Jonathan Toews (Photo by Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
Canada is without a doubt the team to beat at the World Cup, but the game has gone global, as evidenced by the breakdown of the first round of the draft.
The TV commercial promoting the 2016 World Cup of Hockey asks the question: Who owns hockey?
Russian Evgeni Malkin of the Stanley Cup champion says, “There’s no question, Russia.”
The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel of Sweden, counter, “That’s easy, Sweden.”
American hockey players argue, “Three words: Miracle on Ice.”
Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, a Finn, responds with, “Three names: Selanne, Kurri, Koivu.”
Finally, Canadians Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins conclude: “Canada didn’t just invent hockey, hockey invented Canada.”
That may be true Jon and Sid, but hockey no longer belongs to Canada, if it ever really did.
The reality is hockey is a global sport, and that is a good thing. Big picture it could be argued that, even in North America, hockey remains a niche sport, lagging behind football, baseball and basketball, but interest in it is growing despite the snag the NHL finds itself in with way too much emphasis on boring defensive play. So much so that a kid who grew up in the Arizona desert became the most coveted prospect on the planet and the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft. Auston Matthews, 18, will challenge Patrick Kane to be the face of hockey in the United States.
Heading into Fiday’s first round of the draft it was suggested a Canadian might not be chosen until sixth. That did not come true as Pierre-Luc Dubois was selected third by the Columbus Blue Jackets. All told 12 Americans, 12 Canadians, three Finns, two Russians and one Swede made up the first round.
There was a time when Canadians dominated the first round, Not now. It is just another example of Canada’s stranglehold on the sport slipping away, one that I, a proud Canuck, am quite comfortable with. Growing the game universally is a good thing.
It was a good thing for the sport in 1972 when the Soviet Union shocked the hockey world by beating the mighty Canadian NHL stars in the opening game of the fabled Summit Series and pushed Canada to the limit in a series the Canadians narrowly won.
It was a good thing for hockey when the United States won the first World Cup of Hockey in 1996 because it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt America’s top pros could compete and succeed against the best players in the world.
It was a good thing for hockey when the Soviet Union won five of six gold medals in Olympic Games competition between 1956 and 1976 because it put Canada on alert that it was no longer the world’s super power in the sport.
It was a good thing for hockey when the United States, led by captain Cammi Granato, upset Canada in the first gold medal game when women’s hockey was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.
Prior to the Summit Series the Soviet Union had been dominating on the world stage mainly because Canada was not sending its best players, who were in the NHL. That changed in ’72, but it was not the throttling of the Soviets the majority of Canadians imagined prior to the series. Canada got the scare of its life.
To this very day I still recall the utter shock and dismay I felt following Canada’s 7-3 loss to the Soviet Union in Game 1 of the series at the Montreal Forum. Nobody in Canada was prepared for how good the Soviet players were – Alexander Yakushev who played with the grace of a Jean Beliveau, Valeri Kharlamov who was their answer to Yvan Cournoyer and rugged defenseman Alexander Ragulin who could have been the fourth Plager brother.
The closeness of the series made Canada sit up and take notice at the development of hockey in other countries.
Canada’s best were still the best in the world, but other countries were narrowing the gap. And for the sport of hockey, that was huge.
For many Canadians it was a bitter pill to swallow, but eventually they realized that having other countries grow more competitive was positive for the overall health and development of the sport.
Canadians appreciate what the likes of Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne, Dominik Hasek, Mats Sundin, the Sedins, Nicklas Lidstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and countless others have brought to the NHL.
Take solace Canada, you are still a world power – unquestionably the team to beat at the World Cup. Canada’s men's and women’s teams have won gold in the past two Olympic Games. Crosby was named most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and goaltender Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie, an award that likely would have gone to fellow Canadian Carey Price had he not missed most of the season with an injury. Oh, and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings won the Norris Trophy as best defenseman.
But hockey is not Canada’s game. It belongs to everybody.