Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 7: The American Attitude To International Sports

The Americans finally won the gold medal in the World Baseball Classic this year, in fact their first medal ever. Will that change things?

It seems funny to start off an article about hockey by talking about baseball but the World Baseball Classic is an all too accurate symbol about the United States attitude to international hockey, indeed to almost all international sports. It’s either win or have nothing to do with it and belittle it.

American bombast in sports starts the moment the sport is created. The winner of the “World” Series is not the baseball champion of the United States but the “world” champion. So is the champion of the NFL and NBA. And it is the same in the NHL, though with the coming of the Europeans in the 1970s, the term “Stanley Cup Champion” is now more frequently used. In fact NHL hockey is probably the closest “big 4″ sport to being a true world championship because seven of the NHL franchises are based in Canada and the main trophy and several others are Canadian. At least that is better than the one international team in the NBA and MLB and none in the NFL.

Which brings up the subject of the World Baseball Classic. It was started in an attempt to promote the growth of baseball internationally, but it has been decidedly hampered by the bad American attitude toward it. Up to this year, the Americans had never won anything and the excuses made during previous tournaments were that the tournament was a “minor” affair that did not compare with MLB and was not worthy of the United States sending its best players to participate. That was the unofficial excuse Americans clung to for comfort in the face of obvious ignominious failure; America had not bothered to send its best players to a “minor” tournament.

In 2009, American team member Kevin Youkilis publicly berated the American fans for not showing more support for their team. His outburst provoked reactions of violent hatred. America was in the grip of the Mortgage Meltdown and American fans, especially those who were suffering the effects of the Meltdown turned on Youkilis as a representative of a fantasy world of prima donna sports figures that had no contact with the grim reality of the “real world”. Yet their legitimate outbursts still reflected the contempt Americans had for a championship that they did not regard as “big league”.

In fact the results of the World Baseball Classic could be used to question whether MLB itself contained the best baseball players in the world and whether Americans themselves were paying top dollar for a product which, it could now be legitimately argued was inferior to what was being played internationally. No matter. Americans generally ignored the results of the tournament, belittled it, and continued to believe that MLB was the best baseball in the world.

Now contrast that with what happened to Canada in 1972. Before the Canada-USSR tournament, Canada had much the same attitude to international hockey as Americans had to the World Baseball Classic. A group of NHL “goons” it was even speculated, would be good enough to sweep every game against the Soviets.

But the near defeat of Canada’s best players by the USSR and the high standard of play in every game changed everything. Gone forever was the thought that Canada had an overwhelming monopoly of the best players in the world. It was recognized that at least among the “big 7″ hockey countries, Canada had only a narrow margin of superiority. Canada now had things to learn from international competition, particularly the importance of conditioning, that everyone recognized that the USSR had a distinct advantage in the tournament. Canadians became willing to eat a lot of humble pie in order to improve their own game of hockey.

The Canadian attitude toward international tournaments changed too. Now winning the Olympics, the World Championship, the World Junior Championship, and the World Women’s Championship were considered to be great achievements to be valued, not something to be belittled and disparaged. But perhaps the greatest change was that international competition was now considered something special, something higher than even the NHL. The obvious superior play between the USSR and Canada was recognized immediately and Canadians wanted more of it. The Canada-USSR match led directly to the start of the Canada/World Cup and the integration of Europeans into the NHL. The close competition created a new attitude of respect.

But the American attitude to international sports including hockey still has not changed much. They still claim their domestic championships are world championships. I’ve written several articles on this blog and others outlining the NFL’s hatred for foreigners as well their contempt for their own fans by stripping cities of their franchises, often on the mere whim of a prima donna owner. This year NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman showed the American attitude to international hockey clearly by pulling the NHL out of the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea.

And to soothe their own troubled consciences, Americans haul out memories of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice”, one of the few triumphs in hockey the United States has enjoyed. They create myths like the “Bsd News Bears” in baseball and the “Mighty Ducks” in hockey (Who have yet to play a Canadian team. Disney is afraid of losing the Canadian market. Canada always gets defeated off camera by some villainous European team.).

Soccer for the most part has learned to live without the United States and its money. The NHL is in a kind of half way position. What respect there is for international hockey has mostly come from changes in attitude from Canada. But for the most part, the American attitude to international sports hurts the sports Americans claim they want to develop around the world.

This year, South Korea improved its hockey team so that it got promoted to the top level of next year’s World Championships. If they do well, it will be a breakthrough in the development of international hockey. But the NHL has pulled itself out of Pyeongchang, hurting both international hockey and the entry of the NHL into a potential new important market. But no matter, Americans can watch reruns of the Ducks, Bears, and the Miracle On Ice. Myths in international sports are more important to Americans than improving their own game and becoming members of the international sports community.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.