By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com
Well, that escalated quickly.
A few days ago, the talk around the hockey world was that the International Ice Hockey Federation should stop inviting so many teams to its World Junior Hockey Championships. People said that struggling nations such as Germany and Austria, which had been falling by lopsided scores such as 10-0, 11-0 and 16-2, didn’t belong in a world-championship tournament competing against powerhouses like Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden and Finland.
Even countries such as Slovakia and Czech Republic, which are normally very competitive and occasionally compete for a trip to the medal round, found themselves on the short end of scores like 6-0, 7-0 and 7-1.
The early results had hockey pundits around the globe asking the IIHF to consider eliminating two of the 10 competing nations from future tournaments and even led our good friend Dave Starman, WJC color commentator for NHL Network to post this Tweet Tuesday
, “WJC has produced one period worth watching today so far. That’s not good for TV interest in the U.S.”
In a normal year, such lopsided results certainly would have had a more negative impact on interest in the tournament and television viewership. But here we are closing out 2020, the year of the COVID, and hockey fans still are excited to be watching any hockey at all. If that means they have to watch the world’s best 20-year-old hockey players – and the next wave of NHL stars – play in some blowout games, so be it.
It’s better than the alternative, and in the Year of the COVID, everyone gets a pass.
That said, the calls to eliminate teams from the WJC largely were based on recency bias and the seemingly endless need among sports journalists these days to stir the pot and generate clicks and re-Tweets while driving as many eyeballs as possible to their employers’ websites.
This year’s WJC is no different from any other high-level international tournament that has taken place throughout the history of the sport. There are always the haves and the have nots, and some of the games are simply not going to be competitive.
But this isn’t about whether Austria can compete with the big boys of the hockey world today, tomorrow, next month or even next year. It’s about the big picture and the continued growth the sport around the globe.
Remember when the United States first sent a Dream Team of top professional basketball players to the Olympics? The winning margins for that group’s games were 68, 33, 43, 44, 41, and 38 in the preliminary round. Then, they won by 51 and 32 in the semifinals and gold-medal game. The team’s average margin of victory for the entire tournament was 43.8 points.
But that initial team – and all the ones full of pros that followed over the years – introduced basketball players from all over the world to an entirely new level of play that they had never seen in person or competed against. Beyond experiencing the thrill of playing against some of the best players ever to take the court, international basketball players were given the opportunity to compete for the right to play against those players and get exposure in front of basketball scouts and coaches who possibly could change their lives.
Now what happens when the U.S. sends teams to international basketball tournaments? Those teams don’t always win, and players from all over the globe have the opportunity to come to North America to play in the NBA and become the type of players that their countrymen were routed by only 29 years ago.
Imagine the thrill for the Austrian WJC team to have earned the right to come play against the best under-20 players in the world. They had to prove they were the top team at their level to get that opportunity.
If two or three of the Austrian players are seen by North American scouts and are offered an opportunity to get a free college education to come here and play hockey – and possibly advance beyond that – or a few players who weren’t even on NHL Central Scouting’s radar end up getting drafted, those are life-altering opportunities. And all the kids who are interested in hockey or already playing back in Austria will see that the sport can provide opportunities that just a few years ago may not have been imaginable.
Those opportunities and the realization among young players all over the world that they have a chance to do what the Austrians have done is what causes a sport to grow and allows the highly competitive level we see in today’s NHL to improve on a yearly basis.
But let’s not jump too far ahead of ourselves. Getting back to the competitive level of the WJC, the structure of the tournament allows countries like Austria this year as well as Kazakhstan, Denmark and Belarus in past years, to compete against the top hockey nations in the world without watering down the actual quality of the event.
The preliminary round provides teams that only have practiced together for a few weeks leading up to the event with four games to get acclimated to each other, their coaches, the level of play, the time difference and the ice surface. These contests allow the top teams to jockey for seeding position going into the quarterfinals while making sure the teams that truly belong in the final eight actually advance.
The weakest two teams get to test themselves against the best players in the world at their age level while being seen by North American college and professional scouts. Coaches and administrators from these countries can see how far their clubs still have to go and gain a better understanding of what needs to be done in their nations to grow hockey to the point that they can compete at the highest level on a regular basis.
It’s a big-picture approach that gives smaller, non-traditional hockey nations something to strive for every year while virtually ensuring that the top eight teams in the world will compete in a competitive and exciting winner-take-all elimination round after having some time to gel during the prelims.
This year has been no different in that regard. There are always going to be blowouts, but what matters most when it comes to crowning a champion and providing hockey fans worldwide with all the drama and excitement that should be part of a true world-championship tournament, is what happens starting Jan. 2.
Taking a closer look at this year’s “boring” WJC in the Edmonton bubble, some might even argue that what has taken place the last few days – and what is going to happen today on the final day of the preliminary round – is going to end up making this one of the more memorable tournaments in recent memory.
First of all, a Czech team that was routed by the United States and Sweden by a combined 14-1 tally, found a way to shut out a swift and skilled Russian team, 2-0, Sunday to create a logjam at the top of Group B. Russia did more to muddle that situation yesterday by ending Sweden’s 54-game preliminary-round winning streak with a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory. Oh, and Russia also opened the tournament with a workmanlike 5-3 win against the Americans.
If you don’t think that Russia ending the Swedes’ streak was a landmark moment in WJC history, consider this: The last time Sweden lost in the preliminary round was on New Year’s Eve 2007, when the USA’s Jack Johnson, who is nearing the end of a long NHL career, scored the overtime game-winner in a 3-2 victory. Some of the other players who competed in that tournament include future NHL stars Erik Johnson, Partick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Carey Price and Semyon Varlamov.
In addition to the historical significance, Russia’s victory against Sweden means that tonight’s 9:30 p.m. EST matchup between Sweden and the U.S., teams that each have suffered one loss, will decide the order of the top-three seeds in Group B.
The Russians have eight points and currently sit atop the Group B table, a point ahead of Sweden and two in front of the Americans. A regulation win by either team would allow the victor to leapfrog Russia for the top spot while relegating the loser to the third seed. However, things would get a little more convoluted if the game goes to overtime.
if that happens, a U.S. victory would create a three-way tie for the top seed, and I’ll leave it to the math majors to figure out the possible tiebreaking scenarios in that case A victory in extra time for the Swedes would propel them into first place, followed by Russia and the U.S in second and third. The top seed would get to play Slovakia, while the second seed would have to face a surprising German team. Finishing third would earn someone a quarterfinal date against one of the last two WJC gold medalists, depending on who wins today’s epic matchup between Canada and Finland at 6 p.m. EST.
The latter scenario, in which there could be a matchup featuring either Sweden or the U.S. against Canada or Finland, places an incredible amount of importance on both of today’s games. Earning the top seed in Group A would be a huge advantage, while finishing first or second in Group B would, too. Thus, a preliminary round that everyone was bored with a few days ago might produce one of the most exciting and memorable New Year’s Eve’s in the history of the tournament.
And speaking of Germany and exciting finishes, the Germans opened this year’s WJC with a pair of losses against Canada and Finland while being forced to ice a lineup that basically featured three lines of forwards and five defensemen thanks to positive COVID-19 tests that caused three players to miss the trip and landed eight others in quarantine.
But with two of the top forwards in the tournament – NHL draft picks Tim Stuzle and John Peterka – leading the way, the Germans rallied to pull off victories against the Slovaks and Switzerland to earn their first-ever trip to the quarterfinals.
To be convinced that reducing the number of teams that participate in the WJC isn’t the right thing to do, all you had to see was the German team’s reaction and the joy on the players' faces as the final horn sounded to seal their quarterfinal berth. Not only did the Germans advance, but they did so as the third seed from Group A –a truly a remarkable performance and story no matter how their next game plays out.
But if you’re still not convinced that this the 2021 WJC will go down as one of the most memorable tournaments to date, make sure to watch at 6 and 9:30 p.m. EST today on either TSN or the NHL Network.
I think by the time the clock says it’s 2021, you’ll have changed your mind.