Organizers had to make up two teams just to make the field competitive for the tournament, which should be a red flag for anyone who cares about the state of the game globally.
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association had it right when they filled out the World Cup of Hockey roster of teams with Team North America and Team Europe. There’s no doubt the presence of the best 23-and-under North Americans and the elite players from countries outside of Europe’s Big Four will make the tournament far more compelling and competitive.
But what does it say about the state of the game globally when a world hockey event can’t come up with more than a half-dozen competitive teams? Should we be concerned that at a time when we’re led to believe that the hockey world is getting bigger that it actually seems to be getting smaller in many ways?
Had the tournament organizers opted to fill out the seventh and eighth spots with legitimate countries, they likely would have gone to the next best teams in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s rankings – Switzerland and Slovakia. If Switzerland had put together a team, it would have been able to call on five defensemen, six forwards and two goalies who saw action in the NHL last season. Slovakia would have had three defensemen, seven forwards and two goalies that played in the best league in the world in 2015-16.
There have been times when both of those countries looked as though they were ready to start competing with the big boys. In the decade after it split with the Czech Republic, Slovakia looked poised to become a legitimate world hockey power. It won the World Championship in 2002 and followed that up with a bronze medal the next year, but have only one medal to show since then. In fact, until recent years, Slovakia has been considered part of the Big Five in Europe, but has lost its way in international play. Switzerland won a bronze medal at that 1998 World Juniors and three years later finished second in the World Under-18 Championship. But aside from shocking the world with a second-place finish at the 2013 World Championship, the Swiss have not won a medal of significance in any world event since.
And there have been other moments when lesser European countries have displayed an ability to compete. Kazakhstan beat Canada 6-3 in the 1998 WJC, Belarus upset Sweden in the quarterfinal of the 2002 Olympics and Latvia, behind the superhuman goaltending of Kristers Gudlevskis, gave Canada all it could handle in the quarterfinal in Sochi.
But for the most part, those countries in Europe have not kept pace with the top six hockey nations in the world and the gap between them has widened instead of narrowed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Canada and USA continue to pour resources into strengthening their positions as world powers, while those with less of a presence in the sport fall further and further behind.
Take Ukraine for example, a country that has had a lot more serious matters to tend to in recent years than its performance in international hockey tournaments. Ukraine has a rich hockey tradition and has produced the likes of Dmitri Khristich, Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky. But did you know there has not been a Ukraine-born player in the NHL since Ponikarovsky and Fedotenko were last seen in 2013? And even worse, the country’s ranking has plummeted to 22nd, behind the likes of France, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Japan and just ahead of Great Britain and Lithuania. Meanwhile, countries such as Belarus, Latvia, Denmark, and Austria - none of which qualified for the 2018 Olympics - continue to muck around the periphery, seemingly constantly spinning their wheels and making up almost no ground on their competitors.
The problem is that of all the major sports, hockey is the least competitive from a global standpoint. The same five or six teams keep winning all the tournaments and seem to be interspersed among the top teams depending on the tournament. Finland is coming on strong. USA is beginning to produce elite prospects from all manner of far flung places.
But the rest of the world is not keeping up. And for that reason, the World Cup is forced to compromise its legitimacy by making up teams just to keep the field from being watered down. While claiming that the lesser lights of Europe are not capable of competing in at the highest level, the tournament instead fills a team with lesser lights and hopes that suffices. Meanwhile, it has probably only two players who would be good enough to play for Team Canada – Roman Josi might get the nod over Jake Muzzin and Anze Kopitar would usurp Logan Couture. But that’s about it.
So what do you do about it? That’s a far more difficult problem to solve, but it’s one the sport has to start thinking about. This much is certain though. One way of making it even worse is by excluding them from tournaments such as the World Cup, particularly if the NHL pulls out of the Olympics.