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The time has come to overhaul the World Hockey Championship

May 23, 2012

Russia, Slovakia a pre-tournament qualifier and the United States will make up one group at the 2014 Winter Olympics is Sochi.

The US has drawn a tough group that could be made tougher based on the teams that qualify for the final spots in each of the three pools. The other pools consist of Canada, Finland, Norway and a qualifier; and Sweden, Czech Republic, Switzerland and another qualifier.

An average showing at the World Championships put the US and Canada at the mercy of the selection committee after another showing without a medal for the two powerhouses. Russia captured another World Championship title with the Slovaks and Finland each enjoying a deep run. Many reports point to the Norwegians as the biggest winners from this year’s World Championship.

Now teams like Belarus, Latvia, Germany, France, Denmark, Kazakhstan and Italy will battle for one of the final three spots in the Olympic tournament. These participants will be affected by their play in international tournaments (both at the elite and Division I level) before those final spots are determined.

What is unfortunate is that so much weight regarding Olympic seeding is based on a tournament that few care about. While the World Championship is a big deal for European players and fans, tournament barely registers on an annual basis in North America. Perhaps if the tournament wasn’t played right after the regular season, or during the playoffs, or exclusively in Europe it would carry more weight with fans over here.

Ken Holland was quoted, on NHL Home Ice, saying that upwards of 80% of the players approached by Hockey Canada refused to play this tournament. I can only imagine that USA Hockey has the same hurdles to clear when forming their team. After all, there were players from the Finnish Elite League wearing the stars and stripes this year. This fact alone illustrates the little respect that this tournament receives in North America.

Now, the US beat Canada during the preliminary round, and that was awesome. Missing out on a medal wasn’t even a big deal since we were able to beat our neighbors to the north. However, there needs to be a few changes made to at least make the World Championship a respected event down the line.

First, the dates the tournament covers are awful. Playing during the playoffs means that every hockey fan who cares about the Stanley Cup – basically everyone outside of Europe – will be directing their attention to the playoffs, not the World Championship.

Why not push the dates further into June? This would allow for the NHL playoffs to complete before the tournament was to begin. Also, this would ensure that NHL players would have more time to rest after the season comes to a close. Outside of the Russians, there aren’t many players willing to fly to a corner of the globe to play in a meaningless tournament. Ideally, late June or early July would provide NHLers ample opportunity to wind down and rest after the season, while still being far enough away from training camp to reduce the risk associated with any potential injury.

This is an imperfect solution to the current problem. Especially when you consider that late June would allow players to grow some rust prior to heading to the tournament. Allowing players to settle into summer may also make it even harder for players to be drawn to the tourney. Also, there wouldn’t be a single facility in North America capable of hosting this event with ice down by June or July. So, giving North American fans the chance to attend would likely remain out of the question.

Still, by pushing the tournament back, there would be far less competition for viewers that the current format has. Also, those players who experienced long runs at the end of the year, or early playoff exits would have the ability to heal and recuperate before getting an invite to play more hockey. I have to think the acceptance rate would rise a bit if players were given some time to unwind versus an almost immediate turnaround to Europe.

Lastly, it would be a whole lot easier to attract players if this tourney was played in North America. Pick a city and schedule a building for the last week of June and first week of July so they can prepare the ice and region for the influx of teams.

I have to think a team like the Sabres and a city like Buffalo would welcome a 16-team continent complete with fans and team service reps with open arms. Not to mention getting international sponsors of the event to the city for a couple weeks. There would certainly be interest from more players since they would have a three or four-hour flight within the continent versus a 16-hour flight to Europe.

Obviously there would need to be some cherry picking done here. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Buffalo and Minneapolis would obviously be solid host cities with the greatest potential to attract fans. That’s not to say that other cities wouldn’t be in on the bid process, but from a ticketing standpoint, those cities are likely quite attractive.

Again, this is all conjecture and a North American based World Championship tournament could end up being a tremendous flop. But providing the opportunity for additional exposure would certainly create more interest in the tournament.

 

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