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.

NHL International Games Are Good – To A Point

Once again Gary Bettman does the right thing to a limited point. The success of this year’s return of the NHL playing regular season games in Europe – two games by Ottawa and Colorado – to a sold out crowd in Stockholm, Sweden, prompted the NHL to double its European investment next year. At this year’s All Star Game, Bettman took the opportunity to announce that Edmonton and New Jersey will play games in Stockholm next year, while the Winnipeg Jets will play the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Finland.

It’s a good move by the NHL, not only recognizing the contributions from its European stars, but also with an eye to the future if one day a European branch of the NHL becomes feasible. Unlike the NFL which has staged too many games between the bottom of the barrel teams in London for the liking of British fans, the NHL is at least making an effort to send decent matches to Europe.

But Bettman’s choice of teams seem to be based on nationality, rather than current record. For Finnish fans, they get to see Patrik Laine of Winnipeg and Aleksander Barkov of Florida again. For Swedish fans, New Jersey and Edmonton have Marcus Johansson, Jesper Bratt, Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefborn. Actually, if these games were based on what was really relevant, the story would be about Canada’s best young player, Connor McDavid, coming to Stockholm to play against his old Edmonton star teammate, Taylor Hall. Bettman is throwing that match-up in as almost icing on the cake.

Edmonton will also play a preseason game in Germany, and New Jersey will play one in Switzerland. All these games will increase the NHL’s popularity in Europe and enhance the game of hockey – except it still doesn’t deal with the heart of the problem that has been stunting the growth of hockey outside of the traditional “Big 7″ countries since before the Canada-USSR match of 1972. The main reason why hockey has not grown in popularity internationally is that no action has been taken to raise the standard of play in any country outside of the “big 7″. Over the past four decades, the NHL has hosted clinics, sent out-of-work NHL coaches, and now plays preseason and regular season games in Europe, but the quality of play in countries other than the “Big 7″ remains inferior.

Bettman himself recognized this problem when he revived the World Cup in 2016 and created two hybrid teams, Europe and North America to fill out his roster instead of inviting more national teams from other countries. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. Bettman did not want any boring mismatches between “Big 7″ countries and “B Level” teams as was seen at the recent World Junior Championships. But that decision means that quality hockey is confined to a meager seven countries. International hockey will never increase in stature until the quality of hockey is improved outside of the “Big 7″. In particular, there are more than a dozen “B Level” countries, immediately below the “Big 7″ who could really spread and enhance international hockey if their quality of play was raised to the level where they had a real chance to win medals in important international tournaments.

Which brings this article to the third part of Bettman’s important international announcements. The NHL will play exhibition games in China again. This is money talking. China is nowhere near the level of even the “B Level” countries, but it is the biggest market in the world and Bettman wants the NHL to tap into it. Playing preseason games there may help international hockey a tiny bit in the long term but nothing like raising up the quality of play in the “B Level” countries right now. But China’s market is more important to the NHL than the “B Levels”. The NHL won’t dare snub China the way they snubbed South Korea by pulling out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The result is that we have the NHL Commissioner with the best of intentions doing many things right to help the growth of international hockey except the one thing that could help it the most, improving the standard of play below the “Big 7″, particularly in the large number of “B Level” countries, including South Korea. All the random, inconsistent, hodge podge efforts of the past four decades simply don’t work. In over 45 years, the “Big 7″ can’t even grow to a “Big 8″. There has to a concerted plan in place to improve the quality of international hockey. Until the NHL and the international powers that be recognize that the quality of play is a serious problem and needs to be dealt with, the growth of hockey will remain stunted. The NHL deserves a few pat on the backs for playing regular season games in Finland and Sweden, but they would deserve a few more accolades if they faced up to the main problem of international hockey and dealt effectively with it.

 

2018 World Junior Championships All Too Predictable

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 it 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.

 

What’s In Store For Hockey In 2018?

In my last article, I listed 20 significant events for hockey that occurred in 2017. There could be some significant events for 2018 that will affect the NHL and international hockey long term. Here are some that will happen for sure or maybe happen.

1.    Approve New Seattle NHL Franchise As Soon As Possible

This is a no-brainer, a for-sure event. Unless something absolutely catastrophic happens, the NHL is not going to refund $650 million to Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman. The NHL has been actively wanting Seattle for over half a decade and now with the renovation of the Key Arena and the appearance of Bruckheimer and Bonderman, it has finally come to pass. The faster this token “approval process” is over, the better for the NHL. Nothing is completely certain but for this to happen in 2018, my Predictability Rating is 99.9%.

2.     The NHL Realigns Into An NFL Structure

This will depend on how fast the NHL approves the Seattle bid. The way the unwieldy conference structure is right now is interesting but confusing for the fans and everybody else. Realigning into the easy to understand NFL structure of 2 Conferences, each with 4 Divisions of 4 teams with a revised playoff structure makes things easier for everybody to follow. To get to 32 teams for minimum realignment was one of the main reasons the NHL accepted an almost for sure Seattle bid. It also makes it easier to keep expanding the league to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division). As I’ve said in too many articles to count, there are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada (and growing all the time) so the NHL, the NBA, MLB, and the NFL are only a fraction of the size they could be. There are only two questions concerning NHL Realignment. First, will they announce it in 2018 which depends on how fast they officially approve Seattle? Second, since the NHL seems intent on becoming a 40 team league, will any other expansion cities be on board before they officially announce it? Predictability Rating: 80%.

3.     Houston Is Granted An NHL Franchise

This too is probably a “done deal” and again it depends on how fast the NHL approves Seattle. They will probably want to officially approve Seattle first before moving on to new expansion issues. The NHL is not in any hurry to get Houston in the league though it is an almost for-sure action, but they might be a bit anxious to get their hands on more expansion money which will be at least as much as Seattle if not higher. Predictability Rating: 60%.

4.     An Active Hartford Expansion Bidder Will Appear

Hartford has approved a $250 million expansion/renovation of its XL Arena to 19,000 seats. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them three terms for readmission to the NHL (Great fan base [no problem for all three cities]; A proper NHL arena; Acceptable ownership). Winnipeg was used to solve the Atlanta crisis and Quebec has been actively knocking at the door (see its situation listed below). Most likely the NHL will accept Hartford’s arena renovation plans just like they will approve Seattle’s renovation. So that just leaves the ownership problem to be resolved. Hartford made an active attempt to woo the New York Islanders by relocation which has now officially failed because the Islanders will get a new Long Island arena built. So the problem has become finding a rich investor, anxious to get into the NHL. Hartford with a proper arena is a sure money maker like Seattle so somebody is bound to appear though not necessarily this year. Predictability Rating: 40%.

5.     Another Western City Will Be Granted An NHL Franchise

There are lots of cities out west that the NHL would like see enter the league besides Houston. Milwaukee and San Francisco are already building new arenas though they might be too NBA basketball friendly for the NHL’s liking. Spokane and Saskatoon are long term possibilities. Right now the best possibilities are in Portland, San Diego, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City. Why would the NHL which will accept Seattle for sure and likely approve a serious Houston bid want yet another western city which will tilt league conference imbalance even further? So that the following can happen… Predictability Rating: 30%

6.     Resolution Of The Quebec and Arizona Problems

There is very little chance of the citizens of Phoenix approving a new downtown arena for the Coyotes. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns has declined to go into partnership for a new arena and instead further insulted the Coyotes by renovating its own arena to make it more basketball friendly. At the same time the NHL wants Quebec back in the league, loves the fan base now grown to over 800,000, and the new Videotron arena which they have rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and Montreal Canadiens preseason games, but cannot accept the current bidder, Pierre Karl Peladeau, an active, pro-separatist potential politician who made public, inappropriate, racist comments about the Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson and is considered too untrustworthy to ever be granted an expansion franchise. The NHL does not want to reject Quebec outright so their current status is officially listed as “deferred”. So moving the unpopular Coyotes to Quebec and adding two more western expansion cities is the obvious solution. This could happen… or it could not. There are other ways of getting more expansion money such as accepting Houston and Hartford now and postponing the Quebec/Phoenix problem still further. But adding Houston and another western city now and at the same time shifting the Coyotes to Quebec to get Peladeau out of the picture makes the most sense. It kills two birds with one stone. It adds two more western expansion fees plus any relocation fee the NHL might want to charge the Coyotes. Predictability Rating: 30%

7.     Pyeongchang Olympics NHL Player Participation Crisis

 

It is all quiet now but in recent years, several players (most notably Alexander Ovechkin) have said that they want to play for their countries in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. The self-indulgent snobs of the United States and Canada using shallow excuses pulled the NHL out of the Olympics but said they might return in the future. This is clearly an insulting act against South Korea. One of the reasons that the NHL cites for its decision is that Pyeongchang is in a time zone that won’t attract North American television viewers. But the next Winter Olympics will be in China which is in the same time zone or worse, but the Chinese market is over 1 billion people which the NHL wants to exploit… not like “lowly” South Korea which “only” has a market of 50 million. The insulting, laughable hypocrisy of pulling out of South Korea only to go back into China shows the usual ignorance and disrespect of American businessmen and politicians. But a lot of people including many current NHL players, some of which are Americans themselves, consider the Olympics to be a “higher” event, worthy of more respect and reverence than the NHL is showing. As January moves along, the issue of NHL player participation is going to come to the fore. This has never occurred before so nobody knows what the outcome will be. There will probably be some kind of crisis, but nobody knows how big. Predictability Rating: 75%.

8.     South Korea NHL Hockey Embarrassment

The NHL has officially pulled out of the Pyeongchang Olympics but the South Koreans may yet get the last laugh. They have improved their national team hockey program from almost nothing and are now so good, they won their World Hockey Championship Division level last year and got promoted to the top level this year when they will make their debut against “big 7″ competition for the first time. What a thing to happen for poor Bettman, just when he pulled the NHL out of Pyeongchang. Probably what everybody predicts is that the South Koreans, faced with tougher competition will lose every game and then be demoted back to the lower division with a pat on the back for improving so much. But if they do anything significant (even horrors! winning a medal!) and manage to stick around at the top level from now on, what’s Bettman and the NHL going to do? Will he be forced to invite them to be participants in the next World Cup of 2020? What a great way to promote the growth of international hockey which Bettman has stated he wants to do. Pulling the NHL out of Pyeongchang snubs a potential new, major NHL market of 50 million people. Everybody cheer for the South Koreans. Predictability Rating: Impossible to predict because nobody knows how good the upstart South Korean team will play against top competition for the first time. The prediction rating should be low… but almost everybody said that Canada would sweep the unknown USSR back in 1972 and look what happened. Anybody who wants to see international hockey grow should be cheering for South Korea in May.

I’ve just made predictions about the major long term issues that could affect hockey. There are others that could be addressed. The improvement of the quality of play in international hockey is probably the most important issue to be resolved if hockey is to expand world wide, but the likelihood of seeing anything positive done by the NHL and the international powers that be is probably 0% in 2018. Getting Hamilton or another southern Ontario team into the NHL should be a priority but nothing will be done. I have also refrained from commenting on the arena issues in Calgary, San Diego, and Ottawa.

And I have not bothered to predict on short term issues like who will win the World Junior Championships, possible major NHL trades, who will make the Stanley Cup playoffs and who will win the Stanley Cup. For now I’ll leave that to others or for later. The resolution of the eight issues I have listed will make 2018 a significant year for hockey.

 

What Was Significant For Hockey In 2017?

There were a lot of long term and potential long term significant developments for hockey that occurred in 2017. This is probably my last article for the year so it is a good way of finishing it off by summarizing it. In no particular order, here are what I think were the most important developments in hockey of 2017.

THE GOOD

1.     The NHL Balances Its Conferences And Can Realign

By admitting Seattle, the NHL has reached 32 teams, just like the NFL and can now realign into an NFL structure of 2 conferences, with 4 divisions of 4 teams. Once Seattle is formally approved by the NHL, expect some kind of realignment by the NHL to follow. The only remaining question is whether any more expansion cities will be admitted to league before it realigns. All indications are that NHL is not prepared to halt at 32 teams but is aiming for the next symmetrical number of 40.

2.     Jerry Bruckheimer And David Bonderman Save Gary Bettman’s NHL Expansion Bacon

The last NHL expansion involving Las Vegas was a failure. Probably what the NHL was aiming for was Quebec City and three western teams. Instead they only could get Las Vegas and the main reason was probably that the investment world would not accept a $500 million expansion fee. There was a distinct possibility that the NHL would have to postpone further expansion and realignment indefinitely unless they refunded some money back to Las Vegas owner Bill Foley and set a lower, more realistic expansion fee. But Bruckheimer and Bonderman broke through the investment standoff and even sweetened things by paying $650 million for a Seattle franchise. Now the NHL can expand to 40 teams and pick up a lot of cash along the way.

3.     Seattle Gets An NHL Team

It’s a mere formality now. There will be the formal investigation, legal problems sorted out, a similar Bill Foley season ticket drive, but the NHL is not going to refund $650 million even if not a single person in Seattle buys a potential season ticket. Seattle is in the NHL, exactly 100 years after they won the Stanley Cup. The only two questions are why it took them so long and will their name be the Metropolitans again.

4.     The Saving Of The New York Islanders

Hard on the heels of Seattle getting a team, the NHL got just as good news when the New York Islanders finally solved their arena problems after nearly 30 years. A new 18,000 seat arena will be built at Belmont and the Islanders can now build a competitive team at last, starting with the resigning of John Tavares.

5.     Crosby/Malkin/Pittsburgh Legend Continues To Grow

Sidney Crosby continues to behave like his illustrious forebears on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, which is the link, starting with Maurice Richard in the 1940s of the best Canadian hockey player of his generation being head and shoulders above everybody else. It has been a continuous, overlapping chain since Richard and includes Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux. All have won at least one Stanley Cup. Crosby now has three and added another Conn Smythe Trophy as well. Crosby has been part of a pioneering experiment by Pittsburgh which no other NHL team in history has tried. That has been to take Canada’s best player and pair him with a top, maybe the best European player, to win Stanley Cups. The twosome of Crosby-Malkin, Lemieux-Jagr has now won five Stanley Cups. The Penguin legend has also grown. The first 25 years were not noteworthy and at times the franchise itself seemed in peril. But during the last 25 years, the Penguins have now tied the Pittsburgh Pirates for championships and are poised to challenge the Pittsburgh Steelers for best Pittsburgh major league team ever.

6.     Emergence Of Connor McDavid As Crosby’s Successor

Connor McDavid has emerged as the successor of Sidney Crosby as Canada’s best player. McDavid won the scoring championship last year ahead of Crosby, a portent of future greatness. He has big skates to fill. Not only does he have to succeed Crosby on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, he has to succeed Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton. Gretzky, now part of the Oilers organization again is acting as his mentor. The big question is can Edmonton build a championship team around McDavid.

7.     NHL Plays Regular Season Games In Europe Again

Things could not have gone better for the NHL when Ottawa and Colorado played two sold out games in Stockholm. Unlike the NFL, the NHL sent two decent teams for the fans. Bettman wants to develop international hockey and play more games in Europe, a target for potential NHL expansion in the future. The Senator-Avalanche games were a welcome return.

8.     Emergence of South Korean Hockey

The other positive, significant development in international hockey was the emergence of South Korea from nowhere. The South Koreans have been promoted at both the junior and regular levels of international hockey. Awarded the Winter Olympics of 2018, the South Koreans have attempted to develop their international hockey program, and their men’s team is now at least as good as the usual “B Level” teams who have been around since before 1972. The South Koreans will make their debut against the traditional “Big 7″ countries in next year’s World Championships. Nobody knows how good this team is. Will they be demoted, or will they do something significant and finally turn the “Big 7″ into a “Big 8″?

9.     Hartford Getting Back Into The NHL

Everybody knows about Quebec, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Winnipeg trying to get back into the NHL but Hartford finally emerged from inertia to have a chance at returning to the NHL in the near future. First they announced they would spend $250 million to renovate the XL Center into an arena that will seat more than 19,000. The mayor of Hartford and the governor of Connecticut then sent a letter to the New York Islanders inviting them to become the Hartford Whalers if they could not build a new arena. That has now come to nothing. But Hartford got good news when the NHL admitted Seattle because it meant that a renovated Seattle arena was acceptable instead of building a new one. There should be no reason for the NHL to reject a renovated XL Center. If Hartford can find a suitable owner to front an expansion bid, they should be back in the NHL soon.

10.     NHL Not Acting Like The NFL

Perhaps just as important as what the NHL did is what they did not do. The NHL seems committed to expanding to 40 teams or more, a process that hurts nobody. And they respect and reward the contributions of their international players by trying to develop the game abroad and returning games between contending teams to Europe. In contrast, to get teams back in Los Angeles, their potential second largest market, which had snubbed them for 20 years, the NFL cruelly stripped St. Louis and San Diego of their teams despite a loyal following, instead of expanding their league. They followed that up by stripping Oakland of the Raiders and packing them off to Las Vegas. The NFL also shows its contempt for foreigners by sending games between bottom of the barrel teams that have no chance of selling out in the United States off to London. This obvious show of disdain has brought protests from British fans of the NFL. The NHL, the NBA, and MLB will do well to avoid the NFL’s path.

11.     Success Of The Las Vegas Golden Knights

The NHL offered generous terms for the Knights to get started, but you also need good ownership and management to take advantage of it. Las Vegas has actually created a team with a good coach that might make the playoffs in its very first year. Winning has made the team a hit. It shows that good ownership and management can make a doubtful market a success.

12.     NHL Centennial Celebrations

The NHL celebrated its 100th anniversary successfully. They got many veteran players involved, held a successful road show, added a new franchise, had fan competitions about best all time NHL moments and best uniforms, and held a cumulative outdoor game in Ottawa between the Senators and Canadiens. The only quibble I have is that they did not award returned franchises to Quebec and Hamilton to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday (See below).

THE BAD

1.     Continued Quebec City Frustration

In 2010, Commissioner Bettman toured Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s and offered them terms for readmission. These terms, which also apply to every future NHL expansion team are excellent fan base (which all three cities have); a proper NHL arena; and a suitable NHL owner (No mention of any expansion fee). Winnipeg is already back and Quebec and Hartford are making attempts to return too. The Quebec market stretches from half way to Montreal eastward and includes all four Maritime provinces, several million people, and the released Canadian Census says that metropolitan Quebec itself is now over 800,000. The NHL also loves the new Videotron arena which it rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and Montreal preseason games.

So the problem is at the ownership factor because the NHL does not find Pierre Karl Peladeau, an active Quebec political separatist, who made public, racist comments about one of the Board members, Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, remarks that probably offended not only Molson but other members of the Board and Commissioner Bettman, and who is considered generally untrustworthy, acceptable. The NHL cannot afford to have a public racist on its Board of Directors. Recent new and potential owners Chipman and Thomson (Winnipeg), Foley (Las Vegas), Fertitta (Houston), Molson himself (Montreal), and now Bruckheimer and Bonderman (Seattle), have all been seen in Bettman’s company but never Peladeau. The NHL, including Commissioner Bettman and Geoff Molson want a Quebec City team, but not with Peladeau involved. So far the NHL has not been able to find a suitable alternative bid from another bidder so Quebec, one of the two best markets in Canada without an NHL team, remains in suspension, “deferred” until a suitable owner appears.

2.     Arizona Coyotes Soap Opera

If the NHL managed to resolve the New York Islanders arena problem, they are miles away in Phoenix which refuses to spend public money to build a new arena for a “professional” franchise that has only iced one competitive team in its entire history. Both suburban Glendale public officials and Bettman and the Arizona ownership have publicly said they are finished with each other. Bettman stood before the Arizona Legislature to plead for public funding for a new arena but instead of being able to show competent management and ownership, he was presented with a team so bad that it was out of playoff contention after only ten games in the current season. Try and get the money now. The success of the Las Vegas Golden Knights in another desert city shows how bad the Coyotes have been. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns ownership publicly insulted the Coyotes by renovating their arena to make it more basketball friendly instead of going into partnership with them to build a new arena. Quebec, Houston, Hartford, Portland and elsewhere, here we come.

3.     Calgary Flames Blackmail

The citizens and officials of Calgary are rightly concerned about spending public tax dollars on vague projects like “Calgary Next” where the final price tag is not known for sure. Actually the current Calgary Saddledome arena is one of the better ones in the NHL with over 19,000 seats. It is only 34 years old, not even close to the renovated 41 year old XL Center in Hartford or to the 55 year old Key Arena in Seattle. Just what is wrong with the Saddledome, the Flames ownership won’t say. Since the NHL is willing to accept renovated arenas, a cheaper Saddledome renovation could probably be negotiated. But instead of talking, the Flames ownership which wants a free new arena it doesn’t have to pay for, took its cue from the NFL and made threats about relocating. Since when are professional sports franchises owners “owed” new arenas and stadiums from the public? According to the Flames ownership logic, the 86 year old Empire State Building should have been torn down and replaced decades ago.

4.     The NHL Pulling Out Of the Pyeongchang Olympics

South Korea also figures in one of the two worst things about international hockey in 2017. Pyeongchang is not glamorous enough for the snobs in the United States and Canada so Gary Bettman pulled the NHL out of the 2018 Olympics but said that they might return for the next one in Beijing, China which is in exactly the same time zone as Pyeongchang. But the South Koreans may get the last laugh if they do anything significant at next year’s World Championships where they will compete against top competition for the first time. If South Korea turns out to be the long-sought eighth member of the “Big 7″, that will be a huge embarrassment for Bettman and the NHL which will have snubbed a potential new NHL market of 50 million people. It will also mean that the NHL will have snubbed the only country that has managed to raise its game from the “B Level” to the “A Level”. What a wonderful way to grow international hockey.

5.     Still No Plan For Raising The Quality Of International Hockey

The other major international hockey problem has been around since before 1972 when NHL professionals first played against international competition, the USSR national team. Back then there were boasts that hockey would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But the “Big 7″ of hockey in 1972 are still the “Big 7″ of hockey in 2017. In 45 years, there has been no expansion of hockey’s base, a resounding failure. There are approximately 50 countries that play hockey including over a dozen countries (now joined by South Korea) at the “B Level” of play. Bettman unofficially recognized this problem at the revived World Cup when he created Team Europe and Team North America. He did not want any boring mismatches between “Big 7″ teams and “B Level” countries. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. His World Cup of hockey will never gain the stature of the World Cup of soccer until hockey’s base is broadened. Thousands of potential talented hockey careers, maybe as good as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr have been lost. Bettman has proposed several good plans for growing international hockey but nothing about resolving the competition problem. But until this problem is finally faced up to and dealt with honestly, the man with the best intentions will see his international plans limited and the growth of international hockey stunted.

6.     Racism and Elitism Continue To Thwart NHL Growth In Canada

It was the 150th birthday of Canada and nothing would have been better for the NHL to join in the celebrations and also of its own centennial than to restore two Canadian franchises, Quebec City, and Hamilton. For Quebec City, since the NHL cannot find acceptable, local, French Canadian owners, the obvious solution is to get outside investors like Anglophone Quebecers, investors from “English Canada”, and investors from the United States. This is a common practice, since both Winnipeg and Ottawa are owned by Torontonians. Here Quebec City history comes back to haunt them. Remembering the discriminatory language legislation which caused thousands of Anglophone Quebecers to flee Quebec and the continuing efforts by racist political parties like the Parti Quebecois to take Quebec out of Canada, no outside investor wants to take a chance on reviving the Quebec Nordiques. They are too afraid that the racists though a Parti Quebecois government will pass legislation making it impossible for outsiders to operate a professional sports team in the province of Quebec. This hampers not only the chance of Quebec getting the Nordiques back, but chances to get a CFL team, the Winter Olympics, a World’s Fair, and tourist dollars via international conventions. Indeed it is possible to argue that if outside investors were not frightened by political and economic consequences, Quebec City which was a great NHL franchise, one of the better ones in the league, a sure money-maker with a proper arena, would not have lost the Nordiques in 1995 and would have built the Videotron long ago without any taxpayer money being used.

The other ugly Canadian trait is elitism which has been around since the days of New France where everybody knew his place in society, the British version held by the Canadian Loyalists, both of which cumulated in the Rebellions of 1837. Elitism has not gone away since then. For me personally, in almost every job I would have in Canada, there would be somebody picking on somebody else because they were deemed not good enough for them. The ugliest incident in recent years was the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons and other “undesirables” because of the non-stop torments of those who considered her not “one of them”.

For the NHL, elitism means Canadian franchise NHL owners not willing to share the national market with other Canadians. Specifically right now it means owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres not setting reasonable compensation terms so that Hamilton or another southern Ontario market can join the NHL. It will hold true for Quebec City, a second Montreal team, a third southern Ontario team, and Saskatoon. All through NHL history, Canadians and Canadian franchise owners have frustrated or postponed new Canadian teams from joining the league. Villains include Stafford Smythe, Harold Ballard, Jack Kent Cooke, Molson Breweries, and lately Pierre Karl Peladeau. Canadians make up a myth that American Gary Bettman and the American NHL owners are “anti-Canadian” which is not true at all. Actually the only valid criticism of Bettman, John Ziegler, and Clarence Campbell is that they have refused to rein in the Canadian franchise owners for the good of the game in Canada.

7.     NHL Still Being Hurt By A Corrupt Health Care Industry

From my own personal experience, I know that coronary heart disease (heart attacks, blood clots and strokes, etc.) and gall stones, both officially labeled “incurable diseases” by official international medical authorities are curable. I would probably be dead nine years ago until I took a remedy for heart disease that had been classified as “alternative medicine” by the official health care industry. I have also been told by reliable sources that hay fever and other allergies can be cured by Shiatsu Massage. On this blog in many articles I described how the corrupt health care industry indirectly, significantly decided the Stanley Cup winner of 2016. Too many people are making too much money from suffering and death to allow new “cures” to be recognized. Since the NHL ties itself to “official medicine”, it is reluctant to try new successful things that are not recognized. Each November, the NHL proclaims is “Cancer Awareness Month” but who knows if any other effective cancer treatments have been blocked by the health care industry? Still worse, nobody questions what is going on. Alternative medicine is growing. Sooner or later the truth will come out.

8.     The NHL’s Poor Treatment Of Older Players

Old but productive players like Jaromir Jagr, Shane Doan, and Jerome Iginla have been poorly treated since the end of last season. Doan was forced to retire, Iginla is out of hockey, and Jagr is reduced to third line status in Calgary. All were productive, particularly Jagr last year. The only reason for the poor treatment was that these players are older now. It is true they are not what they were, but that does not mean that they cannot have major roles on an NHL team any more. With modern conditioning and medical improvements, the playing days, particularly of top players have been extended. Where 35 was probably the average age to retire, years ago, today it is reasonable to expect 40+ as a retirement age which will only grow longer as more medical and conditioning techniques improve. These three players are merely the start of a coming trend. The NHL continues to ignore it.

 

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.

 

Bettman Still Ducks The Main Issue Hurting International Hockey

I don’t know whether to shake NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s hand or give him a good shakeup. Perhaps both, especially when it comes to international hockey. There he was doing many of the right things again, everything except competently addressing the main problem with international hockey.

The occasion was his official comments on the NHL’s return to playing regular season games in Europe after a six year absence. The city chosen was the Swedish capital, hockey hotbed Stockholm, and the two games were a home and home series between the Ottawa Senators and the Colorado Avalanche. Last year it seemed like a mediocre match up because Colorado had a bad team. But the recent improvement of the Avalanche and the unexpected consummation of a major trade for Matt Duchene, involving both the Senators and the Avalanche provided extra spice for both the Swedish media and the fans. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that tickets were selling better to both games now than when the NHL broke off its European regular season games, six years ago.

Bettman is an international hockey teaser. He is definitely sincere about improving international hockey. He brought back the World Cup last year. He brought a decent match to Stockholm this year and hopes to increase the number of games and the number of countries to play regular season games in future years. Earlier this year, the NHL played preseason games and hosted clinics in China and Daly says the NHL wants to play more preseason games there next year. And the two chief NHL officials made the predictable tributes to the contribution of Swedish hockey to the NHL.

But as usual, neither Bettman nor Daly made any comment about solving the main problem that is hurting the expansion of hockey internationally, the quality of play outside the traditional “big 7″ countries, Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. It is not that Bettman doesn’t know about it either. When he brought back the World Cup in 2016, he created two hybrid teams, Team Europe and Team North America. This was because most games between the traditional 7 against teams outside the “big 7″ countries are usually boring mismatches and Bettman was having none of that in his revived World Cup. Even Slovakia did not send a team, though it contributed the most players to Team Europe.

There are about 50 countries who play hockey internationally and a dozen of them have been stuck at the “B Level” quality of play – just below the top level of international play – since before the Canada-USSR match of 1972 when NHL pros played against international competition for the first time. Only Switzerland and Denmark have shown any real improvement and in Bettman’s eyes, were still not good enough to be invited to his revived World Cup. Daly spoke about playing regular and preseason games in cities of these “B Level” countries in the future but interest in international hockey is not going to grow until these countries can ice teams that have a real chance to win medals and championships.

What is needed is a comprehensive plan including investment money and serious talks involving the NHL, the governing international bodies of the traditional “big 7 countries” and the governing bodies of at least some of the countries – particularly those countries stuck at the “B Level” of play, to increase the standard of play internationally. Until that is done, all of the NHL and Bettman’s good intentions are going to be stunted. If Bettman wants his World Cup of hockey to start attaining the status of the World Cup of soccer, the international base has to be significantly expanded. A World Cup of 16 competitive national teams should be a reasonable goal for the future.

The lack of any plan to improve the quality of international play is bad enough for the NHL but there is a potential big embarrassment coming as well which was not addressed by Bettman and Daly. They pulled the NHL out the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea next year just when the South Korean national team managed to join at least the “B Level” countries and will compete in next year’s World Championship against “big 7″ teams for the first time. Thus we have the Commissioner of the NHL hopefully talking about expanding hockey internationally while at the same time pulling the league out of the Olympics of maybe the one country that might be good enough to at last turn the “big 7″ into a “big 8″.

Nobody knows how good this South Korean team is. But they have come from nowhere to be promoted to the top ranks of international hockey. Probably what is expected is that they will get their toes wet, lose every game, get a good learning experience and then be demoted back to the next lower level. But if they do anything significant and manage to stick around at the top level for the future, it will be embarrassing for the NHL which has snubbed the South Korean Olympics and a potential new market of 50 million people. The NHL should be talking about playing preseason games in Seoul, not just China. But at this official conference, there was silence by the NHL about this other potentially significant issue.

Instead there were Bettman and Daly doing and saying a lot of good things about the future of international hockey. There is a lot of good potential in the dreams they are talking about and what they are offering, but until they honestly deal with the real problems that are hurting the growth of international hockey, they will not get the rewards they plan to harvest.

 

China NHL Games: Congratulations?, Hilarious Hypocrisy?, Or Bitter Acid Stupidity?

What I expected was displayed at the NHL website about the first NHL exhibition games in China. Three articles – a game summary, a diary article, and most predictable of all, a wholesome article about how the NHL broke the ice and made new fans in China; describing the excitement, especially among the young, impressionable children; how many patrons in a crowd of only 10,000 in Shanghai were wearing NHL jerseys; how many attended the clinics that the Los Angeles Kings offered; how the NHL made its first tiny baby step in the world’s largest population of 1.3 billion; how historical this was; etc. How sweet and lovable.

I’d be prompted to offer my congratulations to Gary Bettman and the NHL – and they do merit some – except when I think about what they could have done, what they SHOULD have done. Hockey is so minuscule in China that at last glance, the Chinese national team was ranked 37th in the world. What will be the end of all this incision? China moves up to 35?

Meanwhile – since before 1972 [when NHL players first began playing in international tournaments against teams from other countries], there have been a group of countries including Germany, Austria, Poland, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovenia, Norway, Hungary and Belarus who have been stuck at the “B level” of quality of play, just below the traditional “big 7″ countries of Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, and Finland. In the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match, only Switzerland and Denmark can be said to make much progress. That is not much to show for 4½ decades when it was said back in 1972, that hockey would become “the number 2 sport in the world” behind soccer.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman just revived the dormant World Cup last year and wants to spread the game internationally. The China games are part of this plan. But “realistic” Bettman won’t tackle the real problem. For his revived World Cup there were only six national teams. Usually in international games in other tournaments, games between “big 7″ countries and “B level” ones are boring mismatches, slaughters that put fans to sleep and only fatten up the scoring statistics of “big 7″ stars. To prevent such mismatches, Bettman cooked up two hybrid teams for his revived World Cup, Team Europe and Team North America. Even Slovakia was not invited to send a team.

If he really wants to spread the game internationally – and have a larger, more meaningful hockey World Cup, one that one day might rank with soccer’s World Cup – there has to be a plan to get at least the “B level” countries up to the standard of play of the traditional powers. That would mean a real expansion in prestige for international hockey.

But there is no plan. Instead the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks make a tiny dent in 37th ranked China. In 45 years, hosting once-a-year clinics, and sending out of work NHL coaches to “B level” countries to improve things is not enough. International hockey has not been developed or improved. It’s every country for itself with no well thought out plan to improve the quality of the game. The World Cup could be played by at least 16 national teams. Right now it is played by only six and there is no hope of broadening it in sight. Hockey cannot expand without resolving the quality of play problem. The “B level” countries are still where they were back in 1972. That’s over a dozen teams that could make a significant expansion of international hockey.

It is even worse on the women’s side. Only Canada and the United States can ice quality teams. Women’s hockey has been threatened with expulsion from the Olympics because of the lack of competition. In contrast, international curling, for both men and women, has made real improvements world wide. Maybe it is an unfair comparison or perhaps there is a lesson there somewhere.

Meanwhile while the NHL pats itself on the back because of China, a hilarious piece of hypocrisy has developed for Bettman and the NHL. South Korea has joined at least the ranks of the “B level” countries. Yes, that same South Korea which will host the Winter Olympics next year in 2018 at Pyeongchang, that Gary Bettman and his NHL owners see fit to abandon, has improved its men’s hockey team so much that next year they will be promoted to the top level of the World Championship tournament where they will take on the traditional “big 7″ teams for the first time.

After being awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics, the South Koreans obviously did their hockey homework. They were nowhere in the ranks of hockey a few years ago, but some smart people who knew what they were doing improved the team so much that it can make its debut at the top level of next year’s international tournament. How good is this new, upstart country? Nobody knows. There will be a clearer picture when they play the traditional top bananas next year.

South Korea is where the NHL should have sent the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings, not 37th ranked China. But Pyeongchang is not as glamorous at Shanghai and Beijing and the population of South Korea is “only” 50 million, not 1.3 billion. Money, not the betterment of hockey is talking. Bettman wants hockey to grow internationally, but the NHL pulls out of “unglamorous” South Korea, the one country that has made a real climb in the hockey ranks internationally. If South Korea does anything significant at next year’s World Championship, it will be awfully embarrassing for Bettman and the NHL. If the South Koreans play well enough to stick around at the top level, or [horrors!] actually win a medal, will Bettman be forced to invite them to his 2020 World Cup?

It’s bad enough already. Reward a country that has really improved its hockey program by snubbing their nation of 50 million people by pulling out of their Winter Olympics. That’s a great policy for the NHL which could have a brand new market of 50 million people to tap. But South Korea, like the “B Level” countries is not 1.3 billion China.

So we come to our conclusion judgment of the NHL’s experimental China exhibition games. Congratulations NHL, you have made a little tiny dent in expanding international hockey. For that we grant you a halo over your head. But when it is thought about what could have been done, what should have been done, perhaps it would be a more appropriate response to roll on the floor in hilarity or sit bitterly ruing at the opportunities that have been wasted.

 

Wasted Summer By The NHL

Well the new 2017-18 NHL season is about to dawn and the NHL gets revived after a school teacher two month vacation. In June there were exciting events; the crowning of the 2017 NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL Awards Banquet, the start of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights, and the NHL draft. After that flurry the NHL has taken what it considers a well deserved two month vacation.

Since July 1, the only news at the NHL website is which free agents signed with which teams, and a series of articles about the strength and weakness of every team for next season. The only significant news was that Dallas was chosen to be the site of next year’s NHL draft in honor of its 25th anniversary. Oh yes – the new Detroit arena opened.

Pardon me, but I think that is a poor result for a summer where so many important issues that can affect the NHL long term have gone unresolved. Sure everybody deserves a rest, but I was hoping that at least one major issue would be resolved before the new season started. All the significant issues that were shelved on July 1, are still present now with the start of this new season, and in some cases, with less time to solve them, some with potential dire consequences. Am I the only one who is being a sour, Scroogey, sore-head who thinks that this summer was wasted by the NHL which should have been working maybe even overtime to solve its problems and then putting its feet up for a well-earned rest?

I am not alone if you are a Quebec Nordiques fan and want to be finally taken out of the “suspended” state that the NHL placed Quebec in after the last bungled attempt at expansion. Resolving the Quebec situation would mean that Commissioner Bettman and the NHL finally found an acceptable owner instead of the pro-separatist Pierre Karl Peladeau who made inappropriate and unacceptable public remarks about Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson. Instead one of the two best markets in Canada without an NHL team, one of the more valuable franchises in the NHL, only has a couple of Montreal Canadiens pre-season exhibition games to look forward to next season. Its beautiful new arena, the Videotron which the NHL loves is wasted and empty, a continuing scandal to a summer of nothing.

And as a sidelight, the granting of a new Quebec expansion franchise would allow the NHL to realign at last into a 32 team NFL structure which would allow the league to expand comfortably in the future to at least 40 and even 48 teams. Instead, thanks to the greedy terms of the bungled last attempt at expansion, the league only got the new Las Vegas team, leaving it at 31 teams, one short of the symmetrical 32 necessary for realignment.

The NHL should have been working its tail off this summer at devising some acceptable new expansion terms so that it could expand as soon as possible and resolve the alignment problem. The investment world found a $500 million expansion fee too excessive and backed away during the last expansion leaving only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec left, a humiliating embarrassment for the NHL. Now they have to either set an appropriate NHL expansion fee or wait indefinitely for investors to accept their current half a billion dollar terms. Expansion and realignment could be delayed for a long, long time.

And on the expansion front, Quebec’s brother franchise, Hartford, which also lost its team in the 1990s finally made some news last season by announcing a $250 million upgrade of the XL Center to a 19,000 seating capacity. So Whaler fans will also want to know the NHL’s opinion about this renovation, whether an upgraded 41 year old building will be suitable to get their team back and any expansion terms and fees that might occur along the way. But there has been no official announcement by the NHL on any of this, during the summer.

And when you mention Hartford now, you also draw in the New York Islanders because the Hartford mayor and the Connecticut governor sent the Islanders ownership a formal letter inviting them to become the new, relocated Hartford Whalers once the XL Center renovation is completed. The Islanders are having arena problems right now. The second-smallest NHL arena, the Barclay’s Center was built for basketball and has bad ice and obstructed view seats for hockey and the Islanders cannot sell it out. Because of the arena, the Islanders had the second worst attendance last year and if they don’t get good attendance they cannot afford to pay star players like John Tavares and build a competitive team.

The very existence of the Islanders depends on getting some kind of new arena, either by a move to Hartford or a new facility to be built in Queens. Time is running out and there have been no announcements about any positive developments this summer. This issue will heat up as the new season progresses. It is rumored that the Barclay Center itself wants the Islanders gone as soon as possible. The sooner this problem is solved the better, before an invisible gun is pointed at the NHL’s head.

And the NHL has a similar problem in its Western Conference, in Phoenix where both the NHL and the citizens of Glendale have publicly said they are finished with each other. Gary Bettman’s attempts to keep a team in Phoenix including the NHL owning the team and keeping it from falling into the lap of Hamilton via Jim Balsille may finally be over if a new arena in the downtown area is not built. But Phoenix and Arizona taxpayers are not going to be too eager to build a new arena for a franchise that is abandoning a facility that is only 13 years old and has only iced a competitive team once in its entire history. And in this summer of NHL nothing, there have been no announcements about a new arena or any move by the Coyotes to another city like Portland or Seattle.

And there have been no announcements about a new Seattle arena finally being built. Seattle, a “done deal”, a front-running city for an NHL franchise during the last horrible NHL expansion somehow bungled its bid like front-runners Houston and Hamilton did in expansions before them. The NHL was specifically courting Seattle because it was a western city that could balance up its conferences but the arena soap opera is going on with no end in sight. The NHL got their 31st team, Las Vegas, but not their 32nd team to balance things and realign.

Also on the arena front, there have been no announcements about the start of new arenas in Calgary and Ottawa. Bettman made a tour of these Canadian cites as well as Phoenix urging a resolution to these facility situations. There seems to be positive sentiment in Ottawa for a new downtown facility, but in Calgary, many politicians and citizens are questioning the terms and financial figures of the proposed “Calgary Next” project. And the Flames added fuel to the fire by threatening to walk out. There is nothing positive to announce in this summer of nothing in either city.

Nor is there anything positive to report internationally. The NHL pulled out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next year leaving many NHL players threatening to desert their teams and play for their country anyway. As if that was not enough, the South Koreans who have been down in the dregs of international hockey since it began, suddenly improved enough to be promoted to the top level of international play in next year’s World Championship. That could be awfully embarrassing for Bettman who has been trying to revive the World Cup and promote international hockey and for the NHL which has now snubbed a potential new market of 50 million people, if the South Koreans do anything significant in next year’s tournament. But no announcement during the summer of any change of heart has been made.

Likewise, there has been no announcement of any new developments to improve the quality of international hockey below the traditional “big 7″ country level. Vancouver and Los Angeles will play some exhibition games in low ranked, but big market China. And Boston and Los Angeles will host some clinics for the Chinese too. But there have been no formulated plans set out to raise the standard of play particularly in the dozen “B level” countries just below the “big 7″ so that a real expansion of international hockey and the revived World Cup can be made. Just the same old thing since 1972 when NHL professionals began playing in international tournaments.

All these issues plus others that were shelved during the summer are still there when the NHL comes back from vacation. Thwarted hopes for expansion and realignment, the fate of the Winter Olympics, unresolved arena issues, improvement of international hockey, are still now hotter than ever. Am I the only person who is a sourpuss because it seems to me that nothing was done on these issues? Will the NHL come to rue that some of these issues might have been solved or at least worked on during the past summer? Can these issues continue to be shelved forever?

 

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.