Want To Embarrass Hockey And The NHL? Cheer For Europe and North America

If you are an anti-nationalist or are just plain tired of hearing boorish “USA USA!”, “Go Canada Go!” and other nationalistic chants from other countries that fans utter at international sport events, the revived World Cup Of Hockey has created two teams just for you. One is “Team North America” composed of North American players under 23, and “Team Europe” made up of players who do not play for such “big 7″ countries like Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic.

North America and Europe are competing in the World Cup tournament because of the unspoken admission of failure to develop the quality of hockey outside of “big 7″ boundaries. There is a sharp drop in quality of play after the “big 7″ teams. In the 44 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, only Switzerland and recently Denmark have shown any progress in icing teams that can compete effectively with the “big 7″.

By rights, the revived World Cup roster should have been completed with Slovakia (a “big 7″ country that for some mysterious reason is not being allowed to ice a team) and either Switzerland or Denmark. But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, mindful of the difference in hockey quality, created North America and Europe to spare audiences the usual spectacles of Canada 10 Norway 1, Russia 12 Austria 2, USA 8 Latvia 3, etc. So instead we will see Sweden 5 Europe 3, USA 6, North America 4, much more competitive games.

But one thing North America and Europe are not supposed to do is win. These two teams are competing simply to prevent the embarrassments listed above. At the end of the tournament, they will receive a pat on the head for a good dog’s day’s work done when they finish in the expected 7th and 8th position. That is all that is expected of them.

But what would really be fitting and embarrassing is for these two teams – Europe in particular – to do well in this tournament. The revived World Cup in its current format is simply an admission that the NHL and the “big 7″ have done a poor job in four decades of improving the quality of hockey played around the world. After the 1972 tournament, there were frequent boasts that if hockey continued to develop, it would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But now even curling has more competitive teams than hockey in world play.

There are no shortage of teams and hockey players. There are 50 ranked countries in hockey competition. But the same 7 countries remain in the top 7 positions just as they did back in 1972.

At a recent press conference, Commissioner Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr outlined future developments for international hockey with the conspicuous absence of any concrete plans to improve the quality of international play. The best they could say was that Boston and Los Angeles were hosting clinics for Chinese players. But China is ranked 37th, a long way off from icing a competitive team against even the “B” ranked teams, let alone the “big 7″.

What the NHL and the “big 7″ should be doing is creating concrete plans to improve the caliber of play for the large number of countries stuck at the “B level” of play; Switzerland, Denmark, France, Latvia, Germany, Austria, Norway, Kazakhstan, Italy, Belarus, Poland, and Slovenia. These are the countries whose development can help World Cup play right now. It is from these countries plus Slovakia that will compose the roster of Team Europe.

In the four decades since 1972, this group of countries remain stuck in the mud, spinning their wheels playing a brand of hockey that is below the caliber of the “big 7″. So this tournament is a chance to see if a combined effort might produce a competitive team.

It would great if this team did well in the tournament, a chance to embarrass the NHL and the “big 7″ for the little they have done in 44 years. Of course if either Europe and North America won, Bettman will be glad to accept all the praise for his “good idea”, but it will not hide the fact that hockey is still not being properly developed internationally.

I don’t know about you but I’m partial to having a Europe-North America Final just to see what the consequences might be. I’ll be happy to fly the imaginary Europe and North American flags. And if it does finally lead to real plans that can actually improve the quality of hockey in other countries, so that in 2020 a real World Cup can be staged with 12 or even 16 competitive teams, so much the better.

NHL Revival Of the World Cup Is An Admission Of Failure

After a dozen years in the wilderness, the NHL is bringing back the World/Canada Cup last played in 2004 with the hope it will now be played on a regular basis, once every four years. It should be an event to celebrate for every hockey fan in the world who wants to see international hockey develop. But without detracting from its revival, the format announced betrays the failure of international hockey since the famous Canada-USSR series of 1972.

For a start there will only be 8 teams, Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland – and two put-together teams, Europe, which is supposed to made up of players from all other European countries, and North America which is being made up of Canadian and American players under the age of 23. It is the creation of these last two teams that shows the betrayal and failure of international hockey.

Immediately after the amazing series of 1972, there was recognition in Canada and the United States that European hockey players, particularly Russian ones were just as good as their North American counterparts and there was an immense demand to see more international competition between them and the best of the NHL. There quickly evolved the big 6 of hockey powers; Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Czechoslovakia, which eventually split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

There were also frequent boasts that hockey would soon become the number 2 sport in the world behind only soccer. Hockey fans could dream of a truly world hockey tournament like soccer’s World Cup which currently starts with 32 teams.

But for all their talk about the promise of the future, hockey failed to expand and develop beyond the original 7 countries. In the 44 years since 1972, only in Switzerland and lately Denmark can it be said that the quality of hockey has significantly improved. When international hockey tournaments were held whether at the junior or professional level that had 12 or more teams, the big 7 would wipe out the other participants easily in the round robin first round. Most of these games against the lesser opposition would be boring routs in which the established hockey power might even reach double digits in scoring. Hence NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s attempt to avoid these embarrassments by creating Team Europe and Team North America.

But despite Bettman’s best attempts to make the revived World Cup more competitive, it does not disguise the overall failure of international hockey to develop and expand from the root seven countries. Slovakia is not even being allowed to ice a team, and Switzerland, the best of rest is not here either. These are dismal results for the past four decades.

Even more horrific is the state of international women’s hockey where only Canada and the United States ice competitive teams and there have been threats to expel it from the Olympics because of the lack of competitiveness.

It may surprise most knowledgeable hockey fans that hockey may well be the number 2 sport in the world. The loser of the A tournament gets demoted to the B level and the champion of the B level gets promoted up to next year’s A group. At the junior level there are at least 50 countries ranked so there are C, D, E, F, etc. tournaments too that are held each year. So there is no shortage of hockey players or hockey playing countries around the world.

The problem is that the quality of hockey drops off sharply after the big 7. As noted above, only in Switzerland and recently Denmark has there been any noticeable improvement. That is not much to show after 40 years. The “big 7″ countries simply have not done enough or cannot be bothered to spread and develop the game of hockey around the world to make it truly the world’s number 2 sport.

Even more embarrassing for hockey is the development of international curling during this time. It is now possible for even non-traditional curling countries like Korea and Japan in both men’s and women’s international competition to ice competitive teams that have a real chance to win the world championship and the Olympics. It may be an unfair comparison but curling has succeeded where hockey has failed.

If the big 7 countries would take the trouble to properly develop several of the countries stuck at the B level – Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Norway, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Italy, France, Belarus, Slovenia, and Poland – never mind the rest, it would be possible to have a World Cup of 12 or even 16 teams, where each team has a real chance for victory and there would be a danger that one of the “big 7″ might get demoted. But for 40 years they have done virtually nothing and as result there is now Team Europe and Team North America.

It is often said that when the NHL expands, the product gets “watered down”. There would be no problem of that happening if the big 7 developed even a fraction of the B level countries to a competitive level. There would be enough quality hockey players to not only stock Las Vegas and Quebec but the next 8 NHL expansion teams up to 40. There is no problem with the number of potential hockey players or hockey playing countries. The problem is that there is no leadership from above that wants to develop them.