2021 IIHF World Championship Worth Watching

IIHF World Championship

Canada started the Men’s 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship with two losses. This hasn’t happened – ever – in either the IIHF World Championship or Olympic competition. Dropping the opener to Latvia 2-0 was jarring; following that with a 5-1 loss to the US was unheard of. Then Germany beat them 3-1.

What in the World (Championship)?

Colloquially known as “The World’s” the IIHF men’s tournament is fascinating. The first tournament was tied into the Olympic Games, despite those Games being held in the Summer. They played hockey in April, rest of the Games in August and September. They were sensibly moved to the Winter Olympics when those started up in 1924. After two rounds, the World’s became its own yearly tournament, though remained part of the Olympic Games every four years.

The 1968 Games were the last combination tournament. Outside of shutting down the IIHF tournament completely in 1980, 1984, and 1988, the two now hold separate events, even in Olympic years. There have been other changes over the years. One of the now-strange features was the lack of a playoff round. It was sets of round-robin play, with goal differential playing a huge role. Well, right up until 1991 when Canada “miraculously” got two empty-net goals against the US. Not all that miraculous, considering the US pulled their goalie late in the game. Miraculous in that the coach chose to when down three goals already. Canada needed to win by five to have a shot at gold, too.

That was the sort of questionable math that encouraged the tournament to switch to elimination playoffs. And that’s more or less where we stand now. But old politics aside, what makes it interesting NOW?

Not Quite Who You’d Think

If you look at who has dominated the IIHF World Championship this century, it’s the usual roster. Russia has four gold, three silver, and five bronze. Canada has five, five, and zero. Sweden has four, three, and five. Czechia has three gold, a silver, and two bronze. So what? So look at who’s showing up that isn’t in the usual suspects. That’s where things get a lot more intriguing.

The US, who went over 30 years between medals, is making regular appearances. Finland didn’t get their first medal until the 1990s and has refused to back down since. Switzerland, without a medal since 1953, has two finals appearances this decade. Slovakia has one of each medal and is looking for more. Then you see what’s been happening this year, and it gets wild.

When we say that the US beating Canada by 5-1 is unheard of, we mean it. The United States has never beaten Canada by four or more goals in any game at the Olympics or World Championship. Ever. Likewise with Latvia beating Canada. But it’s not just Canada: Denmark beat Sweden for their first win over Tre Kronor. Slovakia brought down Russia, 3-1. Switzerland beating Czechia 5-2 is still an upset, but a minor one compared to Kazahkstan beating Finland in a shootout!

The Best of the Best…ish

The tournament happens in April or May every year, though it was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The IIHF did what they could, but virtual tournaments are a rather different beast. Still, in any other year, it makes for a fascinating draw because of who’s available. Any hockey tournament happening in April or May is going to have a slight complication. The NHL has the best players in the world. Saying so isn’t a slight to other nations or other players – but it is an explanation.

In decades past, Canada provided upwards of 90 percent of the talent in the NHL. That number has dropped down to around 40 percent now, and that’s a great thing. Other countries’ athletes are playing the game. The United States, for instance, has become a major power in hockey for one reason and one reason only: more people in America are paying attention to it. And yes, we can point to “The Trade” driving that interest. Spending a decade in the US between Los Angeles and New York made hockey extremely visible.

Denmark’s win over Sweden was powered by a hat trick from Nicklas Jensen, of all players. He couldn’t quite stick in the NHL, but at this tournament? Neither could most of the other players. For years one of Canada’s best players was Captain Canada himself, Ryan Smith. But that was only because his teams either missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs or were knocked out early enough for him to go overseas. The same thing happens now, with the biggest hockey nations having their best players in the NHL when the IIHF World Championship starts.

Gretzky Trades for Everyone!

Other nations aren’t going to have that big of an event happen, but a single tournament – or even a game – can capture the imagination. Denmark’s big breakthrough came in 2003 when they tied Canada and beat the US in the same tournament. They’ve earned their spot legitimately at the World’s even if they have yet to medal. Germany beat Russia for the first time in 2011, and you have to know some of the people watching at home were on the ice for an Olympic silver medal in 2018.

Going back to America, why did it take so long for the US to start making noise internationally? The interest Gretzky’s trade built was continuing one of the best stories in hockey! So after Lake Placid, where was the US? Mostly because a nation needs depth. The best players of larger hockey nations are in the Stanley Cup or have just played 82+ games and aren’t up for extending their season.

It also happens in waves. While the nature of hockey makes it less reliant on stars – the best skaters in the world are only on the ice for half the game, at best – just a handful of talented players can elevate a nation in this tournament. The generation they inspire may not reach this level until a decade has passed.

Here and Gone?

Slovenia and Norway have just a single player each in the NHL right now. It’s not much, but Anze Kopitar and Mats Zuccarello are both notable players. Do their NHL stories resonate in their home countries? Did their international play at the IIHF World Championship tournaments mean more? If Norway makes a return to the top-tier, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear players on the team point to Zuccarello’s international scoring in 2009 or 2010. Likewise Kopitar’s fantastic work in dragging his nation into the top division in 2007.

Heck, this year even Great Britain’s 2-1 loss to Slovakia can be looked on as a moral victory. With players produced almost entirely in their home league, even getting to the World’s is impressive. Add Liam Kirk being drafted in 2018 by the Arizona Coyotes and maybe, just maybe, there could be another nation’s youth getting inspired to play hockey by a single player. And maybe – just maybe – this will be the year.

And that, my friends, is why you should watch the 2021 IIHF World Championship. ESPECIALLY this year.

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