A Change Would Do the WJC Good
By Scott Lowe – MYHockey Rankings
Latvia’s preliminary-round upset of Czechia for its first victory in 28 World Junior Championship games proved to be a major turning point at the recently completed 2022 WJC.
That stunning victory turned the tournament upside down, setting off a series of events that led to a crazy and memorable playoff round. The Latvians leaped to third place in Group A with their shocking victory, dropping the Czechs to the fourth seed to set up a quarterfinal date for them with a previously dominant American side.
While the Latvians, who ultimately would fall to Sweden, 3-2, in the quarters, likely would have been no match for a star-studded United States team, the underachieving Czechs figured on paper to be more difficult test fort the Americans. Sure enough, after waltzing into the playoffs by allowing just four goals in the opening round, the United States sleepwalked through its matchup with Czechia.
Despite scoring a fluky early goal to take a 1-0 lead, the lethargic Americans fell behind 3-1 and couldn’t muster the energy to climb out of that hole in the third periods as Czechia skated off with a miraculous 4-2 victory.
One miracle performance by the Latvians set up another by the Czechs, which created a semifinal grudge match between Sweden and Finland that otherwise never would have happened. The Finns earned a trip to the gold-medal game to face the host Canadians with a 1-0 win over their arch-rivals in the semis.
And that gold-medal game, which featured the nations that have captured seven of the last 10 WJC gold medals? What a doozy it turned out to be!
In a contest that must rank among the WJC’s all-time best championship matchups, Finland rallied from a 2-0 third-period deficit to force overtime. The Finns appeared to have captured gold as a floating rebound shot sailed end-over-end seemingly in slow motion toward the unguarded Canadian cage during the extra session. But for some reason Mason McTavish, Canada’s offensive superstar, was positioned behind netminder Dylan Garand and was able to swat the puck out of mid-air and somehow smack it off the goal line away to safer ground.
Moments later, Canada’s Kent Johnson buried a rebound of his own after a chaotic rush up ice to lift the hosts to their fourth gold in 10 years and set off a wild celebration at an almost-full (finally) Rogers Place in Edmonton.
Somehow the most important contribution made by the WJC’s leading scorer was a miraculous defensive play made while standing behind the goalie in his own crease. What a crazy way for a wild few days of heart-stopping hockey to conclude.
“I don’t even know why I was behind our goalie,” an almost-stunned McTavish said after the game.
For people like me who have watched and covered thousands of sporting events during our lifetimes, after watching McTavish dominate the 2022 WJC while exhibiting a level of maturity well beyond his years on and off the ice, the explanation for his positioning in that situation was an easy to find. The best players have an innate sense that puts them in position to do amazing things at the most important times.
Remember this play by Derek Jeter? These are game-changing, championship-winning plays that no coach can diagram, draw up or teach.
Prior to the wild final few days of this year’s WJC, the lone highlight of the tournament had been McTavish’s superstar performance. He concluded the event with eight goals, nine assists and a plus-13 rating in seven games, all the while carrying himself with levels of humility and maturity that seems to have him destined for a long, successful NHL career.
Unfortunately, not nearly as many people witnessed McTavish’s dominant performance, the Latvian and Czech upsets and the epic gold-medal game as we might normally expect. Still, those final few days and that pulsating title game will be what people who followed the tournament closely will remember.
While the faithful hockey fans who look forward to the WJC and watch it religiously every year will walk away from the 2022 tourney with a sweet taste in their mouths, even in hockey-crazed Canada fans stayed away from this year’s WJC in droves.
It was not until the gold-medal game that Rogers Place was even remotely close to being filled. Some preliminary-round games were played in front of hundreds of fans, with the top crowds for Canada’s contests only inching past the 5,000 mark in an 18,500-seat building.
Three of the four quarterfinal matchups drew fewer than 1,000 spectators, with the Canadian game drawing just under 5,000. Canada’s semifinal win over Czechia was played in front of about 5,300 fans, and the arena’s upper bowl was closed.
Past WJC’s held in Canada have been known for their large crowds and raucous atmosphere, especially when the hosts played. Average turnouts for those tournaments generally hovered between 7,000 and 15,000, with the Canadians usually playing in front of sold-out audiences and thousands even turning out to root against the hated Americans.
That atmosphere simply wasn’t present at the 2022 WJC until the championship game but even that thriller was contested in front of more than 5,000 empty seats, and the average attendance for the entire tournament was around 1,500. The average crowd size for Canada’s games was only about 4,400.
There are many potential reasons for the disinterest among even diehard hockey fans.
The tournament was rescheduled from December and January, its normal slot on the annual calendar, because of the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant. While we’ve been treated to a plethora of high-level summer hockey during the “COVID Era,” those events were held earlier in the summer instead of during a time when many people are taking vacations before school starts and most sports fans are laser-focused on the upcoming National Football League season.
In addition, much of that summer hockey was played in empty buildings because of COVID restrictions, so it’s hard to know how well-attended those games might have been under normal circumstances. The public buzz surrounding many of those events also could be attributed to so many people being shut in and thirsting for anything exciting to do or watch during periods in which there simply wasn’t much going on in our lives.
As far as in-person attendance is concerned, Western Canada has hosted a ton of high-level hockey the past few years, so maybe the luster simply has worn off for folks who follow the sport passionately 10 months out of every year. High ticket prices certainly didn’t help either.
The black cloud hanging over Hockey Canada in the wake of news that the organization reportedly paid out millions of dollars to settle sexual assault accusations in recent years may have been the biggest factor in the low fan turnout as Canadians balked at spending money to support an organization that had violated their trust.
Hockey Canada recently released an apology letter making a commitment to changing the sport’s sexualized culture. With the 2023 WJC scheduled to be held this winter in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Hockey Canada has a lot of work to do in a very short period to restore faith in the organization.
For the long term, however, the most concerning part of the disinterest as far as the International Ice Hockey Federation is concerned, should be the tournament’s competitive balance and lack of marquee matchups. In the past it seemed like we always were assured matchups between bitter rivals like the U.S. and Canada, Sweden and Finland and Russia vs. any of those four teams.
Because of the format and how this year’s tournament played out, the only way the Canadians and Americans were going to meet was in the gold-medal game, and it took a pair of monumental upsets to produce a Sweden-Finland matchup. Slovakia and Czechia did meet in the opening round but neither of those nations is as strong as in the past, so that matchup didn’t resonate even with the most passionate fans.
Even the most-ardent Canadian and American hockey enthusiasts quickly lose interest watching their favorites play in games decided by four, five, six or even more goals, and many of them simply checked the schedule to find out when their teams would be playing Finland and Sweden, respectively. Those were the only challenging opening-round matchups for the two North American juggernauts, and frankly the U.S. controlled the entire game vs. Sweden before allowing a late goal in a 3-2 victory while Canada rolled to a 6-3 preliminary-round win over the Finns.
Even Finland and Sweden recorded victories by scores such as 9-3, 6-0 and 6-1 during the tournament’s early stages. The current format and lack of competitive balance means that the casual fans likely aren’t tuning in or showing up until the medal round, and the diehards are watching only in bits in pieces.
If someone turns on a game and sees a close, hard-fought and fast-paced contest they are going to keep watching and probably make time to watch other games. The more highlights of exciting, close games and thrilling plays that people see on the nightly news and sports-related daily recap shows, the greater the buzz surrounding the tournament will be, and that buzz likely will lead to a larger television audience and better in-person walkup attendance.
Although the 2022 WJC picked up steam and concluded with some big upsets and thrilling medal-round contests, the lack of excitement in the preliminary round likely kept attendance and viewership down.
This is a problem that women’s hockey has faced for years at the international level, and the IIHF has done a great job creating a format for the women’s game that ensures the top teams will meet annually at women’s world championship events. While in past years the number of strong men’s international teams made it unnecessary to adopt the women’s format, recent WJC results indicate that changing to a similar format might rejuvenate the event.
If nothing else, it would assure more exciting matchups featuring the world’s best teams and top young players.
Because of the challenging circumstances presented by COVID the past few years, there will be no relegation following this year’s WJC. That means the same teams will compete in the 2023 tournament. Based on results over the past five years, the IIHF announced the 2023 WJC pools Aug. 17.
They are as follows:
Group A – Canada, Sweden, Czechia, Germany, Austria
Group B – United States, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, Latvia
That means for next year’s tournament there will be no guaranteed U.S.-Canada, Sweden-Finland or Czechia-Slovakia matchups. Those potential contests would be determined by the preliminary- and quarterfinal-round results.
Using a format similar to what is used for the Women’s World Championship, the pools might look like this:
Group A – Canada, United States, Finland, Sweden, Czechia
Group B – Germany, Switzerland, Latvia, Slovakia, Austria
Under this format, all five Pool A teams and the top-three Pool B teams would advance to the quarterfinals, with the bottom-two Group B teams playing a best-of-three series to determine which nation gets relegated.
This would guarantee opening-round matchups in which each of the perennial top-five teams in the world play each other. That alone means better, more exciting games and a more accurate seeding of the top nations in the playoff round. Better games equate to better attendance and TV ratings.
Meanwhile, the teams in Group B would get to play more competitive games and wouldn’t have to deal with getting beaten 10-1 or 11-2. On top of that, every game would take on added importance as the teams jockeyed to avoid having to face Canada or the U.S. in the quarterfinals and having to play in the relegation series.
An up-and coming hockey nation such as Germany still would get its crack at beating a Group A team in the quarterfinals; the lower-level teams would get to play more competitive, higher-stakes games; the fans would get to see all of the world’s top talent play against each other; and we would get a true read on how the top-five teams should be seeded for the quarterfinals.
Everyone would win, eh?
Most hockey fans would agree that the WJC could use a shakeup to make the event more competitive and exciting. While this may not be the best format, at least the IIHF has used it before successfully on the women’s side, so it wouldn’t be hard to implement and has a proven track record.
No one complains with the U.S. and Canada meet twice in a Women’s World Championship, and at least we are guaranteed to get a ratings-grabbing matchup of the top traditional powers every year to better showcase the sport. In theory, this format might even be more interesting for the WJC since all five of the top teams on the men’s side usually are extremely competitive and feature most of the world’s top players.
Add Russia to the WJC mix in future years and you have the makings for a very strong event featuring numerous intriguing, high-level matchups and that would become ultra-competitive even among the teams in Group B.
Based on what we just witnessed in Edmonton, a change of some sort certainly won’t have a negative impact on the WJC. So, if not now, when?