This wasn’t what the NHL had hoped for. This wasn’t why they resurrected this tournament, and put it back in the heart of Toronto, for as many people to see as possible.
Empty seats in the lower bowl, in big, unmistakable stretches, even as the game – Game 1 of the finale of the World Cup of Hockey – hit the end of the first period. (This the end result after thousands of tickets were available from scalpers for well below face value, on the day of the game.)
Empty streets outside the Air Canada Centre, where a fan viewing party was held in an attempt to recreate the excitement in Maple Leaf Square that NHL and NBA playoff games had in the past.
The game was a dud, too, continuing a sharp downward trend for the event, which hit its high point a week ago, when the Under-24 kids beat Sweden in overtime. There was little of that enthusiasm on Tuesday, on the ice or in the stands. What we had instead was a sleepy Team Canada toppling Team Europe 3-1, playing out its role in an inevitable coronation as the best of the best-on-best.
Even at their worst, the Canadians were too much for a roster cobbled together from eight tiny hockey nations ranked seventh through 17th in the world.
“In the end, obviously, we’ve got lots of room to get better,” Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said.
He said it like it was a good thing. It’s not – not for this tournament or for international hockey in general.
If we have learned anything from the sum total of the Vancouver Olympics, the Sochi Games and this event, it’s that the world is not really catching Canada. This is a team that is 17-1 in best-on-best play in the last decade, outscoring its opponents 73-26 and winning – presuming they finish off Europe in Game 2 on Thursday – every gold medal or oddball Frank Gehry trophy available.
You could call Canada’s lineup at this World Cup an all-star team, except that they would likely be able to beat the NHL’s version of those, too – what with John Tavares on the third line and Claude Giroux as the unused 13th forward. This group has an almost impossible level of depth, especially when you consider that P.K. Subban, Kris Letang, Mark Giordano were left at home.
You can even make an honest argument this is the best hockey team ever assembled, setting off a barroom debate that isn’t easily settled. (The 1976 and 1987 Canada Cup teams stand as fair rebuttals.)
But the NHL is taking fire right now. Team Europe has been a World Cup buzzkill since beating the Americans in their opening game, sapping the World Cup of interest country by country, in the U.S., then Sweden and now Canada. But the biggest issue with international play isn’t the result of any shortcomings by the league, which can only work with what the world gives it.
Twenty years ago, any discussion about best-on-best play would have centred on the so-called Big Seven, which included the obvious candidates: Canada, Russia, the U.S., Sweden, Finland and the two halves of the recently split Czechoslovakia. Any team could win any event, as evidenced by the Czechs and Dominik Hasek surprising for gold in Nagano in 1998.
Since then, however, both countries have fallen hard, with their NHL representation down almost 60 per cent and continuing to drop as the previous generation retires. Team Europe has an old roster because the best the rest of the world has to offer is aging out. In the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the fall of communism in the early 1990s hurt hockey tremendously, and there’s no sign they’ll get back to where they were in the coming decades.
“It’s not easy back home,” Team Europe’s Marian Hossa told the Chicago Sun-Times in recent weeks, relating how times had changed in Slovakia since he was young. “People don’t make enough money to try to support kids to play hockey. It’s really hard.”
Even Russia has talent supply issues. Still blessed with dynamic offensive players like Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko, they have produced hardly any NHL-calibre defencemen in years. Their insistence on old-world coaching styles and KHL favouritism haven’t helped at international events, either. Something is seriously amiss with The Big Red Machine.
The only major hockey-playing countries that have taken tangible steps forward – in player enrolment and producing pros – are Sweden and the U.S., leaving the NHL with a shrinking pool of teams that can challenge Canada’s dominance, even in a short tournament. As a result, they seriously considered making the World Cup only a six-team showdown, before inventing Team Europe and the Under-24s as stand-ins to round out the field.
The issue the league faces is there aren’t any countries coming to replace those that have fallen off. The current plan is to have eight countries at the event in 2020, which could potentially be played in a hockey hotbed like Calgary or Edmonton. But who?
Switzerland has made some of the biggest strides the past decade, but last season, they had only seven regular skaters and two backup goalies in the NHL.
Denmark appears to be coming, too, although they still sit ranked 13th in the world and didn’t have a defenceman in the NHL last season. The idea they’ll soon challenge the best teams in the world is pure fairy tale.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to catch up to Canada,” said Frans Nielsen, one of seven Danish players in the league last season and his country’s all-time leader in NHL games played (606). “But I think we’ve done a great job of [getting better]. What we needed in the beginning was getting that first guy over here. Now, I think they’ve seen we can play, they’ve seen good players out of smaller countries, so they’re not afraid of taking guys in the draft. We’ve seen a big change over the years here. I’ve seen kids dream differently, than when I was a kid. Before, we didn’t have any NHL players, and guys would dream about playing in Sweden.”
“Canada is always going to develop a lot of big talents,” added Mikkel Boedker, another of Team Europe’s three Danes. “They have the most players in the world playing and the most hockey arenas so they’re obviously going to create a lot of the talent.”
But Canada’s dominance is no longer simply the result of scale. Obsession plays a role. Hockey is a maddeningly expensive sport, and, increasingly, elite hockey players are being produced as the result of tens of thousands of dollars being pumped into elite training programs, from power skating to skills development and summer hockey. It’s a trend that has led to the NHL filling up with the sons of white-collar families with money to spend. It’s a trend that means only the truly wealthy (the Americans and Swiss) or socialist nations where sporting costs are subsidized (Sweden, Finland and Denmark) will be able to keep up.
If they even can.
Canadians should certainly celebrate this success. It’s a long way from the national mood in 1998, when a team of NHLers was bounced early from the Olympics and a hockey summit was called. That – with urging from Wayne Gretzky – led to a push for better skill development, which, in turn, may have helped put Team Canada on its prolonged win streak.
But all that effortless winning hurts events like the World Cup of Hockey, more than any so-called gimmick teams could.
There needs to be a realistic chance of adversity, for the outcome to be in doubt, to create drama. Right now, there isn’t, and Canada simply seems to be pulling away from the field.Report Typo/Error