Canada And The Hybrids Deserve Each Other

So it is now a World Cup Final between Canada and hybrid Team Europe, the only team without a national anthem. And the third best team in the tournament was probably Team North America. This was the last thing anybody needed or wanted.

It was a great idea to revive the World Cup as a regular event that had been lost in the wilderness for twelve years. It was a chance to pit the national teams of the traditional “big 7″ countries against each other plus some improved invited guests. What started out so promising instead has become a clear mirror as to the state of international hockey (More about this in a future article). The five teams that should have given Canada its toughest competition have been an embarrassment instead.

Poor NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He wanted to improve the competition level in this tournament by excluding “B level” countries and creating united conglomerates which he christened Europe and North America. This was to prevent embarrassments like Canada 10 Norway 1, Russia 8 Latvia 2, and USA 7 Poland 0, etc. The creation of these two hybrids showed that Bettman recognized that during the previous 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972, virtually nothing had been done to improve the level of play outside of the “big 7″. Back then, there had been boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport behind soccer. Instead after four decades, excellence in hockey is still confined to its same narrow base as it was back then. So North America and Europe were created to provide competitive games but they were not supposed to win.

The first mistake was to exclude Slovakia, a “big 7″ country from icing a team in the tournament. Slovakians would form the heart of Team Europe. But what Bettman could not foresee was the truly dismal effort the national teams, other than Canada would give.

Start with Team Finland 0-3. Their excuse was that it was a young team just learning the ropes of international competition. They claim they are happy with the result. The future they insist, “is bright”. If that is true, that is at least the most credible excuse. Hope reigns for the future. It is far worse for the others.

Moving along we come to Team USA, now everybody’s favorite whipping boy in the tournament. According to their management, they were put together to “beat Canada” supposedly the best team in the tournament, but instead started out by being shamefully shut out by Europe, supposedly the worst team and then it was downhill from there. Neither former Conn Smythe Trophy winner goaltender Jonathan Quick nor Ben Bishop who took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final was particularly stingy, but you cannot win if you do not score and USA scored a grand total of 5 goals in 3 games prompting excluded veteran Phil Kessel to tweet taunts at the team.

Actually if you really want to rub it in on USA remind them of the Hollywood sports fantasies they so love to create. In hockey’s case the Americans cooked up the Mighty Ducks, a team of hacks who somehow manage to become champions of the world. Of course not wishing to offend Canada and lose its market, Disney always had Canada defeated off camera by some bad guy European country leaving it to the Ducks to save North American hockey. The Ducks have yet to play and defeat a Canadian team. This of course has prompted howls of ridicule and contempt from every child north of the 49th Parallel. Needless to say, the Ducks were not at this current tournament to save the day. They might have beaten Team USA though.

Russia and the Czech Republic can hardly hold their heads much higher than the Americans. Once feared as usually the second and third ranked hockey powers of the world, this tournament underlined how far they have tumbled compared to Canada. In fact it is hard to remember when the Czech Republic has iced a truly competitive team capable of winning tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics. They started off with a shameful 6-0 shutout by Canada, clearly showing that did not belong on the same ice, failed to defeat supposedly bad Europe, and then managed to eke out a win against the even sorrier Americans. One can hardly wait for a rematch with Canada.

As for Russia, the World Cup showed once again why this Alexander Ovechkin-led team has never won a medal at any Olympics in which he is supposed to be Russia’s best player and why he has never even been to the Eastern Conference Final with the Washington Capitals. Billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby whom he is supposed to have a rivalry with, Canada made sure that his name never appeared on the score sheet against them proving once again that Crosby is a difference maker while Ovechkin is not. He wants to play for Russia again during the 2018 Olympics whether the NHL participates or not, but given his team record both internationally and with Washington in the playoffs, it would be better to give someone else a chance.

How far has Russia fallen when compared with Canada? Russia gave up 47 shots in only 3 periods to Canada and the 5-3 score is more of a tribute to the heroic goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky than any virtue by the rest of the Russian team. Goaltending is probably the only position where Russia is competitive with Canada anymore.

Finally we come to Sweden which was billed with Canada as one of the tournament favorites. Sweden is usually described as a team that wins by its skating and offensive skill ability. They managed to beat Russia led by Ovechkin who again failed to rise to the occasion and “rookie” filled Finland. Balanced against those meager achievements was their failure to beat either of the hybrids. Henrik Lundqvist showed why he is the Ovechkin of goaltenders in the NHL and why he has never won the Stanley Cup, giving up two overtime winners to both North America and Europe.

If Sweden was really one of the favorites, they should have beaten every opponent with authority, the way Canada did. And their vaunted skating ability was nowhere to be seen. Against Europe in the semi-final, they looked like a tired, old team plodding along, not one out to prove that they were a real challenger for Canada as the best in world.

So that just leaves Europe which was supposed to be the joke of the tournament as Canada’s opponent in the Final. Gary Bettman of course will accept the applause for his “good idea” in creating these two hybrids, but inside he can hardly be pleased. North America and Europe were created to provide interesting, decent competition. They were not supposed to win. But this debacle is not Bettman’s fault. Who would have predicted before this tournament started that every national team except Canada would play like turkeys who did not belong, leaving the door wide open for two low ranked hybrids to prove themselves.

More Ignominy For Russia And Ovechkin

Well Russia improved; they made the semi-finals, the score was not the 7-3 laugher it was in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and they managed to defeat the Canadian “B” team (disguised as Team North America) along the way. Other than that, this World Cup is just another signpost about how far the country once ranked as the second best in the world, if not the best, has fallen in comparison to Canada.

And of course during this “Ovechkin era”, Canada made sure that Russia’s leader had a clean sheet again; his name does not appear in the scoring statistics. His team got treated the same way his Washington Capitals get treated, they either get upset by inferior opponents, or they cannot create an upset themselves. They are willing to let Alexander Ovechkin get lots of individual honors, but no team glory which severely tarnishes his career and reputation. He can drown his sorrows with his spiritual ancestor, Marcel Dionne, who had a similar career.

Statistics tell the story. You are not going to win a game if you give up 47 shots in three periods. That the score was only 5-3 can be attributed to Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Goaltending may be the only position where there is any parity between Russia and Canada anymore.

Before the game, Team Canada tried to play down the “special rivalry” that has existed between them and Russia since 1972 and they were right. Russia is simply another team now, to be kicked aside in same manner the Canadians kicked aside the USA, Europe, and the Czech Republic.

Russian hockey is simply not what it was. In years past it had individual stars but it was the team collectively that shone together. Now Russia has some stars but no team. Ovechkin came into the NHL with the promise to be the first non-Canadian to be as good as the best Canadian, in this case Sidney Crosby. But Ovechkin’s career is only a shadow of Crosby’s who has two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, one in which he scored the decisive goal, and probably will add a World Cup Championship to his shelf of honors after this tournament is over. Crosby is a difference maker; Ovechkin is not.

Today Russia is no longer one of the two teams to beat. They do not scare anybody anymore. And that is sad. Russia versus Canada used to be the game everyone looked forward to, the marquee match of every international hockey tournament. Now it is just another game.

Russia, Ovechkin Under The Gun At The World Cup

If Canadians would suspend their irrational pressure on the host country at the upcoming revived World Cup (Team Canada always has the most pressure on it at major international hockey tournaments) for just a few moments, they would understand that the country that really deserves the most pressure and expectation on it is not their own team but Russia. And the player who probably deserves most of the upcoming heat is Alexander Ovechkin – again.

This writer has scourged Ovechkin over the coals for several years now, mostly about his Washington Capital record. Ovechkin has loads of glorious individual awards, scoring titles, Hart trophies, etc., but his team record is horrible. The Washington Capitals with Ovechkin have yet to play in an Eastern Conference Final let alone compete for the Stanley Cup. This year the team with the most pressure on it was dispatched in six games in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins – despite Ovechkin and his colleague Nicklas Backstrom outplaying their rivals, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin – and after running away with the President’s Trophy. Somehow with Ovechkin, Washington still finds ways to lose. Ovechkin is not the heir of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux but Marcel Dionne, who had a similar NHL career.

But even worse is Ovechkin’s international record. The “Ovechkin era” in Russian/Soviet hockey has been the worst since the Russians/Soviets began playing against NHL competition in 1972. At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Russia lost in the quarter finals to Canada 7-3 which was probably the worst game this writer has ever seen a Russian/Soviet team play against Canada.

Even worse was another quarter final loss in 2014 on home ice at the Sochi Olympics, this time to Finland 3-1. The “Ovechkin era” in Russian hockey has been horrible, a steep fall for a country that was usually ranked #2 in international hockey tournaments behind only Canada if not the favored #1 team. Now Russia is just one of the group of “big 7″ countries, not picked to win the upcoming World Cup or even feared like they used to be. And since Ovechkin is the main guy on the team, like he is in Washington, the pressure and the attention naturally falls on him.

Hopefully for Russia, being the underdog for once will help the team’s fortunes. Another blatant setback for Russia should mean a lot of soul searching and another black mark on Ovechkin’s tattered belt. At the very least this team has to get to the semi-finals and win some sort of medal. Sweden, Finland, the United States and Czech Republic can go home and lick their wounds if they lose. Canada and Russia will return in the dismal depths of despair if they fail.

This may be Ovechkin’s last chance to make a significant mark internationally. He is already past his physical prime and the next major international competition will be the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea if the NHL decides to participate. He has to be desperate to get some sort of team triumph both with Russia and with Washington. He does not want to be ranked with Marcel Dionne as the best player in NHL history whose team career amounted to mediocrity. But that is how history will judge him if Russia and Washington continue to find ways to ignominiously lose, starting with this revived World Cup.