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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Competition At The World Junior Hockey Championships Says It All About International Hockey

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.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 7: The American Attitude To International Sports

The Americans finally won the gold medal in the World Baseball Classic this year, in fact their first medal ever. Will that change things?

It seems funny to start off an article about hockey by talking about baseball but the World Baseball Classic is an all too accurate symbol about the United States attitude to international hockey, indeed to almost all international sports. It’s either win or have nothing to do with it and belittle it.

American bombast in sports starts the moment the sport is created. The winner of the “World” Series is not the baseball champion of the United States but the “world” champion. So is the champion of the NFL and NBA. And it is the same in the NHL, though with the coming of the Europeans in the 1970s, the term “Stanley Cup Champion” is now more frequently used. In fact NHL hockey is probably the closest “big 4″ sport to being a true world championship because seven of the NHL franchises are based in Canada and the main trophy and several others are Canadian. At least that is better than the one international team in the NBA and MLB and none in the NFL.

Which brings up the subject of the World Baseball Classic. It was started in an attempt to promote the growth of baseball internationally, but it has been decidedly hampered by the bad American attitude toward it. Up to this year, the Americans had never won anything and the excuses made during previous tournaments were that the tournament was a “minor” affair that did not compare with MLB and was not worthy of the United States sending its best players to participate. That was the unofficial excuse Americans clung to for comfort in the face of obvious ignominious failure; America had not bothered to send its best players to a “minor” tournament.

In 2009, American team member Kevin Youkilis publicly berated the American fans for not showing more support for their team. His outburst provoked reactions of violent hatred. America was in the grip of the Mortgage Meltdown and American fans, especially those who were suffering the effects of the Meltdown turned on Youkilis as a representative of a fantasy world of prima donna sports figures that had no contact with the grim reality of the “real world”. Yet their legitimate outbursts still reflected the contempt Americans had for a championship that they did not regard as “big league”.

In fact the results of the World Baseball Classic could be used to question whether MLB itself contained the best baseball players in the world and whether Americans themselves were paying top dollar for a product which, it could now be legitimately argued was inferior to what was being played internationally. No matter. Americans generally ignored the results of the tournament, belittled it, and continued to believe that MLB was the best baseball in the world.

Now contrast that with what happened to Canada in 1972. Before the Canada-USSR tournament, Canada had much the same attitude to international hockey as Americans had to the World Baseball Classic. A group of NHL “goons” it was even speculated, would be good enough to sweep every game against the Soviets.

But the near defeat of Canada’s best players by the USSR and the high standard of play in every game changed everything. Gone forever was the thought that Canada had an overwhelming monopoly of the best players in the world. It was recognized that at least among the “big 7″ hockey countries, Canada had only a narrow margin of superiority. Canada now had things to learn from international competition, particularly the importance of conditioning, that everyone recognized that the USSR had a distinct advantage in the tournament. Canadians became willing to eat a lot of humble pie in order to improve their own game of hockey.

The Canadian attitude toward international tournaments changed too. Now winning the Olympics, the World Championship, the World Junior Championship, and the World Women’s Championship were considered to be great achievements to be valued, not something to be belittled and disparaged. But perhaps the greatest change was that international competition was now considered something special, something higher than even the NHL. The obvious superior play between the USSR and Canada was recognized immediately and Canadians wanted more of it. The Canada-USSR match led directly to the start of the Canada/World Cup and the integration of Europeans into the NHL. The close competition created a new attitude of respect.

But the American attitude to international sports including hockey still has not changed much. They still claim their domestic championships are world championships. I’ve written several articles on this blog and others outlining the NFL’s hatred for foreigners as well their contempt for their own fans by stripping cities of their franchises, often on the mere whim of a prima donna owner. This year NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman showed the American attitude to international hockey clearly by pulling the NHL out of the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea.

And to soothe their own troubled consciences, Americans haul out memories of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice”, one of the few triumphs in hockey the United States has enjoyed. They create myths like the “Bsd News Bears” in baseball and the “Mighty Ducks” in hockey (Who have yet to play a Canadian team. Disney is afraid of losing the Canadian market. Canada always gets defeated off camera by some villainous European team.).

Soccer for the most part has learned to live without the United States and its money. The NHL is in a kind of half way position. What respect there is for international hockey has mostly come from changes in attitude from Canada. But for the most part, the American attitude to international sports hurts the sports Americans claim they want to develop around the world.

This year, South Korea improved its hockey team so that it got promoted to the top level of next year’s World Championships. If they do well, it will be a breakthrough in the development of international hockey. But the NHL has pulled itself out of Pyeongchang, hurting both international hockey and the entry of the NHL into a potential new important market. But no matter, Americans can watch reruns of the Ducks, Bears, and the Miracle On Ice. Myths in international sports are more important to Americans than improving their own game and becoming members of the international sports community.

 

 

 

Huge Glut Of Lost Hockey Talent

A few years ago before I joined this blog, one of my colleagues Alson Lee wrote an article asking why talented goaltender, Benjamin Conz of Switzerland never got signed to an NHL team. The article went on to list all of Conz’s notable achievements and expressed puzzlement at why no NHL team showed no interest in him. This article gives a part answer – maybe even the complete answer to that question.

The partial answer at least lies in Wikipedia when the current 2017 World Championship is selected as the topic. The article lists all the teams participating, all the results and when I last looked, the semi-finals Canada-Russia, Sweden-Finland had yet to begin. I don’t need to read the article anymore or even find out who wins the tournament to get my partial answer about Conz. The answer is in the composition of the semi-finals – four traditional “big 7″ teams competing as usual.

Over the last few years, I have written too many articles to count on this blog and others about international hockey’s greatest failure, the inability to expand hockey’s popularity beyond the traditional “big 7″ hockey powers, Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. It has been 45 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972 and since then the “big 7″ has never grown to even a “big 8″ or better. International hockey has failed to improve the quality of play outside of the traditional countries.

The Canada-USSR match revolutionized international hockey – to a point. Gone was the snobbish attitude of North Americans to European hockey. The closeness and caliber of the matches proved to everyone that at least in the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Finland, the caliber of hockey was equal or at least close to the caliber of North American hockey. It did not take long for the doors to open. Two years later, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom crossed the Atlantic to join the Toronto Maple Leafs. The doors steadily widened until in 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell, it became possible for all Europeans, including Russians to join the NHL.

Today all NHL teams employ European scouts. It is now an essential part of every NHL team’s future development. But what does it mean by “European scouting”? I don’t really know but I have a strong suspicion about what it really means which explains the Conz situation.

As noted above, the USSR-Canada match revolutionized hockey to a point. Back in 1972 after the match and the desire of Canadians to see more high-caliber Canada-USSR, and other NHL Canada-European matches in the future, there were predictions and boasts that hockey would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind only soccer. The recently revived World Cup, then called the Canada Cup would be created in 1976.

But the new developments in international hockey failed in one crucial endeavor; the quality of hockey failed to develop outside of the traditional hockey countries. Maybe the experts expected it to develop naturally, organically like it had done in the “big 7″, without help. Maybe they were just lazy, miserly and did not want to invest money in international hockey. But in 45 years, there is still the big 7 and nobody else. The current World Championship consists of the usual 7 and 9 “B level” countries. Gary Bettman symbolically recognized the lack of quality development at the revived World Cup when he created the hybrids team Europe and North America. He did not want any “B level” teams that might prove embarrassing.

Right now approximately 50 countries play international hockey, but there are about 12 countries who have been stuck at the “B level” of quality, just below the “big 7″. This group probably includes Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Latvia, Belarus, Poland, Slovenia, Austria, Norway, and Kazakhstan. Over the years, the NHL hosted clinics and out of work coaches, seeking new challenges went to Europe to help develop young talent, but it was not enough.

At the World Cup Bettman and NHLPA leader Donald Fehr announced that Los Angeles and Boston would be hosting clinics in China. Commendable but hosting clinics for low-ranked China (The biggest potential market of them all. Money talks.) is not going to help hockey right now. It is getting the “B-level” countries up over the hump to make international hockey at least a “big 16″ that is going to bear the most fruit.

The clinics were as much as Bettman and Fehr were going to announce. The problem of raising the standard of play outside the traditional “big 7″ countries remains. No one has a concerted plan or announced any directive policy to correct this problem. Still worse is that probably most officials in positions where something effective could be done don’t see this as a problem at all. They are quite content with the status quo.

Back to Conz and “European scouting”. When NHL teams invest in “European scouting”, my guess is that the money is going to be spent on the tried and the true. That means most of the European scouting effort will be spent in Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Since all the other countries are perceived as inferior, there is going to be less time and effort spent in scouting countries like Switzerland where Conz plays. One just has to look at the composition of Europeans in the NHL. The vast majority come from the five countries listed above. Scouts are not going to spend much time and money in countries outside of the five countries listed above. Players from other countries like Conz are going to fall through the cracks.

Conz is further hurt by the leagues he plays in. Since he is playing in Swiss leagues where the competition is perceived as “inferior”, his achievements are going to be diminished even further in the scouts’ eyes. He would have done better in his junior years to try and play in a league in one of the five countries or best of all, try to get a position on a CHL team in either Canada or the United States where the competition is perceived as high caliber.

Hockey has paid a price because of the failure to expand the quality of hockey elsewhere. First with the lack of development, hockey can hardly claim to be the “number 2 sport in the world” with a narrow base of just 7 countries. Second, there is no way of knowing of the money that could have been made in other countries if the prestige of hockey had been enhanced by raising the standard of play in them and increasing its popularity. And third, which borders on tragedy, the amount of talent lost, that never got a chance to be exploited is incalculable. The European equivalent of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky may have already come and gone without anyone knowing about it.

When one combines the populations of the twelve “B-level” countries listed above, it is easy to see the possibility of a huge glut of unrealized hockey talent waiting to be developed. But nobody in a responsible position for international hockey seems to have any imagination about realizing the potential. There has to be more vision and concerted effort instead of the dull, bureaucratic, unfocused and random occasional clinics and maverick coaches of the past 45 years.

I have written many articles on this blog about the NHL making an unspoken, unofficial commitment to becoming a 40 team league within the next two decades. Inevitably the critics are going to say that the league’s product gets “watered down” with each new expansion. But there would be no talent problem if the investment was made in developing hockey outside of the “big 7″ countries. Raising up the standard of play of just the “B-level” countries would tap a huge mine of unrealized hockey talent. There would be more than enough talent to stock the ten new teams that the NHL projects in the future.

Meanwhile the unrealized talent of the “B-level” countries and lower continues to be wasted because of the lack of vision. Players like Conz are not signed to NHL contracts probably because nobody knows about them. And until people with vision start running international hockey, players from other countries outside the “big 7″ are going to be passed over and not developed.