean a significant growth of international hockey.

Ideally fans would like to see a World Cup, a World Junior Championship and other significant international tournaments with 16 teams or better, all with a chance to be the champion just like at soccer’s World Cup. And once all the B-levels are improved, then start working on the lower level countries. There are about 50 ranked countries playing hockey around the world. The goal should be to have inter-country games during the off years to see who makes the World Cup of Hockey every four years, just like soccer does.

Unfortunately there does not seem to be any coherent plan to develop hockey and improve quality. As noted above, there has been no significant changes in four decades. The quality of curling has improved around the world for both men and women but is that a fair comparison? Nevertheless the sport of curling has succeeded while hockey has failed.

Improvement starts at the junior level and earlier. The results of this tournament are signs about the development of hockey around the world. Are fans going to see anything significantly different or the same old thing?