The 2015 World Junior Hockey Championship begins today with ten teams, the seven traditional countries (Canada, United States, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia), one improved country, Switzerland, and two B-level teams, Germany and Denmark.
Currently the tournament has the right number of teams but it could be a lot more than what it is now. Who is absent is just as significant as who is here.
As mentioned in several other articles about international hockey, there has been virtually no development in the 42 years since the famous Canada-USSR series in 1972. That there is only one country in the “improved level” category, Switzerland says it all.
Back in 1972 after the famous series, there was talk that hockey would be the number two sport in the world behind soccer but that talk has long since died away.
Hockey has failed to expand from its narrow seven country base and establish itself elsewhere.
How bad is it? This is only the third time Denmark has made it to the World Junior Championship and they have yet to win a game. Their expectations? They will consider it a successful tournament if they make the quarter-finals. That’s quite a drop in expectations from what the “big eight” have.
It’s even more horrendous in women’s hockey where no other team has reached the level of Canada and the United States and the Olympics are threatening to drop it from their roster due to the lack of competition.
Before competing in the World Junior Tournament, the Danish team arranged to come to Canada early so that they can compete at the World Junior A Challenge Tournament so that they can get used to high quality competition.
Clearly the problem is not with the enthusiasm for hockey and lack of competitive fire. These boys obviously want to improve and do well. It’s good training, coaching, and resources that are lacking.
That is probably true with the other B-level team, Germany and the other B-level countries who are not here, Austria, Italy, France, Norway, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Poland, Belarus, and the Ukraine.
If they want to improve, they are going need help from the established eight countries, in training, coaching, and resources.
If these countries could be improved, the tournament could be expanded to 12 or even 16 teams and be played in two cities not one. More good competition would make for a more interesting tournament.
And it is not only at the junior level that it would be better, the NHL and KHL need to develop hockey in these countries.
The NHL plans to expand in the near future probably by four teams to 34. They will then probably realign to an NFL structure of two conferences with four divisions. Since 34 teams means unbalanced divisions, the NHL will probably keep expanding periodically until they reach the next symmetrical number of 40.
To fill the rosters of these franchises and to silence criticism that the quality of play is being “watered down”, they need to either expand the junior levels in the “big eight” countries or develop hockey elsewhere. With the abundance of players in the 11 B-level countries, there would be more than enough talent developed to meet several NHL expansions.
It needs visionary leadership to develop hockey in countries where there are eager players but not very high standards of play. The previous 42 years have been dismal in developing hockey internationally. It is up to the powers-that-be in the “big eight” countries to see that international hockey development in the coming decades is more fruitful.
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