Here’s what a 32-team hockey World Cup would look like

Matt Larkin
Canada Latvia

I don’t profess to be a soccer fan. I watch the sport once every four years, just for the World Cup. I don’t say “match” or “footie” or “pitch” or “training” or “nil.” And, like anyone remotely tied to hockey, I cringe whenever I see stuff like this:

I do, however, respect ‘The Beautiful Game’ immensely. The tradition behind it, the passion, and the magnitude of the settings and venues are first-class. I get it into it enough that I watch the games and notice hockey parallels, such as England being the Toronto Maple Leafs of the World Cup. Massive, delusional fan base, massive hype, massive disappointment every time they play under pressure. I pointed this out to troll my friend’s crotchety British dad and he retorted with: “How many play in your sport, 10? You need to travel outside Canada. There is a whole world. You’re a sad boy, no team to support.”

It got me thinking. Is he right? Probably. The IIHF barely scrapes together 12 teams for the Olympic tournament. That said, it’s not like the No. 32 team at the FIFA World Cup, or the 20th-ranked team, for that matter, has a hope in Hell. What would a 32-team hockey tournament look like? Would the quality of play be respectable if it followed FIFA’s zany selection process precisely?

I present to you a mock IIHF World Cup of Hockey, following a soccer format.

 

THE SELECTION PROCESS

 

In place of qualifying matches, I’ll use the IIHF’s existing ranking process, which “is based on awarding points for the final positions in the last four IIHF world championships and in the last Olympic ice hockey tournament. The 2014 IIHF world ranking published in May 2014 is thus based on the performance at the 2014, 2013, 2012, and the 2011 IIHF Ice hockey World Championship and at the 2014 Olympic ice hockey tournament in Sochi.”

The IIHF rankings:

  1. Sweden
  2. Finland
  3. Russia
  4. Canada
  5. Czech Republic
  6. United States
  7. Switzerland
  8. Slovakia
  9. Latvia
  10. Norway
  11. Belarus
  12. France
  13. Germany
  14. Slovenia
  15. Denmark
  16. Austria
  17. Kazakhstan
  18. Italy
  19. Hungary
  20. Ukraine
  21. Japan
  22. Great Britain
  23. Korea
  24. Poland
  25. Netherlands
  26. Lithuania
  27. Romania
  28. Croatia
  29. Estonia
  30. Spain
  31. Serbia
  32. Israel

 

THE GROUPINGS

 

Why do you get Groups of Death in the soccer World Cup? It’s largely because of the bizarre, partially random drawing process.

FIFA seeds the top eight teams and places each of them in a separate group. The remaining 24 are drawn randomly from three pots, which are based on geography, not seeding. FIFA allots a certain amount of berths to North America, Africa, and so on, and the organization uses its judgement to decide how many entries each continent gets. Teams from the same continent cannot be drawn into the same group unless they’re from Europe, in which case two teams can be drawn. It’s an odd, seemingly unfair method, and I’ll follow it for the sake of an accurate recreation. Let’s get to it.

Sweden, Finland, Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic, the United States and Switzerland each head their own groups and are thus placed in the first drawing pot. Joining them in a shocker is the “host nation,” a.k.a. the host of the 2018 Games: 20th-ranked South Korea! Slovakia thus falls into the random pot, sowing the seeds of a Group of Death.

Now comes the tricky part. The balance of hockey talent is weighted so heavily toward European teams that I can’t mimic FIFA perfectly, but since FIFA grants berths to other geographical regions, I will, too. So long, Romania, Spain, Serbia, Estonia and Croatia. Hello Mexico (33), Australia (34), New Zealand (37), China (38) and South Africa (40). South America doesn’t even have a team ranked by IIHF. I’ll hike the continental max to three Euro squads, meaning we could get a group with four Euro teams. Our mock hockey pots look like this:

POT 1 (Seeded): Sweden, Finland, Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, USA, Switzerland, South Korea (host)

POT 2 (Europe): Slovakia, Latvia, Norway, Belarus, France, Germany, Slovenia, Denmark, Austria, Kazakhstan, Italy, Hungary, Ukraine, Great Britain, Poland, Netherlands, Lithuania

POT 3 (Asia and Africa): Japan, Israel, China, South Africa

POT 4 (North America and Australia/New Zealand): Mexico, Australia, New Zealand

As per FIFA rules, when the drawing starts (I actually did it), teams from Pot 2 are sprinkled into 3 and 4 to make four groups of eight. After the drawing process, we get the following World Cup of Hockey groups:

GROUP A

Sweden
Poland
Japan
Australia

GROUP B

Canada
Germany
Lithuania
Latvia

GROUP C

Finland
France
Netherlands
Hungary

GROUP D

South Korea
Slovenia
China
Denmark

GROUP E

Switzerland
Belgium
Italy
Kazakhstan

GROUP F

Czech Republic
Norway
Slovakia
Austria

GROUP G

USA
Great Britain
Israel
Mexico

GROUP H

Russia
Ukraine
South Africa
New Zealand

 

OBSERVATIONS

 

So, yeah, Groups B and F are big-time Groups of Death. Really gives you a sense of how FIFA’s random pot process produces silly draws, eh? Canada will have to keep its guard up against Latvia and Germany, and two of the Czech Republic, Norway, Slovakia and Austria will be sent packing from Group H. Meanwhile, one of Great Britain, Israel and Mexico will make the round of 16 alongside Team USA, who has it real easy in Group G.

The mock World Cup of Hockey reinforces that FIFA’s selection process needs work, but also that hockey isn’t quite deep enough to field a competitive 32-team tourney the way soccer does. I can’t imagine how badly Russia would whip New Zealand, or how awful an Israel/Mexico tilt would be to watch. My friend’s dad wins this round.

And if you think this idea is stupid, that’s because it is. The Stanley Cup just ended. This is all in good fun. Enjoy the footie soccer, folks.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin