Make The Memorial Cup An International Trophy

During the recent World Cup, one ominous fact became apparent: Canada is pulling away from the rest of the world in quality and quantity of player. It has won 16 straight significant international matches dating back to the Vancouver Olympics. That is not a fluke. It can be truly said that during the Sidney Crosby era, hockey is a Canadian game.

This is great for Canada but bad for international hockey as a whole. There is no real competition for Canada any more. Before there was only one significant gap in hockey; between the traditional “big 7″ countries and the rest of the world. Now there are two gaps; Canada and the rest of the “big 7″ and the gap between them and the rest of the world.

After the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, there were boasts that hockey would become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But in the 44 years since 1972 there has been no expansion of quality of play from a “big 7″ to even so much as a “big 10″ or ideally a “big 16″ or better. There have been a few coaches from “big 7″ countries sent abroad to coach teams in other countries and occasionally the NHL hosts a few “clinics” like Los Angeles and Boston recently did for players from China. It is obviously not enough.

It is not that the problem is unrecognized. When Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr decided to set up “Team Europe” and “Team North America” instead of inviting more national teams to participate in the World Cup, it was an open admission that there was a significant gap in quality between the “big 7″ and the rest of the world. Hockey is still confined to the same narrow base that existed in 1972. If Bettman and Fehr want hockey’s World Cup to approach the prestige and stature of soccer’s World Cup, the gap in quality of play has to be rectified by raising the standard play in the rest of the world to that of Canada. Quality of play is probably the main problem in international hockey right now. On the women’s side, it is horrendous with only Canada and the United States icing quality teams. If the quality of hockey is not significantly improved outside of North America, women’s hockey could be expelled from the Olympics.

The results of the World Cup were alarming about the quality of play internationally. Team Europe and Team North America were supposed to be credible 7th and 8th place opposition teams, not the second and third best teams in the tournament. Bettman will be happy to accept congratulations for his idea but he can hardly be happy that the national teams that were supposed to be Canada’s toughest opposition played so poorly. Team USA became the whipping boy of the tournament when they could not win a game. Russia gave up 47 shots in its semi-final loss to Canada and the score would have been higher if not for the heroic goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky. Sweden could not beat either Europe or North America. The Czechs could only beat horrible USA. Finland also failed to win a game. Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team and its members became the core of underdog Europe. There is a huge gap between Canada and the rest of the world.

What accounts for this gap in player development? It does not come about at the adult professional level but at the junior level and younger. Canada simply has the finest system for developing hockey talent in the world, most notably its CHL junior league system, a group of approximately 60 teams located mostly in Canada with a few American franchises, in three leagues, based in Western Canada, Ontario, and Quebec and the Maritimes. Every year, the winners of the three leagues plus a host team play for the Memorial Cup, the trophy symbolizing Canada’s junior championship.

chl

The CHL is the foundation of Canada’s current vast superiority over the rest of world. Almost every American and European boy wants to play for one of its teams, so much so that the CHL has had to put a limit on how many Europeans a team can have. These boys want to come to Canada because they know that the training and development they receive will be the best in the world and if they distinguish themselves against Canada’s best young players, there is a good chance they will become high NHL draft picks. And occasionally, a European country will send an all star junior, national team to tour and play against all star teams from all three CHL branches. There is no better way to measure their players or test how their own system is developing its young talent than to play against Canada’s best young, junior players.

But if young Europeans and Americans have to come to Canada to get proper development, what does that say about their own national junior systems? They are obviously not doing the job that the CHL is doing. The result is 16 straight Canadian victories, two Olympic gold medals, and now a World Cup triumph. Total domination. Everybody else is playing for second place.

The obvious truth is that at least the junior systems of the rest of the world need a severe overhaul. Unless a better system is discovered, the best thing to do is to set up junior leagues in every country modeled on the CHL. It is a vast undertaking but unless someone else has a better idea, for now it seems to be the only way of dealing with the quality of play problem that is holding back the development of international hockey.

And the best person to head such a tough undertaking is CHL Commissioner Dave Branch. Under Branch, the CHL keeps churning out top junior talent, Canadian, American, and European every year. There is no one else better equipped for such a task.

branch

First, the countries that want to take part and have the ability and resources to implement such systems have to be identified. Then people who know how to own, operate, manage, and coach junior league franchises have to come forward and the new leagues set up. These new leagues would be directly affiliated with the CHL. Branch would become the overall Commissioner of all these leagues, probably with Deputy Commissioners for each country to handle routine matters.

At the end of every season, the winners of every country’s national junior championship would play in a tournament for the Memorial Cup. It would no longer symbolize the championship of Canada but become the trophy that is presented yearly to the junior team champion of the world. There is no need for inter-country junior play during the regular season but it could occur if travel and expenses permit.

Hopefully this will standardize development of junior hockey players around the world and bring all players up to the level of Canadian players. It will close the gap in quality not only between Canada and the rest of the “big 7″ but at least between the dozen “B level” countries who have been stuck at that level of play since 1972 and before. Then the World Cup that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr idealized about in September could become a reality.

Gary Bettman’s 2016 To-Do List

Now that the NHL season has started, there will be no rest for Gary Bettman. He will be one busy NHL Commissioner. Here are the 10 most important issues he has to face on his to-do list.

1. Find A Suitable Owner For A Quebec City Franchise

Pierre Karl Peladeau, owner of Quebecor which made an unsuccessful bid to be the new owner of a returned Quebec Nordiques supports the separatist provincial political party, Parti Quebecois, and made unacceptable racial remarks about anglophone, Geoff Molson, who owns the Montreal Canadiens. Bettman and the NHL Board cannot tolerate such an owner and automatically turned down Peladeau. Now Bettman has to find a suitable owner for Quebec who is French Canadian. Mario Lemieux might have been the logical choice but it has recently been reported that the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins has been canceled so a new Quebec City team with Lemieux as the main owner does not seem a possibility any more. The sudden resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche makes one suspect that he will be involved in a returned Quebec franchise. Bettman would like to get this issue resolved quickly because he would like to able to announce a new Quebec team in time for the 100th NHL anniversary and the 150th anniversary of Canada in 2017.

Once the announcement of Quebec’s readmission is made, he will automatically move on to issue 2 which is

2. Realign The League

Once the NHL reaches the symmetrical number of 32 teams, the sensible thing to do is realign the league into the same structure the NFL has; 2 Conferences of 4 Divisions each, with each division having 4 teams. This will make it possible for the league to comfortably expand in the future to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division).

Unfortunately the combination of Quebec/Las Vegas expansion means that one of the two teams that were shifted to the Eastern Conference (Detroit and Columbus, probably Columbus) has to go back to the west which neither wants to do so Bettman now has to move on to issue 3 which is

3. Balance Up The Conferences

When Bettman announced NHL expansion, only two of his expectations came true; fanatical Quebec and Las Vegas went all the way through. What he and the NHL Board were really hoping for was a four-team expansion of Quebec and three new western cities, making the NHL a 34 team league completely balanced between western and eastern cities. Instead the NHL’s greedy $500 million entry fee plus $10 million “consideration” fee ($8 million refundable if you get turned down) was deemed unrealistic and unacceptable by the business world. Of 16 applications that the NHL handed out, only Quebec and Las Vegas went all the way. In particular, “done deal” Seattle and Portland failed to respond. Now most likely the NHL will wait in vain for two more western fanatics to appear which will mean that the NHL will remain unbalanced for a long time or he must consider issue 4

4. Reappraise The Expansion Fee Price

Most of the business world has said that paying $500 million for an NHL franchise is not the true market value. That means that the NHL has to let years pass (and no one can predict how many with any accuracy) until an NHL franchise reaches that value and remain in a state of unbalanced conferences for that time which is unacceptable to the team that is being shifted to the Western Conference. If the NHL wants to expand again as soon as possible so that the league imbalance can be corrected, the only way to lure more investors is to revise the current expansion fee downwards. And if that is only solution, Bettman will probably have to resolve issue 5 which is

5. Refund Money To Quebec And Las Vegas

Clearly before the 2016 expansion was announced, Bettman and the NHL Board had dreams of dividing up a neat, symmetrical, four-team $2 billion expansion pot. The disappointment of only luring a two-city response with absolutely no competition between rival cities at all (probably a “big 4″ North American professional sports league expansion first) was a real slap in the face to the league. (In contrast, the previous NHL expansion had 11 bidders.) So either publicly or privately in a manner to lose as little face as possible, money must be refunded back to Quebec and Las Vegas so that a new, realistic expansion fee can be set. Once that is done Bettman will do

6. Announce More Expansion

And unless you are from Hartford (a city that Bettman promised readmission terms to in 2010 along with Quebec and Winnipeg) or maybe Hamilton or Toronto, any eastern bidder will not get much consideration (Though if you show up with a stack of cash in hand, Bettman and the Board will show some interest, if not now then for the immediate future). The next NHL expansion will be about balancing up the conferences so that the unfortunate team that was shifted can move back east. Seattle, Portland, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, San Francisco, even small Saskatoon, Spokane, or some unlikely city like San Diego or Tulsa, the NHL wants to hear from you. Two of you will be chosen to be the 33rd and 34th NHL franchises. So if you are from the west and want to be an NHL team owner, your timing could not be better.

But as well as dealing with all these internal NHL issues, Bettman has to deal with some outside of North America starting with

7. Evaluate The World Cup Of Hockey

Unlike the Quebec problem, there is a four year window to do this but the sooner it is started the better. Bringing back the World Cup was a good idea and a success and Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr outlined some ideas for taking the concept further and for introducing new international competition tournaments. But the tournament revealed problems in international hockey, mostly about the level of play. Even before the tournament was announced Bettman recognized that there was a serious gap in the quality of play between the traditional “big 7″ countries, the next “B Level” countries, and the rest of the 50 ranked countries that play hockey. So he created teams North America and Europe to fill out the roster. In his mind, these teams would merely be credible opposition, respectable 7th and 8th placed teams. They were not designed to be the second and third best teams but that is what happened, thus revealing another wide gap in quality of play between champion Canada and the rest of the world.

If Bettman wants the hockey World Cup to get the same stature as soccer’s World Cup he has to face issue 8 which has never been properly dealt with in the 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972

8. Raise The Standard Of Play In International Hockey

After the Canada-USSR match of 1972, there were boasts that soon hockey would be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But in 2016, the same “big 7″ countries are still Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden. There has been no broadening of the base since 1972 to a “big 10″, “big 12″ or ideally “big 16″ and beyond. For some reason Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team at the recent World Cup (they had the most players on team Europe) and Bettman went with teams Europe and North America instead of more national teams. But he must know that if hockey’s World Cup is to gain prestige and stature, credible participation beyond the traditional “big 7″ countries has to occur. To fully achieve this, he has to find some way of raising the standard of play for both the remaining “big 6″ countries and the dozen “B Level” countries up to the standard of Canada. The situation is far worse for international women’s hockey where only the United States and Canada ice credible teams and the sport has been threatened with expulsion from the Olympics.

Almost the only steps that have been taken in the past 44 years are to host some clinics by the NHL and to send coaches from the “big 7″ countries to develop players in other countries. It is not enough and if Bettman wants to see real improvement, he will have to thoroughly examine why Canada has been able to create a system that develops hockey players of such quality and quantity that puts it continually above the rest of the world and then formulate and implement plans so that other countries can consistently reach that level of play. One unexpected bonus of the World Cup was that it revealed where to start. The composition of second place team Europe was mostly Slovaks, Germans, Swiss, and Danish players. So a tangible goal for the 2020 World Cup would be to raise standard of play for the remaining “big 6″ countries plus Germany, Switzerland and Denmark and to have a “big 10″ World Cup in 2020. Even the development of just three “B Level” countries to the higher standards of the “big 7″ countries permanently would be a real revolution in international hockey after the static development of the past four decades.

But even before 2020, Commissioner Bettman must resolve issue 9 which is

9. Decide If The NHL Participates In The 2018 Olympics

Bettman and Bill Daly announced that a final decision about NHL participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea would be made in December or January. The NHL has participated in every Olympics since 1998. Several players including Alexander Ovechkin have said they will play in the Olympics whether the NHL officially participates or not. It is a ticklish question and the easiest way out is for the NHL to remain an official participant. Money. specifically who pays for what is said to be the main stumbling block.

And finally there is the countdown to 2017 when

10. NHL Celebrates Its Centennial Anniversary

During the World Cup, Bettman outlined many plans for the upcoming 100th NHL anniversary. Wayne Gretzky has been named the NHL’s official ambassador for these projects. There are more plans being created for 2017. The founding of the NHL in 1917 was an all Canadian affair. The first American team, the Boston Bruins, did not join the league until 1924, so the focus of the upcoming celebration will be on Canada. One of the founding members of the NHL was the Quebec Bulldogs. So bringing back an NHL team to Quebec would be one of the main goals for 2017. Which brings us back to issue number 1…

World Cup Of Hockey 2016 Final Summary

Well the revived World Cup that has been in limbo for 12 years is over and I have already written two sequel articles about its ultimate meaning plus several other articles about the problems and hopes that it has uncovered and raised. It is time to summarize everything that occurred and try and point out a path for the future.

First of all, bringing back the World Cup was a great idea and has succeeded in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr’s main goal in establishing a credible basis for taking the concept forward in the future. They chose the right city to revive it, Toronto, got lots of the NHL alumni including many players from outside Canada involved, and the off-ice activities were a great success. But they also uncovered some serious problems…

Goliath And Paying For The Sins Of The Past

All the tournament proved was that it was a total mismatch right from the start and that international hockey is now paying for its failure to improve the quality of the game during the past 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972. The creation of the two hybrid teams, Europe and North America was an open admission by Bettman that there is a serious gap in quality of play between the traditional “big 7″ and the next “B level” group of countries – about a dozen teams in all – and that very little has been done in four decades to improve the quality of play. The same “big 7″ in 1972 are still the same “big 7″ in 2016.

At the same time the tournament revealed that there is a new serious gap in hockey quality in international play between Canada and the rest of the world. North America and Europe were created to improve the quality of competition and finish a credible 7th and 8th. They were not supposed to be the third and second best teams in the tournament. The play of the five national teams who were supposed to be Canada’s toughest opponents was appalling. The tournament became a Goliath without any David to oppose him. Before the first puck was dropped, it was merely a matter of getting through the games so that Canada could be crowned king as quickly as possible. Canada has too much talent, is too well trained, and too well coached. Everybody else was playing for second place.

Only Real Moment Of Drama

Almost everybody predicted Canada would win this tournament. It was only a matter of how easily they would do it, and except for the play of Europe and North America, there were few surprises. So the only real moments of drama were when ex-teammates/rivals of the Montreal Canadiens, goaltenders Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak faced off in the Final. It might have opened the old debate about which goaltender should have been kept and whether they should both still be teammates. Certainly Montreal sorely missed Halak when Price got hurt last year. Price won this tournament but Halak was not far behind him so the debate is still open. The hockey gods mischievously arranged this classic match-up. Do they plan to have a Montreal Canadiens-New York Islanders playoff round rematch at the end of the upcoming season?

The Sound Of Silence…

Bettman and Fehr held a press conference in which they outlined further tantalizing developments for international hockey including additional tournaments and whether to hold the World Cup in more than one city, how it should be awarded to cities in the future, if it should be played in countries outside of Canada… Everything except discussing ways about bridging the quality problem listed above which is the most serious problem standing in the way of developing the World Cup. Expect more mismatches at the 2018 Olympic Games and the next World Cup in 2020 unless the problem is finally faced up to and dealt with honestly by raising the level of play in the remaining six countries, and at the “B level” group of countries up to the level of Canada.

The Solution Is Below The Pros

The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is the finest developer of junior talent in the world. There is a line-up of American and European boys who want to get into the league to prove themselves against Canadian junior competition because they know if they distinguish themselves, they will have earned a ticket into the NHL. But what does that say about your own national systems if you have to go to Canada to get proper training and development? Penalizing the excellence of Canada is not the solution (making them play with one arm tied behind their backs?). Bettman and Fehr should be talking about ways the NHL and whoever is running the national organizations of the rest of the  hockey playing countries outside of Canada to overhaul their junior systems and maybe even those below that level and create systems that are either modeled after the CHL or something better. The other countries have to be able to produce hockey players of the quantity and quality that Canada does. Right now no other country has any hope of competing against Canada at this time or in the future unless this is done. So serious is this problem that the very future of international hockey is at stake. The problem is even more serious in women’s hockey where only the United States and Canada ice credible teams.

Quality Wins Over Quantity

Canada has a population of approximately 35 million people placing it in the middle of hockey-playing countries. Certainly countries like Russia, USA, Germany, France, and Italy with much larger populations can produce enough players to ice credible teams to play against Canada. Canada’s vast lead in quality of play over everybody else proves that it is a triumph of quality training and development, not simply a matter of mass numbers. It is a matter of developing enough quality players in your junior system. And if Canada can do it, so can smaller countries like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Latvia and the rest.

On Your Mark The Place To Start

One thing that got revealed because of the World Cup was where to begin the process of reform. Besides the remaining six traditional countries, the composition of Team Europe that played so well showed that the “B level” countries who have made the most progress are Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. Ideally it would be great to get as many “B level” countries up to Canada’s level but just getting those three countries up to the higher standard of play would be a real revolution in international play especially when it is remembered how little has been done in the past 44 years. If I want to improve the quality of international hockey and broaden its base as fast as possible, I know the three countries to begin with.

Missing In Action 1

Slovakia, a “big 7″ country was not allowed to ice a team. They had the most players on Team Europe. They have to be brought back for 2020. They can hardly do much worse than the sorry efforts, Sweden, Finland, USA, Russia and the Czech Republic gave.

Missing In Action 2

Germany, Denmark and Switzerland have to have teams in 2020. They have to PERMANENTLY join the “big 7″ so at least there will be a “big 10″ in international play for the future.

Missing In Action 3

Canada had two of its top stars, Connor McDavid and Duncan Keith not on its roster. Canada still won easily. Nobody noticed their absence.

Missing In Action 4

Where is that American team that always wins international competitions and saves the day? You know who I mean, not Team USA but the Mighty Ducks. They were noticeably absent during this tournament. Somehow this team of hacks always wins. For some reason (probably because Disney does not want to offend Canadians and lose their market) this team has yet to play a Canadian team. Instead Canada is always defeated off camera by some villainous European team. Sorry Americans, I couldn’t resist. This is called “putting your foot in your mouth” and “shooting yourself in the foot”. Come on Americans, seriously, the creation of this hip hip hurray, “patriotic” rubbish that earns the contempt and ridicule of every Canadian child who knows anything about hockey, plays at least a minor role in the illusion that the USA can compete on equal terms with Canada. Well, maybe the Ducks could have beaten Team USA.

It fits hand in glove with the other sports myths Americans love to believe in, particularly about baseball. What Americans should be doing is the hard work of overhauling their junior program so that they can REALLY compete with Canada permanently in the future. Then make a biographical movie about the man that accomplishes this. He will have earned it. Meanwhile cast your Ducks, the Bad News Bears, and other unrealistic American sports myths into the ash can.

Reason To Be Thankful For The Return Of The World Cup

Pittsburgh goaltender Marc Andre Fleury who should have been dropped off the roster along with his big contract during the off season after the job Matt Murray did in the playoffs now amazingly gets another chance. Murray got injured as the goaltender for Team North America. At least for now, Fleury is Pittsburgh’s starting goaltender again.

Best Coaching Job

The runaway winner is Canada coach Mike Babcock, and his all star NHL coaching staff who got their team to play consistently up to the standard they were expected to be at. There were no holes exposed in any aspect of team play. And he did this without Keith and McDavid.

Runner Up

Ralph Krueger took Team Europe which was supposed to be the joke of the tournament to the Final where they played two credible games against Canada. A few years ago he was the coach of Edmonton and managed to get that woe-begotten team to nearly the .500 level, but he was fired after only one year. Since then, he has switched to soccer. But if he wants to come back to hockey, he has made himself the leading contender for any upcoming NHL coaching position that opens up. He can almost pick the NHL team he wants to coach. Las Vegas or Quebec in two years?

Mr. Overrated

The tournament produced a tie in this odious category which showed why these two players are where they are in the NHL. First Alexander Ovechkin of Russia continued to show why he should not be rated on the same level as Sidney Crosby. His Russian teams have not won a medal with him as their best player. They lost to Canada after giving up 47 shots in the semi-final. Believe it or not, this was actually an improvement over Russia’s showing in the last two Olympics in Vancouver and on their home ice of Sochi where they were eliminated in only the quarter finals by Canada and Finland. This is exactly the equivalent of Ovechkin’s NHL career where his Washington Capitals have yet to make even the Eastern Conference Final.

Meanwhile Sweden’s goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist showed why he is the Ovechkin of NHL goaltenders. He was able to beat sorry looking Finland but when he played against the two hybrids he gave up two overtime goals that were ultimately the reason why Sweden finished out of the money. In the NHL, he has managed to get the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final once. They have yet to win the Cup.

The Best Excuse

Team Finland, 0-3 blamed its defeats on having too many rookies to international competition on its roster. That had better be the right reason because at least it is the most credible of excuses for a bad performance. At least there is hope for the future. What can Russia, Sweden, USA, and the Czech Republic say for their efforts?

The Hybrids

Surprisingly Europe and North America were a success but they were only supposed to provide credible opposition, not be the second and third best teams in the tournament. They certainly deserve consideration about being brought back in the future. If they are, I would make one change. I want to see Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland competing in 2020 so I would change the composition of Europe to the best players from the remaining “B level” countries, Austria, France, Norway, Poland, Italy, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, and Belarus.

Watered Down

Every time the NHL expands, the complaints pour in that the NHL’s quality is being diluted and the game is watered down. Well, Mr. Bettman if you want to maintain the high standard of your league, you will effectively address and solve the quality problem by developing the quality of the “B level” countries who have been stuck at that level since before the NHL players began playing internationally in 1972. The more countries you develop, the more of an abundance of good players you will have to not only stock Las Vegas and Quebec, but the other eight teams you want to bring into the NHL before you retire, up to the next symmetrical level of 40 teams.

Wide Gap Between Canada And The Rest Of The World Part 2

It starts with CHL and younger leagues. That is the meaning of the results of the recently revived World Cup Of Hockey. That is the reason for the huge gap in quality of play, now not only between Canada and the dozen “B level” countries which been around for too many decades to count, but now between Canada and the other “traditional 6″ hockey powers, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, USA, Sweden and Finland. The World Cup was a total mismatch, with no real competition except two all star hybrids Europe and North America. All hockey fans are glad to have the World Cup back after 12 years hiatus but the tournament was an embarrassment.

There is only one good hockey country in the world now, Canada. They have stated in no uncertain terms that hockey is a Canadian game. If Canada wanted to get revenge for the humiliation of having no Canadian teams participate in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, they got it in spades. It is a good thing that the NHL is not organized on nationality lines with only Canadians playing for Canadian teams and Americans and the rest of the world playing on American teams. No American city would come within sniffing distance of the Stanley Cup – for decades.

All the World Cup did as a follow-up to the last two Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi was confirm how dominant Canada is in hockey, now pulling away from everybody else with no real competition in sight. And they did it without two of their very best players, Duncan Keith and Connor McDavid. They have now won 16 consecutive meaningful international games and that is no fluke. It is time for the rest of the world to wake up and address the gap in quality of play between Canada and everybody else or this gap will continue to the end of time. They have to do what Canada did in 1972 after the famous Canada-USSR match.

Back then there was almost total ignorance in Canada about the state of international hockey outside of its borders. The only warnings came from certain individuals who had been following international hockey for the previous decade and knew that amateur and minor league teams like the Trail Smokeaters who last won the World Championship for Canada in the early 1960s could not compete against the best of the world anymore and that only the very best players of Canada, playing in the NHL had a chance of winning. So ignorant was Canada about the USSR that it was even speculated that a team of NHL “goons” would be enough for an eight game sweep.

CanadaUSSR

Despite narrowly winning the series 4-3-1, Canada ate humble pie – a lot of humble pie. The revelation of near defeat led to a revolution in Canadian thinking about many aspects of hockey. It was now recognized that some European countries and the United States were catching up in quality of play to Canada. They took the result seriously. There was no blindness to what was going on in the sport of hockey as there is today in international baseball with the United States scornful and degrading reactions to the repeated results of the World Baseball Classic (see my article about the state of international hockey versus international baseball on this blog about this matter). Canada was prepared to adjust to the new reality of international hockey conditions.

Before the series, it was possible for NHL players to spend the summer laying about and guzzling beer before training camp. It was recognized that the USSR nearly defeated Canada because of its superior conditioning. After the match with the USSR, woe to the NHL player who reported to his autumn training camp out of shape. It would now cost him his job. Better conditioning in hockey was a direct result of this first international match. This lesson and much more was absorbed by Canada.

The results of two Olympics and now the World Cup, 16 straight defeats shows that it is time for the rest of the world to eat the same humble pie Canada did. And the lesson of the World Cup is that no country can compete with Canada now and in the future until they revise their junior and younger programs in their own countries. The CHL is the most obvious example of Canadian domination. It has been and continues to be the best program for training young players at the junior level in the world. No one else is close.

Many of  the top European and most of the best American players in the NHL got their training and development playing for the Canadian and handful of American franchises in the CHL. So great is the desire to get in, that the CHL has had to put restrictions on the number of Europeans a team is allowed to employ. And why do so many junior Americans and Europeans want to play in Canada? Because the training and experience they get is the best in the world and if they distinguish themselves against the top Canadian juniors, a ticket into the NHL and guaranteed fame and riches will follow. If I am a boy with hockey skills who lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Visby, Sweden and Kazan, Russia, I want the chance to prove myself against the best Canadian boys because if I succeed, I’ll have picked up the skills and training needed to become a high NHL draft choice.

Now look at the ridiculousness of the current international hockey situation. When asked about how the composition of the American team which could not beat anybody was chosen, the answer from management was that they were chosen “to beat Canada”. But where do American and European boys have to go to get their best training and development? You got it, Canada, and what does that say about the quality of training that they get in their own countries? It is just not good enough and the result is two Olympic gold medals, a World Cup triumph, and 16 straight victories for Canada. If you say that your goal is to “beat Canada” but you have to send your best young players to your mortal enemy to be trained effectively, it is the height of absurdity.

It is now time for the rest of the hockey world to eat humble pie and study the lessons of these defeats. And the main lesson is to revise the junior and younger hockey programs and systems in your own land so that your country produces and develops hockey players of the quantity and quality that Canada produces. That is meaning of this World Cup. No country that seriously wants to compete effectively with Canada can avoid doing this. Producing a winner for the World Cup and the Olympics starts at the junior and younger levels of hockey. Countries that want to win will have to conform with the Canadian junior model or devise something better. Right now, everybody else is playing for second place.

chl

There are approximately 60 CHL junior teams in Canada and the Northern United States, but you could double that number to 120 and stuff all the new teams exclusively with Americans and Europeans so long as they got the same training and development that Canadians do. Maybe then there would be some parity restored and a real expansion in international quality from the “big 7″ to the “big 16″. Let Canada train your children in hockey. They are the experts.

But the real solution is to set up junior systems in other countries that matches or exceeds the CHL. Until this is done, no country can be taken seriously as an international hockey power. Right now hockey is a Canadian game. There is nobody else.

Wide Gap Between Canada And The Rest Of The World Part 1

Mismatch, pure and simple. That is the message Canada delivered to the rest of the world after going undefeated in the revived World Cup Of Hockey in 2016. Team Europe gave it a gallant try, considering that they were supposed to be the joke of the tournament. The two defeats in the Final to Canada, 3-1 and 2-1 were not a disgrace. They showed they belonged on the same ice.

But they still lost and going back to the Vancouver Olympics of 2010 and including  the Sochi Olympics of 2014 and the World Cup of 2016, Canada has now won 16 straight games. The Canada of the Sidney Crosby era is more dominant now than when Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull were its star players in the 1970s, and later when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux led them in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s not a fluke.

The Canadian junior machine and younger leagues, symbolized by the CHL, keeps turning out top players en masse on schedule with no end in sight. When the Sidney Crosby era ends, the Connor McDavid era will begin. In 2018 in the Winter Olympics in South Korea and 2020 when the next World Cup will be played expect more of the same. Everybody else is playing for second place. There are no real challengers in sight. What is very revealing is that Team Canada played without two of its best players and still won easily. Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks arguably Canada’s first, second, or third best defenseman was injured, and Canada was not allowed to have its best young player, Connor McDavid who had to play for Team North America. One shudders to think how good Canada would have been if they had played for its team.

The meaning of this tournament is plain to see. Canada is pulling away from everybody else. What was particularly distressing was that the second and third best teams were the two hybrids, Team Europe, and Team North America, who were not supposed to win at all. They were created merely because NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recognized the truth, that little has been done in 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972 to improve the quality of hockey outside of the traditional “big 7″ hockey countries – Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden – and did not want any Canada 10 Norway 1, Russia 8 Latvia 2 laughers.

The two hybrids were supposed to be Canada’s worst competition. Instead what was revealed was that the five other national teams have tumbled badly when compared to Canada. In a recent article on the blog (Canada And The Hybrids Deserve Each Other) I listed the many sins of the other five countries that were so plain to see in the World Cup. They are no competition for Canada any more. Commissioner Bettman will accept congratulations for the Europe and North America idea but inside he can hardly be happy and could not imagine before the tournament that the other five national teams would play so pitifully. They were supposed to be Canada’s toughest competition. Instead they were the worst.

Before this tournament, international hockey was ranked this way:

“Big 7″
“B level teams”
Everybody else

That has changed to the following:

Canada
Remaining traditional 6
“B level teams”
Everybody else

Surely the worst problem in international hockey today that I have written about in several articles on this blog and elsewhere on other blogs is quality of play. I have repeatedly written about the need to get the quality of play of the “B level” countries – there are about a dozen countries in all stuck at this level since 1972 and earlier – up to the level of the traditional “big 7″. I have also written about the much worse state of international women’s hockey where only a “big 2″, Canada and the United States exist and there have been threats to expel the sport from the Olympics because of lack of competition.

Only now things are worse, there are two gaps. There is the gap that has been around for half a century and more between the “B level” teams and the traditional 7, and now there is the gap between Canada and the remaining 6.

The World Cup of Hockey and the Olympics cannot be developed until these gaps are breached and closed. If the goal is to develop the World Cup of Hockey so that it has the stature and importance of its counterpart in soccer, there has to be real competition and drama to capture the imagination of the fans. That does not exist anymore. Canada has no competition. The only possible meaningful competition that can occur now are matches between Canada and an all star team made up from the best of the other seven teams in the tournament.

The solution to this problem should not be to penalize Canada and diminish the excellence of its program and play. Rather it should be to raise up the quality of play of ALL the teams, both the remaining 6 and the “B levels” to the level of Canada. If Commissioner Bettman and NHLPA Director Donald Fehr want their World Cup to be a truly meaningful event, they have to start facing up to the quality problem and do something about it. All that has been done in the past 44 years is to host a few random hockey clinics and send a few coaches from the “big 7″ to other countries. It has not worked and the product is the result of the recent World Cup. The quality problem is staring them directly in the face and will not go away. It is time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.

Myth Vs Reality: International Baseball Vs. International Hockey

The revival of the World (formerly Canada) Cup of Hockey that I am currently writing about reminds me about another subject that I wrote a few articles about on another blog a few years ago, the World Baseball Classic. And since I recall it, it is appropriate to make a few comparisons between the state of international hockey and the state of international baseball.

Two obvious differences are cost and climate and baseball has the advantage in both. It is far cheaper and easier to learn to play baseball and become good in the sport than it is to develop a young hockey player. Children from poorer countries can learn to play baseball while to learn to play hockey properly means at least being able to afford a pair of skates and lots of protective gear. And while baseball can be played almost continually year round, to be played properly, hockey must wait for winter in the polar regions of Canada, the northern United States, Scandinavia, and Russia or build and maintain expensive indoor rinks. That makes it easier to get more recruits for baseball than hockey.

As result of greater participation, international baseball does not have a quality problem like international hockey. In the 44 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, the top 7 teams are still the same; Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden. After the “big 7″, the quality of play drops off noticeably. Baseball has no such problem with far more countries able to field quality teams. But there lies the main problem with the growth of international baseball, that retards its development – and it is all due to American mythology. Hockey has no such problem.

In the aftermath of the near defeat of Canada by the USSR in 1972, a revolution in thinking about international hockey occurred. It was now recognized by Canadians that Europeans and Americans were catching up in the quality of play and that the best players in the world no longer exclusively came from Canada. Shortly after that, the first Europeans started to penetrate the NHL which has led to the development of the league as fans know it today; a multi-national league with the vast majority of its players coming from the “big 7″ countries. Canada is usually the favorite, one step ahead of the other “big 7″, but it is no longer an upset if one of those other countries win major international tournaments. And the attitude of Canadians to these tournaments has changed too. Winning events like the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Women’s Championship, and the World Junior Championship are considered major achievements by Canadians.

But in contrast to Canada’s sensible revised thinking about international hockey, the United States clings to laughable, unrealistic myths about international baseball and its own domestic product. In contrast to international hockey tournaments which are treated with respect by North Americans, the World Baseball Classic is constantly belittled and treated with disrespect by Americans. This helps to hide an ignominious fact; the host country has never won a medal.

Instead American fans like to pretend that they “don’t send their best players” or some other unrealistic excuse or they simply ignore the results and the facts. But the repeated World Baseball Classic results prove that Americans are not the best players of baseball any more. No matter. Americans like to still claim that the true champions and the “real tough” competition lies within Major League Baseball.

In three of the four major professional sports that are played in the United States; baseball, football, and basketball, Americans like to proclaim that the winner is the “world champion” instead of just being the mere champion of the United States. Actually the only true international championship in any of these sports that ever occurred was when the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball participated in the “World” Series. The NHL used to call itself and occasionally still does use the term “world champions”, but now usually uses the more correct title of Stanley Cup Champions thanks to the developments in international hockey.

American chauvinism is hurting the development of international baseball. Their continued disrespect for the World Baseball Classic is simply boorish. Some American commentators like former MLB player and television commentator Tony Kubek used to dream of a true world championship between the MLB winner and the champion of the Japanese leagues, but the American attitude to international play makes such a dream impossible to realize.

And the myths and disrespect hide another brazen fact; American baseball fans are being cheated by their own myths and self-deception. The NHL with a few exceptions can truthfully say that the vast majority of the best players in the world play in its league. But the results of the World Baseball Classic show that a large percentage of the best baseball players – maybe even the majority – do not play in Major League Baseball. So American fans are paying top dollar for a product that may be far from being the best possible. And yet they continue to pour scorn on the World Baseball Classic and insist that the only true champion is the one who wins the “World” Series.

As the future second President of the United States, John Adams stated when he was defending the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” Despite all the advantages that international baseball has as opposed to international hockey, as long as Americans continue to cling to their myths, the prospects for developing hockey internationally may be much brighter than for baseball. The main problem with international hockey is that its top quality is limited to seven countries. But if this can be overcome, international hockey can look forward to bright future developments, while international baseball remains in the dark ages.

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.