Get Ready For Another Senseless Slaughter
If this was women's international hockey, there would be no shortage of opinions this morning that it was a joke, that the scores and the nature of competition was making a mockery of the sport, that only a few of the teams involved really have a change to win it all and so the entire competition should be scrapped.
Watching Canada romp to victories of 8-1 and 15-0 in its first two games at the world junior championships over the weekend has been, to be charitable, anything but interesting. You can expect more of the same tonight against the Germans, with a New Year's Eve tilt against the Americans likely to be Canada's first confrontation with a meaningful opponent.
Throw in the three pre-tourney games Canada captured by a combined score of 18-5 over Sweden, Finland and Slovakia, and you have a gap between the world's top junior teams and the lesser countries that appears to be growing.
Not unlike the women's game.
Really, we're back to where we were about 15-20 years ago with the world juniors. Back then, it was countries like Switzerland and Germany taking one-sided beatings at the hands of Canada, Russia and Sweden. Both those countries got better, and the Swiss even captured a bronze medal a decade ago in Helsinki.
But now the Swiss aren't even in the A Pool any more, and the Germans don't seem to be making signficant progress. Ditto for Slovakia, which appeared a few years ago to be a country on the verge of joining the top echelon of teams, and now the Czech program seems to have dipped since last winning gold in 2001. The notion that former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine would quickly develop into modern hockey powers based seems to have been ill-founded.
Instead of his regular Thursday hockey mail bag, Damien Cox is taking your questions and comments about junior hockey and will answer a selection all week in his blog. Whether it relates to the Maple Leafs, Team Canada, or any European hotshots, send a note to Damien and check back every day for the answers. Click here to send Damien a question.
Canada or Russia (in its various forms) have won 16 of the past 20 world junior tournaments, which some might argue makes essentially this a two-team competition. That said, both Sweden and the U.S. appear to have gold medal-worthy squads in Ottawa this year, and the Swedes were in the final last year, so a four-team competition is probably more accurate. By the time this competition gets to the playoff round, it should still be well worth watching.
Sadly, the advent of under-17 and under-18 world championships, rather than helping other nations become more competitive with the major world powers, has instead had the unintended effect of making the better nations even better.
It's time for Canada, and the IIHF, to start figuring out some answers to this problem. In fact, with the tournament not set to return to Europe at all until 2013, there's a danger that this competition will lose its lustre as an international event - in some countries it never had it - and instead come to be seen as a tournament that can only be sold in Canada or U.S. cities bordering on Canada and is filled with lopsided scores and uneven competition.
This much seems clear. Expanding to 12 teams from the current format of 10 teams is not the answer. Can't imagine the folks who bought tickets for yesterday's 15-0 demolition of Kazakhstan feel like they got their money's worth.
Since the Open Ice Summit of 1999, Canada has re-focused its hockey efforts on skill and skill development, and the results have been impressive. A decade ago, Canadian junior organizers would never have dreamed of icing a team like this year's that has little size and few bangers but is dominated by smaller, faster and highly skilled players. Where once Canada was all about the dump-and-chase, it's clear Canadian teams have as much skill as any other country now that the game has been able to breathe a bit in this country.
The dinosaurs aren't gone, of course. But they're a little less dominant, although now you can hear them beating their chests, saying that critics who ever said there was anything lacking in Canada's approach to the sport have been proven wrong.
Nonsense. The Open Ice Summit marked a change in Canada's attitude to the game, and now we're developing more high-end skilled players than ever before. NHL teams looking for players to run their power play no longer have to hunt down a group of Europeans - Canadians can do the job nicely. Junior teams around the country are less reliant on imports for skilled players than was once the case.
Changes in the sport and its rules have also opened the doors for a different approach to the game, and Canada, by being willing to admit 10 years ago that it needed to rethink its approach, has benefitted enormously, particularly at the junior level.
Problem is, what the world junior championships did not need, really, was for Canada to get better. It needed a bunch of other countries to catch up, and that's just not happening.