Embarrassments Starting To Pile Up On Gary Bettman’s Plate

So far 2017 has been a mixed bag of goodies for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. There are some good things he can take credit for. The NHL Centennial celebrations are going well. Edmonton has opened a stunning new arena that Bettman has vowed to reward with an All Star Game and an NHL Draft. This fall, Detroit will open another one. And it looks like Ottawa, especially after its success in the current NHL playoffs will get its new downtown arena approved. And (only a partial success, the NHL wanted more expansion teams) the NHL will get its 31st team, Las Vegas competing this fall. Internationally, bringing back the World Cup was at least a partial success and the NHL has recently announced it will play games in Europe again.

But behind the scenes there are major problems starting to pile up that must be far from being stored and filed away in the back of Bettman’s mind. Some are long term and can be postponed for a while but like the Atlanta situation a few years ago, some are coming to a head and have to be resolved sooner or later. In no particular order, here are some of the worst.

1.    Quebec City

Gary Bettman made a tour of the cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, in 2010, and offered them reasonable terms for readmission to the NHL: A great fan base (No problem in all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and acceptable ownership (No mention of a $500 million entrance fee). Winnipeg was used to resolve the Atlanta mess. But now Quebec has tried to comply with Bettman’s terms and has built an arena at taxpayers’ expense that the NHL loves just as much as the Edmonton one. They expect to be paid off and Bettman was openly consorting with both the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec provincial premier while it was being built.

The problem is the potential owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau is an unacceptable owner to the NHL (I’ve written lots of articles on this blog explaining why), leaving Bettman the problem of finding an acceptable owner behind the scenes for Quebec City. So far there has been no announcement of any resolution to this problem and the longer it drags on, the more embarrassing for everyone it gets. Right now the Quebec situation has been shelved under the term “indefinite suspension”, but it has to be resolved with Quebec getting back into the NHL somehow as soon as possible.

2.    Arizona Coyotes

Bettman has fought tooth and nail to keep a team in Phoenix but it may be time to throw in the towel. Glendale has publicly declared that they do not want the Coyotes any more and has stated that an empty arena is preferable to having them play there. In response, Bettman stated that the Coyotes have no future in Glendale and need yet another new arena in the area to play in. A potential new arena in Tempe was cancelled. The Coyotes have turned to the Arizona State Legislature for assistance but it is doubtful that a financial bill will pass. There has been rumors that the Coyotes have been talking to Portland and Seattle (two much better hockey cities) about relocation. A more sensible solution would be to move the team to Quebec and then expand the NHL right away by two western cities. The NHL does not want to move any western team east because it would create more league conference imbalance but the solution I have suggested is probably the best way to resolve both the Quebec and Arizona problems.

3.    The Fate Of The New York Islanders

The Islanders play in the worst arena in the NHL with obstructed seats and bad ice, that they can’t sell out and need a new arena to survive. There is no way that the Islanders want to remain in the Barclay’s Center or return to a smaller seating Nassau Coliseum. Hartford, which is finally making an effort to get back to the NHL wants to turn the Islanders into a returned Whalers, but it would embarrassing for the NHL for a team with such a glorious history as the Islanders to disappear. The best hope for the Islanders would be constructing a new larger arena solely for them. A couple of places have been cited but nothing concrete has been committed to.

4.    South Korea

Bettman and the NHL Board recently closed the door on “unglamorous” Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. But now has come unexpected, unbelievable news. From virtually out of nowhere, South Korea has improved its national hockey team to be good enough to be promoted to the top echelon of the World Championships. How good is this team? Next year South Korea will be competing against the very top “traditional big 7″ teams in a major international tournament for the very first time. Most likely they will just get their feet wet, lose every game, be demoted, and thanked for an historical break-through try. But if unexpectedly they do ANYTHING at that tournament that is going to be extremely embarrassing for Bettman and the NHL.

Pulling out of the Olympics in South Korea has really put Bettman and the NHL between a rock and a hard place now that South Korean hockey has improved. What if the unknown South Koreans are good enough to beat the any of the “big 7″ teams, especially Canada and the United States, are good enough after 45 years of stagnation to expand the “big 7″ at last into a “big 8″? Bettman who has brought back the World Cup after over a decade of dormancy and wants to expand and improve international hockey can hardly reject South Korea on one hand and then not be pleased at South Korea’s progress. South Korea has the potential to be a major new market not only for international hockey, but for the NHL itself. If the South Koreans are that good, Bettman will be forced to invite them to send a team to the 2020 World Cup. Pulling out of Pyeongchang so quickly has damaged the NHL’s entry into a major new hockey market.

5.    Improving International Hockey Quality

Sticking with international hockey problems for the moment, Bettman and the NHL have to finally start facing up to the problem of improving the quality of international hockey honestly. In fairness to Bettman, he is not to blame. This problem has been around long before the USSR challenged Canada in 1972. Bettman himself recognized this problem by creating hybrids “Team Europe” and “Team North America” for his revived World Cup instead of inviting any “B-Level” countries. In the 45 years since 1972, the “big 7″ have not grown into a “big 8″ or more. Specifically, improving international hockey quality should mean getting the large group of countries stuck at the “B-level” of play (There are about a dozen of them. I’ve listed them in other articles. Now South Korea has joined them.) finally over the hump so that they can compete equally with the “big 7″ teams and be able to win major international tournaments like the Olympics, the World Championships, and the World Cup.

Back in 1972, after the Canada-USSR match, there were boasts that hockey would “become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer”. But hockey can hardly match soccer’s global reach and status if it is stuck at a narrow base of 7 countries. If Bettman wants his World Cup to start getting the status of soccer’s World Cup, the “big 7″ have to be expanded, hopefully at least to a “big 16″. Another practical reason to do this is that the NHL probably wants to expand to 40 teams within the next two decades. Each time there is expansion, the critics complain that the league gets “watered down”. But if the quality of play in the “B-level” countries were improved, there would be a huge new glut of talent to draw from. And improving the quality of play in these markets will probably increase attendance and interest in hockey bringing in more money for both international hockey and the NHL.

6.    Hamilton/Southern Ontario

Quebec is not the only Canadian problem for Bettman and the NHL. When he was hired, Bettman was probably told by the Canadian franchise owners of the NHL to preserve their monopoly in Canada. They have welcomed back Winnipeg and are willing to accept Quebec City with proper ownership. But for the new 10 franchises that the NHL wants to create in the next two decades, at least one of them HAS to be a new southern Ontario team, either in Hamilton, second Toronto, London, Kitchener, or Oshawa. Bettman must start convincing the Canadian NHL owners to accept a new southern Ontario franchise and to set an acceptable compensation package for Buffalo and Toronto like Los Angeles and New York have done in the past.

7.    Balancing The Conferences/Realignment

If the NHL reaches 32 teams, they can realign into an NFL structure; 2 Conferences with 4 Divisions that have 4 teams. This is also an ideal structure to expand the league to the next symmetrical numbers of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division). But one of the problems is WHERE these teams are located. Right now Quebec wants back into the league and Hartford is making noises about returning too. This will tilt the conference imbalance still further. The recent NHL expansion was a failure. The NHL probably wanted an expansion of four teams; Quebec and three western teams, making the league a balanced 34 team league of two equal 17 team conferences, set in the NFL structure listed above and a commitment to becoming a 40 team league. Instead the NHL only got Las Vegas, Quebec is still out of the league and the NHL has not been able to realign. And no eastern team wants to be shifted west unless it was for a short, temporary period. This problem has to be resolved as soon as possible.

8.    Future NHL Expansion

If Bettman and the NHL can be placed between a rock and a hard place by South Korea, they are already in one because of NHL expansion. As noted above, the recent NHL expansion was a failure. It was probably the first time in the history of North American “big 4″ sports that there was no competition between rival cities for a new franchise and the NHL had to settle for what it could get. Of 16 potential bidders, all dropped out except for fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec City, probably because the $500 million expansion fee is considered too much for an NHL team by the business world. In contrast, there were 11 bids for an expansion team, including three from Houston alone back in 2000 when the expansion fee was $80 million.

How is the NHL going to expand if nobody wants to bid? And the league cannot solve its realignment/conference balance problems unless the league expands. One solution is to hold out, let time pass until the business world accepts a $500 million expansion fee. But how long will that be? The other loss of face solution is to refund some of the money to Bill Foley and then set a lower expansion fee that the business world will accept. Obviously the second solution is going to churn the stomachs of Bettman and the NHL governors but if they want to realign and expand quickly, it may be the only solution.

 

South Korea Could Be Real Embarrassment To The NHL

Well NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s annual state of the union address sure did not turn me on. There were the North American goodies he handed out; an all star game to Tampa Bay, an outdoor game for Toronto and Washington. International prizes; the return of NHL regular season games to Europe (Ottawa and Colorado); and preseason games between Vancouver and Los Angeles in China. Of problems discussed, only that of video review was mentioned. No resolution of the biggies; a new Quebec team, the New York Islanders arena, and the Arizona mess. And the continued cold shoulder to South Korea.

The NHL’s snub of “unglamorous”, Pyeongchang, South Korea, the host of next year’s Winter Olympics could not come at a worse time for Bettman. The Commissioner who has taken active steps to promote the game around the world by the steps listed in the first paragraph and his revival of the World Cup, recently got some unpleasant news on the international scene. During the last World Championship, South Korea got promoted to the top level and next year will compete for the first time against the traditional “big 7″ countries of hockey in a major international tournament.

Bettman and the NHL are focused on the bigger fish, low ranked China, the biggest potential hockey market in the world. Hence the Vancouver-Los Angeles games. But obviously the South Koreans have been doing their hockey homework and now are good enough to at least compete successfully against the dozen “B-level” countries (Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland, etc.) that the NHL and the “big 7″ countries have so conspicuously failed to develop quality-wise in the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972.

How good is this team that has come out of the low-ranks of nowhere? What is probably expected is that they will get their toes wet against the top competition for the first time next year, lose every game, get demoted back to Division 1, and be thanked for spreading the game of hockey. But nobody really knows. If South Korea does ANYTHING significant at next year’s World Championship, it is going to be a real hornets nest of trouble for Bettman and the NHL.

What if South Korea wins a game or two and manages to stay at the top level permanently? What if they are good enough to beat a traditional “big 7″ team, especially Canada and the United States? What if they are good enough to win a medal or (horrors!) win the tournament? That’s going to make the NHL’s rejection of the South Korean Olympics scandalous. Will Bettman be forced to invite them to the next World Cup? Will he have to schedule NHL exhibition and regular season games in Pyeongchang and Seoul?

Already South Korea is an embarrassment to the NHL and the “big 7″ by its climb into the top ranks. In 45 years, the “big 7″ have never been able to expand the quality of international hockey to even a “big 8″. If South Korea shows that it belongs permanently in the ranks of the hockey great powers, it will only highlight how little the NHL and the “big 7″ have developed hockey in over four decades. If South Korea makes a big splash, its method of developing hockey should be copied immediately by every other low ranked country in the world.

What is Bettman going to do if South Korea does anything significant? Paste a brittle smile on his face and mumble congratulations? In its quest to land the big fish of China, the NHL has snubbed a potential market of 50 million people. And to rub it in, potentially the only country that may be good enough to join the great powers and make international hockey a “big 8″ at last. Hey Gary, if South Korea does anything good, your NHL owners and teams are going to want to sign their players to NHL contracts. You’re going to have to add Korean to English, French, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, German, Swedish and Finnish to the list of languages at the NHL’s website.

It’s funny that international curling never has this problem. That teams from non-traditional curling countries like Japan, Russia, China, and (yes) South Korea can ice teams that are good enough to compete and win major championships for BOTH men and women. But then international curling is light years ahead of international hockey in developing its game around the world.

Meanwhile the number of quality international hockey teams for men is 7 and the number of quality teams is 2 for women. That’s wonderful development in 45 years. So much for the boasts back then that hockey would become “the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer”. Already South Korea has done more to raise its game in a short period than all of the “B-level” countries in 45 years.

Bettman could have used his state of the union address to reverse the NHL’s position which is unpopular with many players and head off the potential damage and embarrassment that may come. Instead he kept the cold shoulder up against a potential new hockey market of 50 million people. That’s a wonderful way to develop hockey. That’s a wonderful way of welcoming a new huge reservoir of hockey talent. This is a great way of showing hypocrisy by saying you want to develop hockey around the world and then snubbing a country which actually has done it. Everybody cheer for the South Koreans next year. I know I will.

 

Few Surprises At The World Championships

It was mostly more of the same at the recently concluded 2017 World Championships held in France and Germany. For me, the biggest surprise concerned an individual, not a team. Henrik Lundqvist joined Sweden after his New York Rangers were eliminated and made a bit of a breakthrough for himself by defeating a favored Canadian team in the final 2-1. That’s the maddening thing about Lundqvist, probably the most frustrating and unpredictable goaltender in the NHL. He beats tough Montreal and then loses to lowly Ottawa. He can’t beat Gary Bettman’s hybrid teams, Europe and North America in last year’s World Cup. And now just as everyone is ready to write him off, he gets Sweden over the hump against a tough Canadian side.

The only other surprise was the disappointing showing of Slovakia, a “big 7″ hockey country that played on the same standard as the “B-level” countries. Their only victory was an overtime one against last ranked Italy. Slovakia could not even beat the other “B-level” countries it faced and finished 14th overall, narrowly missing demotion. This is a shocking finish for a country that has won the World Championship and provided most of the players for upstart Team Europe in last year’s World Cup.

But it is the same old thing that really is the story of the 2017 World Cup. Except for the bad play of Slovakia, the final 4 were a reshuffling of the “big 7″ countries. Russia defeated Finland who were trying to rebound from a bad World Cup for the bronze medal. The World Championships are composed of 16 countries, the kind of tournament that the revived World Cup should be aiming for. The tournament has the usual “traditional big 7″ countries and 9 others from the “B-level”.

There are so many “B-level” teams that they can’t help winning some games and making the second round. And there was the usual token upset game, this time by Switzerland defeating Canada. But as soon as the second round commenced, all “B-level” teams were swept out of the tournament as usual. In the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972, there has only been one single silver medal won by Switzerland in 2013. There have been no break throughs by the lesser countries to a permanent higher level in quality of play. There has been no growth of the “big 7″ to even a “big 8″ or better in 45 years. For the record Slovenia and Italy will be demoted to Division 1.

This is hardly a success for a sport whom Canadians were boasting that would become “the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer” immediately after the revolutionary success of the Canada-USSR match in 1972. All that has been done through the years is that the NHL hosts a few clinics abroad and some out-of-work coaches from all the “big 7″ countries seeking a new challenge go to a “B-level” or lower country and try to improve its prospects. It is not enough.

The only other surprise was not at this tournament, but at the Division 1 tournament held in Belfast, UK, and Kiev, Ukraine. Taking the place of Italy and Slovenia will be Austria, and (surprise, surprise) South Korea. I don’t know everything about the World Championships but next year may be the first time an Asian team other than Kazakhstan plays in the tournament. This might be South Korea’s World Championship debut.

But not only is this a momentous change, this is a direct slap in the face to Gary Bettman and the NHL who recently spurned playing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Those who have an axe to grind against Bettman will certainly be cheering for the South Koreans next year, especially when they play Canada and the United States. Those creatures called “the hockey gods” (These mystical creatures, if they really exist have a perverted, ironic, and sometimes cruel sense of humor already on display in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. They decreed a shocking loss by favorite Chicago in only four games and arranged for coaches Mike Yeo and Todd McLellan to eliminate their old teams, Minnesota and San Jose.), have stepped onto the World Championship stage with a vengeance. South Korea, dismissed by Bettman and the NHL could prove to be a real embarrassment for them.

But that is the only real thing to look forward to in 2018. Next year, I expect to see more of the same. Any real surprise would be some visionary appearing on the international stage with a real plan to improve the quality of hockey after 45 years of stagnation. Meanwhile congratulations to Sweden, Lundqvist, Austria and South Korea. They are the only notable things to comment on in this year’s tournament.

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.

 

PyeongChang Is Not Glamorous Enough

Sure there were a lot of negatives including having to shut down the NHL for two weeks, but that did not stop the NHL before.  Since 1998 the NHL has participated in the Olympics despite numerous criticisms, which they list in two articles on their website.  But strip away everything and it comes down to PyeonChang, South Korea not being “big”, “sexy”, or “glamorous” enough for American eyes and ears.

According to the polls, 73% American NHL fans and 53% Canadian fans were against playing in the Olympics.  It smacks of the usual contempt of North American sports fans (much more in the United States than in Canada) for foreigners and their important sports.  Though unsaid, such actions as this pull-out from the Olympics means, “We only like international sports so long as we win and we get big television ratings”.  And in “unglamorous” PyeongChang with its awkward time schedule, no big television ratings are likely to occur.

But it would not surprise me to see the NHL back in the games in 2022 when they will be held in Beijing, China, the biggest market in the world that the United States would love to exploit.  Small town South Korea (which is a huge market in itself) is not considered important enough by American capitalists.  The NHL of course continues to protest that it will do its best to promote the growth of hockey around the world.  At their website, they haul out their haloed future good deeds.  The Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings will play preseason games in China (not small time South Korea), and Ottawa and Colorado will play regular season games in Stockholm.  That still does not hide the fact that since the Canada-USSR match of 1972, the NHL has done virtually nothing to increase the quality of hockey outside of the “traditional big 7” countries.  The world is still waiting for Germany, Denmark, China, and France among too many others to win an Olympic medal, a World Junior Championship, and a tournament like last September’s World Cup.

But this shameful withdrawal is simply part of the overall contempt by Americans for foreigners that has been growing steadily since the 1960s when the United States assumed world leadership.  The NFL makes little attempt to hide its attitude for people who live outside the United States, charging exploitative ticket prices for Buffalo Bills games in Toronto which caused the games to be about half full, and then sending the worst games of the season, between bottom placed teams that have no chance of selling out in America to London for the British to digest.  Even more laughable is the American attitude to the World Baseball Classic, started to promote the game of baseball around the world.  Most Americans do not take the tournament seriously, pretending that it is minor league.  At least, Canada when it plays hockey internationally shows respect for the tournaments and wins medals.  But the United States has yet to collect even a bronze medal at the World Baseball Classic, never mind win the tournament.  And Americans come up with phony excuses like, “We didn’t send our best players”.  They continue to believe the fiction that players who play in Major League Baseball for the “World” Series (Which is only remotely a tiny morsel of being international when the Toronto Blue Jays play for the championship) are the best in the world when there is evidence to believe that maybe the majority of the best players of the world do not play in its league.  At least the NHL can do better than that.  Yet Americans are willing to pay top dollar for a product that may only be second best.

Can you imagine what would happen to the World Cup of soccer if countries decided to step in and out of it when it suits them?  It would lose its prestige and importance.  But the NHL has no such feelings and beliefs.  This is an American business decision and the Olympics cannot get in the way.  In 1860, when the American Civil War loomed, the winning candidate would declare that no American state on its own mere whim can lawfully get out of the Union.  But this is exactly what the NHL is doing with the Olympics.

If there is any criticism and outrage, Americans will just shrug it off.  And if there are any tears and wounds to be healed, you know what they will do?  All you readers who guessed that the Yanks will pull out the tapes of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” to watch again to give them a sense of pride, superiority, and to hide a guilty conscience are correct.  And maybe they’ll bring back those wonderful teams, the Mighty Ducks (who have yet to play a Canadian hockey team) and the Bad News Bears to defend America from the evil foreigners.

The most effective opposition may come from within.  It is well known that many players from the NHL want to play in the Olympics and will try to find a way to make it happen.  The NHLPA has already issued a statement regretting the decision and putting the sole blame on the NHL alone.  It will be interesting to see what will happen, how many players will rebel.  Those who go certainly are not afraid of getting injured which is one of the main reasons the NHL claims it is not playing any more.

How can the NHL expect anybody outside of North America to take its just-revived World Cup seriously when it shows no respect for the Olympic Games?  They claim that they want international hockey to grow but decisions like this are not going to help.  There has to be something internationally in hockey that is bigger than the national championships.  That is the basis of the importance of the World Cup in soccer.  Curling recognizes this and the growth of high quality curling around the world has been the result.  But in international hockey there are too many candidates (including the NHL) claiming superiority, no real direction for the growth of international hockey, and the game suffers as a result.  It is international hockey anarchy, every “important body” like the rival Roman generals who weakened and caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, in it for himself.

Put the Olympic Games in “important” Asian countries like China and Japan and the NHL will show some grudging interest.  Put them in traditional “big 7” European countries, like Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland, and the NHL will be forced to go (even in awkward time Sochi) out of respect for its European players, coaches, scouts, and management.  Best of all put them in North American cities where they will get big television ratings and the NHL will beg to come in.  But in “unknown” PyeongChang, South Korea, unless the NHL had some mythical parent frowning and screaming in a harsh voice with a pointed finger to the door, the word “Go”, all it will do is turn its tail and slink quietly away.  After all, it is a business decision.

 

 

NHL Goes Back To Europe…But Don’t Pull An NFL

There was some good news and bad news when the NHL announced that it would play some regular season games in Europe once more, this time in Stockholm, Sweden. It will be the first regular season NHL games in Europe since 2011. The NHL is billing this as a revival of the “NHL Global Series” and will feature two games between the Ottawa Senators and the Colorado Avalanche in November.

The good news is that NHL is playing games in Europe once more. This will give the fans over there a chance to see the best players in the world playing in front of them again. There are several Swedish players on Ottawa and Colorado so there will be some native players to cheer for. It is also a great way to improve the morale of the non-North American NHL players, who now compose a significant 26% of the total NHL rosters. The NHL is also proclaiming that these games will be part of its Centennial Celebration.

It is also a good way to prepare the ground for future NHL expansion to Europe. While that is still a long-term goal, perhaps even a very-long-term goal, it is still a feasible future concept, not some dead, dormant idea that cannot be realized. With future improvements in transportation, travel to other continents may not be so difficult and teams in Europe and Asia competing for the Stanley Cup may occur at some later date. This is certainly a progressive, not backwards idea.

Besides the Stanley Cup is already an international trophy. European players on the winning team have been taking it to Europe every year and displaying it proudly over there just like their North American teammates do in Canada and the United States. Having teams based in Europe and Asia will just complete the picture.

The bad news is the team match-up. Ottawa is a good choice, but Colorado is worst team in the NHL this year and is vying with Las Vegas for the number one draft choice. While there are some good players on Colorado, some Swedish natives as noted above, and the idea of next year’s number 1 or 2 draft choice playing two games in Sweden is good, the NHL should not give Europe “garbage games” that are a poor draw in North America. Please NHL, do not ape the NFL.

That arrogant league has just sanctioned another “traditional” franchise city to lose its team – this time the San Diego Chargers, again to Los Angeles, just like it did last year to St. Louis, not because of poor fan support, not because of a bad stadium, but because Los Angeles is the second largest market in the United States and the NFL wants to peddle itself in larger, “more important” markets than “small city” St. Louis and San Diego. (What’s next? The Las Vegas Raiders? It’s a distinct possibility.) So much for loyal fan support, local corporate sponsorship, extensive local media coverage, and local government perks that were given to the NFL owners.

It is even more disgracefully arrogant when it is remembered that Los Angeles merely yawned when the Raiders and Rams left in 1995 and could not care less whether the NFL came back or not. Los Angeles was content to live for two decades without the NFL. In L.A., the movie star, not the sports figure is king and queen. Los Angeles certainly did not react the way the stricken cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland and St. Louis did when they lost their teams. Nor does the NHL, NBA and MLB sanction the stripping of franchises from cities on the scale the NFL does.

But the NFL’s arrogance does not stop there. They despise foreigners and make no secret of it. When the Buffalo Bills played some of their games in Toronto, ticket prices were set so high that even the most fanatical Toronto fans, longing for an NFL team of their own, had to wince and think twice about buying a ticket. Games did not come close to selling out. Still worse are the games that are played in London, England. Usually, the NFL selects the games between teams at the bottom of the heap, that are the worst draw, which they know will not sell out in North America and ships them off to football-starved London. Last year there were open calls of derision by the British NFL fans at the sheer gall and arrogance of it.

Hopefully that will not happen with this renewed “NHL Global Series”. The NHL has far more at stake in Europe than the arrogant NFL. The NHL has a significant number of European players, scouts, and management in its league and there is no need to offend them. Give the Europeans decent games to watch which will encourage fan support and pay off in the future. Hockey has to grow around the world and arrogance and stupidity by North American professional sports leagues will not help.

State of International Women’s Hockey Mirrors The Men – Only Much Worse

I’ve mentioned this topic briefly in a few of my recent articles on this blog about the upcoming revived World Cup and now it is time to go into more details. I have criticized the state of men’s international hockey for the past several years, specifically that in the four decades since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, no other countries have joined the “big 7″ – Canada, Russia, USA, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic and Slovakia – in quality of play. Switzerland and recently Denmark nibble at the periphery of the group but still are not the equal of the big 7. In all there about a dozen countries still stuck at the “B level” of hockey quality and the rest of the ranked 50 countries are much worse.

But if the state of international men’s hockey is bad, the state of international women’s hockey is horrendous where the very existence of the sport is threatened. At least the men can boast of a “big 7″; the women only have a “big 2″, Canada and the United States. Due to lack of competition there have been threats to expel women’s hockey from the Olympics.

Statistics tell the ugly story. The first World Women’s Hockey Championship was held in 1990, and did not even get played on a yearly basis until 1999. Since it started Canada and the United States have always finished 1-2; there has NEVER been a championship featuring another country. The real competition among other countries is for third place, most credibly by Finland. Among the other competitors are Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, and China. The other 7 ranked countries are much worse.

It is obvious from the results for both men and women in the past 40 years that nobody seems to have a clue about developing competitive hockey internationally at the highest level. Somehow curling in BOTH men’s and women’s competition has achieved competitive credibility. Maybe it is an unrealistic or unfair comparison but curling has succeeded where hockey has failed.

Women’s hockey has always been secondary to men. They don’t command the respect, prestige, or resources available to men, and it is fair to point out that compared to men, women’s hockey is a new development. In my opinion the main reason for the state of international hockey for both sexes being what it is, is because nobody regards the topic serious enough to do anything about it. In a recent press conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr outlined some projected developments for international hockey – with the conspicuous omission of any plan to raise the standard of play. The best they could do was mention that the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings were hosting a few clinics for low ranked China.

If women want to move ahead of men in international hockey competition, the opportunity is there on a platter. Surely finding a way to raise the standard of play internationally has to be THE number one problem to be solved because the very existence of international women’s hockey depends upon it. Nobody can take the sport seriously at the international level if there are only two competitive countries.

I know resources are limited for women as compared to men but someone has to sit down and work out ways and means of raising the standard of play for women’s hockey outside of North America. In the long four decades since 1972, there has never been a study about why the standard of international hockey play has not grown nor any organized plan about correcting the problem. Host a few clinics, send a few out-of-work coaches from the “big 7″ countries abroad seems to be the only things that are done and it has not worked.

If one wants a lesson from history, just think of the English Civil War of 1642-1646. The Royalists were actually winning against the superior resources of the Parliamentarians until Oliver Cromwell correctly diagnosed the problem and urged Parliament to create a reorganized New Model Army along his ideas. Someone has to do the same for international hockey, especially for the women.

If women want to win the “battle of the sexes” in international hockey, this is their opportunity. Find a way of raising the standard of international hockey play outside of North America and women will be far ahead of the game.

NHL Revived World Cup Cannot Remain As It Is

Now that the NHL has brought back the World Cup and plans to hold it every four years, the question is how to develop it because the current format is unsuitable. Compared to soccer’s World Cup and even to curling’s World Championship, hockey’s World Cup is pathetic. But the good news is that it has the potential to be something really significant on the international sports scene and just to get it back after twelve years in the wilderness is a step in the right direction.

Right now there are 7 “great powers” in hockey, Canada, USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and Slovakia is not even being allowed to ice a team. Instead there will be two made-for-competition teams, one called “Europe” which consists of players from every other European country, and “North America”, a team made up of North American players under 23 years of age.

The tournament in the current format is actually an admission of four decades of failure to develop international hockey since the famous Canada-USSR contest of 1972. Immediately after that thrilling event, there were boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world after soccer but after 44 years, the same 7 countries rule the hockey world. After the “big 7″ there is a sharp drop-off in the quality of hockey played internationally. Only in Switzerland and recently Denmark has there been any development in the direction of quality to ice a competitive team in tournaments like the World Cup.

Usually in tournaments where more countries than the “big 7″ compete, when a “big 7″ team plays a “B level” team in the opening round robin, the result is a boring mismatch, sometimes with the established country reaching double digits in scoring. It was to prevent such boring, pre-determined results that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman came up with the idea of Team Europe and Team North America.

But this can only be a temporary bandage. A “World Cup” that only has 7 competitive teams is not going to go anywhere or command much respect in the long-run. Even more laughable is the state of women’s hockey where only Canada and the United States ice competitive teams and there have been threats to expel the sport from the Winter Olympics.

So the hockey World Cup has to be broadened. 2016 is a good starting point but by 2020 there has to be improvement. No more Team Europe and Team North America but the admission of countries that play the same caliber of hockey as the “big 7″ and have a real chance to win the tournament.

There are 50 countries ranked in world competition but they vary widely in development. The most obvious solution is to pick some of the countries stuck at the “B level” and raise the caliber of play in them. That means during the next four years, the NHL and the national hockey bodies of the “big 7″ countries make a real investment in some of these developing countries to raise the level of play in them so that there can be a real expansion of international competition. Somehow curling has managed to do that; why can’t hockey?

Ideally, the World Cup should have 16 or more teams competing. Soccer’s World Cup starts with 32 teams. Right now 16 competitive teams is probably too high a goal to reach but a tournament of 12 competitive teams would be a significant development.

For 2020, Slovakia should be competing and Switzerland and Denmark should be developed further. That makes nine teams. Then pick some of the teams from the B level group (the more countries the better) and get at least three more up to the caliber of play of the “big 7″. Candidates include France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, Norway, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovenia, and Belarus.

The World Cup of Hockey has the potential to be just as exciting as soccer’s World Cup. It is up to the NHL and the “big 7″ countries to realize that potential by expanding the competition.