photo © RicLaf
Anyone that knows me knows that my taste in hockey is quite bizarre. My love of the sport but disdain for its biggest league (the NHL) earned me the nickname Hockey Hipster, first given to me by a guy I played simulated hockey with. More than anything, I love international hockey. I love seeing the best of one country face off against the best of others. I love watching the crowds, singing and waving their nation’s flag, urging the players on, joining in singing the national anthem after a victory. I love the moments it gives us. The Miracle on Ice. The Golden Goal. Hašek’s god-like performance in Nagano. Even in 2015, before the start of the top division World Championships, there have been many magical moments, most notably Hungary ending 5 years of the same 4 teams (Kazakhstan, Italy, Slovenia, and Austria) shuttling between the top flight and Division IA, earning promotion in a head-to-head showdown with Poland in front of 14,000 in Krakow. By that logic, one would think I’d be more ecstatic than anyone to see another international tournament starting, the revived World Cup of Hockey, which will take place in 2016. However, you would be incorrect, for multiple reasons.
First of all, the teams involved gives the tournament a “gimmicky” feel. The Big Six of the USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic would make one think that “okay, this’ll be a quality tournament! So many good teams bringing their A-squads!” But after that, the tournament starts to feel bush league, with a North American U23 Stars team along with a Team Europe for countries that weren’t invited to the tournament. These two replace two actual national teams who participated in the 2004 tournament, Slovakia (who, despite an disappointing 2014, won a silver medal in the Worlds more recently than the USA or Canada) and Germany. Including those two teams over nations like the aforementioned Slovakia or 2013 World Championship runner-up Switzerland is just baffling. A North American U23 Stars team raises the possibility of players playing against their own countries in an “international tournament.” How would Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel feel about playing Canada and the USA, respectively? Would they bring their A-game playing AGAINST their own team?
And as for the other filler team, well, I’m sure Slovenian Anže Kopitar has always dreamed of playing for Team Europe, instead of a team that recently not only qualified for the Olympics for the first time, but made the quarterfinals (showing signs of progress of the growth of hockey in the Balkan nation). I’d wager Latvian Zemgus Girgensons has always wanted to represent an entire continent instead of his tiny but proud hockey nation that reached the Olympic quarterfinals in Sochi. Team Europe? Why not combine more national teams? Let’s dump Sweden, #1 in the world at the moment; let’s combine with Denmark and Norway for Team Scandinavia! Throw in Girgensons, Grabovski, and the like, and we can have a pseudo-Soviet national team! Czechoslovakia, reunited for a hockey tournament! See where I’m going with this? These teams are a fun idea for an NHL15 tournament. Not for a tournament that’s trying to re-establish credibility after 12 years of dormancy and countless rumors of revival.
Another issue I have with the tournament is timing. Mid-September is okay if you only follow NHL hockey, as it’s the preseason and nothing else is going on…but in Europe, their domestic leagues are just starting up the regular season. People are condescending about the World Championships because “the best players in the world aren’t available,” and while that’s true to a point, it doesn’t matter for about 85% of the teams participating in the World Championship program…and the NHL is the only top division still ongoing anyway. The latest a European season went in 2015 was Finland, where Game 7 of the final between Oulun Kärpät and Tappara Tampere was played on April 25.
For a team like a Finland or a Czech Republic, both of whom tend to employ plenty of players playing either domestically or in a big league like the Kontinental Hockey League, this could potentially lead to some trouble picking players for the national team if clubs don’t want to risk an early-season injury, especially if they’re key players to their club. Remember the Ľubomír Višňovský situation before the start of the 2014 Olympics? He wanted to play for Team Slovakia, and was medically cleared, but Islanders management refused to let him go. If you were GM of, say, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, would you want to let go of Czech star goalkeeper Jakub Kovář at the start of the season, risking injury in a tournament in which your team isn’t participating and won’t affect the IIHF World Rankings? Or would you keep Kovář in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, preparing for the club season ahead? How much it would hurt Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod to see their Finnish KHL All-Star defender, Juuso Hietanen, get injured by a knee-on-knee collision with Dustin Brown? I’d be willing to bet GM Viktor Levitsky would likely think twice about sending anyone to the World Cup in 2020. Even an NHL owner may take the money from the tournament out of their ears and ask “why is this at the start of the season?” if a key player suffered an injury, like John Tavares or Mats Zuccarello did in Sochi. There’s a difference between losing a key cog in a postseason tournament that actually affects the IIHF World Ranking and losing a guy in a pre-to-early season tournament that ultimately means nothing for the national team except pride.
Speaking of the IIHF World Ranking, I should explain what exactly it is, because not a lot of people actually know how it’s run or why it exists. The World Ranking determines seeding and positioning for the Olympic hockey tournament and, due to its reliance on World Championship results, is also a key part of figuring out where hockey is growing. It’s a mathematical ranking where more recent tournaments count more, and the only tournaments that count towards the ranking are the World Championships and Olympics. The top 9 teams get in automatically, while 10-12 host the final qualification tournaments. Within the top 9, the higher ranked a team is, the easier their group is, on paper.
This is why the Worlds are quite important, and one great tournament can do wonders for a team; likewise, a bad tournament can ruin a team. Just ask Germany, who was in 8th place at the start of the 2012 World Championships – the last chance to seal an automatic spot in the Sochi Olympics – only to watch 10th place Slovakia dance all the way to the final, putting the Slovaks at #6. This pushed the Germans down to 10th, out of the automatic qualification zone. Austria won the qualification tournament, sending the Germans packing. (Germany has since fallen to 13th, passed by Latvia, Belarus, and France.)
So yes, the rankings – and thus the Worlds – DO matter, and that’s why they’re so hyped in Europe, while North America is busy watching the longest season in hockey stretch into its ridiculous 8th and 9th months. 8 or 9 months, by the way, is longer than the traditionally 7 month baseball season, and MLB teams play nearly double the regular season that NHL teams do. The World Cup, on the other hand, never mattered in the rankings, and thus it was nothing but a glorified cash cow for the NHL to profit off of. Ironically, after the last World Cup, the NHL blew over $2 billion in a lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
Lastly, and a point I recently mentioned, it’s the tournament’s existence as nothing more than a cash cow. I would personally be okay with that if the money was reinvested to grow the sport of hockey. But it doesn’t. Sure, the NHL boosts infrastructure in cities with teams….but what about metro areas that don’t have teams? Or even just trying to make the sport more affordable for less fortunate families? If the NHL put some of the profit from having a World Cup of Hockey into a charity that helps fortunate but ambitious young players buy equipment and get on the ice (and therefore growing the game), I would be behind it 100%. But unfortunately, all the league does is sit on the money waiting for the CBA to expire so they can pretend that that money doesn’t exist. World Championships and Olympics, on the other hand, DO help the growth of hockey, as the prize money is paid out to the federations, allowing them to invest in arenas, equipment, coaching, and the like.
There will be good hockey at the World Cup of Hockey, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. However, the fact of the matter is that this tournament will be nothing more than a glorified cash cow for the National Hockey League that will not garner popular support outside of the NHL fanbase.