There is a story, most likely an apocryphal one, about East Germany and hockey.
Back in the good ol’ Stasi-and-syringe days, the East Germans punched over their weight at just about every Winter Olympic sport. Hockey wasn’t one of them.
Someone asked one of their officials why that was. He held up a single finger. It was only possible to win one medal. So why bother? Let the small handful of countries who care about hockey care about hockey.
That was running through my mind as I watched a slo-mo replay of Canada’s second goal in Saturday’s three-hour-long curbing of Germany at the world junior hockey championship.
The Germans were not much good to start with. They got substantially worse when COVID-19 ran through the team like a hot rumour. As a result, they were missing a third of their roster and started their third-string goalie. As emergency substitutes in net go, I hope for his sake he knows how to drive a Zamboni.
On this early goal, the poor kid came out to collect the puck behind his own net. He got stripped – how often do you see that at an elite level? – and then appeared unable to skate back in front of his own net. No one was interfering with him at the time. He just couldn’t skate there.
The game was over then, but continued on nonetheless. The result was a volleyball score, 16-2. Canada had more goals than the Germans had shots.
This sort of hammering is a semi-regular and depressing feature of the world juniors’ round robin. On Saturday, the United States beat Austria 11-0. A couple of years ago, Canada beat Denmark 14-0. The sad Danes gave up 26 goals in four games, did not score one of their own and should have got Purple Hearts in place of participants’ medals.
By comparison, the most tilted score in NHL history is 15-0. And that happened 77 years and many, many thousands of games ago.
The problem here isn’t that some teams are good and others are nowhere close to good enough. This isn’t Little League. The problem is that they’ve put the word “world” in the name of the tournament.
They call a lot of things the “world” this and “world” that. Almost none of them have anything to do with the totality of the sphere on which we all live.
The world athletics championships? Yes, everybody everywhere runs and jumps, so that’s a world event.
The world snooker championship? That’s a few countries who really like a game that involves a playing surface so expensive and ungainly that it is rarely found outside a few pockets in the developed world. Hockey has more in common with snooker than it does with, say, soccer.
These sorts of “world” events exist to make a very few people feel good about themselves. Sure, everybody else is welcome to come, but they will fail miserably, thereby increasing the not-guilty-enough pleasure of the few who dominate.
These aren’t world gatherings. They are the dinner you throw for a friend’s birthday, but invite only the people you want to see.
The world junior hockey championship is a party Canada puts on for Canada. It’s held more often than not in Canada. It’s scheduled to convenience a Canadian audience. If Canada does not win it, we throw a hissy fit.
From a fiscal standpoint, a good WJHC is one in which Canada makes the final (guaranteeing bums in seats and eyeballs on TV) and then loses (allowing everyone to wax on about growing parity in the sport and goosing interest in the ‘revenge’ angle for next year’s tournament).
The perfect ideal of a WJHC is one in which Canada makes the final, has its best 10 players suspended, puts an assistant coach in net wearing taped-up phone books for goalie pads and then loses in triple-overtime to China. That’s market expansion and a decent excuse.
Which is all fine. Nobody’s forcing anyone to come here. Canadian broadcasters, advertisers and viewers pay most of the bills. The organization is top drawer and the accommodations are, by the standards of amateur hockey, lavish. I’ve been to weddings I didn’t enjoy, but I’ve never complained about an open bar.
The downside to this talent gulf and all the hoo-ha’ing we do about Our Game is the occasional humiliation of one of the guests. No one likes watching those, even the winners.
If the Germans had been peewees, they’d have mercy-ruled them. If they’d been professionals, both teams would have spent the last half of the game futzing around the neutral zone, and maybe had a half-hearted brawl at the end.
But since it’s the world juniors, no Canadian felt they could lay off. That’s how you get five more goals in a game that was 11-1 to start the third. That’s how you get Canadian players trying to decapitate Germans during a game that should have been a pillow fight after the first five minutes.
The pros have the luxury of standing down because they already have jobs. Every top prospect at the world juniors – and especially every Canadian – plays as though these six or seven games are the difference between making millions or working night shifts at a gas station. Because they may be.
That’s how you get the depressing spectacle – I hesitate to call it a contest – we were presented on Saturday.
There is no good way to fix that, and so no need to try. But it still strikes me as a bit rich when your average announcer hits the first syllable hard in “world junior hockey championship.”
This is the junior hockey championship frequently hosted by Canada. A few other countries show up hoping to ruin it for us, and a few more because it’s a free vacation. The rest of the “world” has no idea it’s happening.
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