Friday, May 21, 2010

Let’s end the World Championship farce and have a real world tournament

“To be or not to be– that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And, by opposing, end them.”

-William Shakespeare, “Hamlet” (1600)

Perhaps The Bard wasn’t writing those famous words to Sidney Crosby, but this May, Crosby could sure relate to them.

Caught in “the slings and arrows” of one Szymon Szemberg as a result of Crosby’s “outrageous fortune”, Crosby became a focal point on an wrote an article Wednesday (since taken down) on the International Ice Hockey Federation’s website entitled “Saying No To Your Country”. There, Szemberg- the IIHF director of communications- took aim at all the players who declined the invitation to the World Championships being held right now in Germany. The article chided the players not participating, insisting they had forgotten who had “raised” them (their national associations) from the depths of amateur hockey to the fame they now enjoy. To further his argument, Szemberg employed the “straw man” tactic, responding to (misrepresentations of) common player reasons for not participating, such as “I am tired” or “I promised to fold napkins at my cousin’s wedding”.

“How can a player who is 22 or 25 or 27, and who was just eliminated from the playoffs be tired? Tired is a miner who works in a damp pit in Miktivka, in the Donetsk Plateau in Ukraine, who never sees daylight and who provides living for a family of five in a modest two-room apartment. That is tired,” wrote Szemberg in one part of the piece, continuing, “tired is a divorced mother with two young kids who double shifts as a nurse assistant and cleaning lady to make ends meet.” He then takes aim at several National Hockey League players, including the stars of the Detroit Red Wings (Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Thomas Holmström, and Johan Franzén), Crosby (whom Szemberg wondered why he, at 22, couldn’t go but Ryan Smyth, 34, could), Washington Capital Nicklas Backstrom (citing Backstrom’s new $6.7 million a year contract extension) and New York Islander Mark Streit (who Szemberg is really pointed about, wondering how Streit could be “tired” after playing his last NHL game on April 11). Szemberg relates all this to the Russian NHL players who did decide to participate, such as Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, and wondered how they weren’t “tired enough” to come to Germany while their teammates were. Szemberg then ended his article with quotes from Mikhail Grabovski (the Toronto Maple Leafs and Belarus forward who did come to Germany) about how much he enjoys playing in the tournament because he “loves hockey” and New York Rangers scout Anders Hedberg, who echoed Szemberg’s statement in that the players “wouldn’t be where they are without the federations”.

To be fair, Szemberg didn’t just take aim at NHL players, putting players such as Beat Forster (Switzerland) and Johan Davidsson (Sweden) in his crosshairs, but it was the NHLers whom Szemberg spilt the most ink for. As soon as the article itself was written, figures such as U.S. and Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Canada’s national team director Scott Salmond all fired rebukes of Szemberg, with Burke’s hitting the hardest. Never afraid to really state what’s on his mind, Burke continued his tradition of fine one-liners in labelling Szemberg a “paid flunky”. The IIHF, for their part, officially distanced themselves from the article and apologized for the remarks to Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, though Szemberg himself has yet to actually comment on the matter.

In terms of a regular article, it’s a very fair opinion. I personally don’t agree entirely with the opinion but I can see his side of the argument, because it is a concern that these national federations do so much for the players only for so few of them to participate for those nations at the World Championships. Still, this article is completely counterproductive for the IIHF, as this was an unequivocal PR disaster. It would be one thing if Szemberg wrote the piece on a personal blog or uttered the remarks after a spell at a Berlin pub, because then it could at least be said he’s not working in his official capacity for the IIHF and thus should be entitled to his opinion. However, he wrote this article while serving as an employee of the IIHF, an organization whose best interests are served by attracting top players to its tournaments, and it won’t do that by alienating its star attractions (yeah, Crosby needs thicker skin, but I don’t think you’d want to be part of an organization that openly and damagingly attacks your character). It can do that by making the World Championships relevant.

You see, while most players won’t admit it exactly, the reason why they’re not at the tournament is because they see no point in showing up. They won’t freely admit it because to do so essentially brands them as unpatriotic, but I don’t think there’s anyone in the hockey world who thinks competing in the WCs would be a great idea. The only reason why I’d want to go, if I were a player, would be if I had “something to prove” (for example, players like Jaromir Jagr or Zigmund Palffy could use the WCs as proof they can still play at a high level, or a player like Alexander Steen- who inexplicably didn’t show up- use it to bolster a case for a new deal), or to use it as a springboard to the “official” national team at the Olympics, like perhaps Steven Stamkos and Matt Duchene are doing (and perhaps how Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook got on the Canadian team). Otherwise, what’s the point? Take a guy like Crosby or Zetterberg and think about their cases- their places on their Olympic teams are assured, their places on their teams are assured and they’d gain zero notoriety if they won a WC gold medal, as the Stanley Cup is what they’re after. They’d earned the right to take the tournament off, if you ask me.

How do we go about making the WC’s relevant then? I think the first step is to eliminate it entirely. We already have a “world championships” in hockey and that’s the Olympics, it’s redundant to have another one. Sure the “Triple Gold Club” would need amending (more on that later), but other than that, I don’t really think most of us would miss the WC’s if they were gone. Besides, everyone can name all four winners of the Olympic tournament since the NHLers started to take part- can anyone name the defending WC champion?

(No looking it up on Wikipedia or Google now)

(Time’s up...it’s Russia. It’d be their third title in a row if they won it this year)

To replace the WC’s, I think we need to have a “continental tournament” (which is where we amend the “Triple Gold Club” to members who have won their regional tournament, the Stanley Cup and the Olympic Gold Medal). It’s here where I take a page out of soccer, which stages its own hugely successful world tournament (the World Cup...you may have heard of it) alongside highly profitable regional tournaments. The most successful of those is the European championship (the “Euro” tournament that’s really called the “Union of European Football Association (UEFA) European Football Championship”), which is held in the even numbered years when there isn’t a World Cup. The other regions don’t follow this same format, but I think in hockey we can follow the “every other year” format.

Unfortunately, developing this kind of tournament presents some challenges. First of all, the IIHF is home to 68 member nations, 43 of which are in Europe. Conversely, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer’s governing body, has 208 members, 53 of which belong to UEFA. Second of all, the quality of play across the FIFA regional associations is roughly equal, meaning each region can have a competitive regional tournament. In hockey, the only region with any real depth is Europe, so while we could be guaranteed an entertaining European tournament, there’d be hardly any justification- or even the numbers- to create other regional tournaments (for example, North America only has three teams- Canada, the U.S. and- believe it or not- Mexico). However, if we play with the positioning a little bit, there is a possibility to create two “regions” of relatively competitive play. I’d split them up as follows:

Europe Region

World Region

Austria

Argentina

Belarus

Australia

Czech Republic

Brazil

Denmark

Canada

Finland

Chile

France

China

Germany

Chinese Taipei

Great Britain

Estonia

Italy

Hong Kong

Norway

India

Poland

Japan

Slovakia

Kazakhstan

Slovenia

Kuwait

Sweden

Latvia

Switzerland

Lithuania

Andorra

Macau

Armenia

Malaysia

Azerbaijan

Mexico

Belgium

Mongolia

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Namibia

Bulgaria

New Zealand

Croatia

North Korea

Georgia

Russia

Greece

Singapore

Hungary

South Africa

Iceland

South Korea

Ireland

Thailand

Israel

Ukraine

Liechtenstein

United Arab Emirates

Luxembourg

United States

Macedonia

Moldova

Netherlands

Portugal

Romania

Serbia

Spain

Turkey

Total

38

Total

30

“Europe” should be fairly straightforward, but the “World” region needs some explanation. It is essentially every hockey playing nation that isn’t in Europe or wasn’t once a member of the former Soviet Union. This means that nations like Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine are placed in the “World” group instead of the European group (where one could reasonably expect them), and I did this to “balance the scales”. See, if I followed a simple split of Europe and the rest of the world, what I’d be left with is a region with four “superpowers” (Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic), several “mid-major” powers and the rest, while the other region would essentially see Canada and the U.S. duke it out for the title with, arguably, only two other countries that could realistically be competitive (Kazakhstan, Japan (who gave us Yutaka Fukufuji) and South Korea, (who has sent players like Jim Paek and Richard Park to the NHL in recent memory)). If we at least combine it along the lines of “North America + Former USSR” you at least get some depth, because then Canada and the U.S. receive a legitimate rival (Russia) and a handful of competitive nations (Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Japan and South Korea). It’s still not as deep as the European tournament would be, but at least we’d be guaranteed with a tournament that won’t be filled with blowouts, which is important for the development of the tournament.

The other part of this would be to have a “visible” qualifying tournament for both the Olympics and the regional championships, just like they do in soccer. In soccer, each national team is required to embark on odysseys of around a dozen games played in the two years prior to the World Cup. The European regional tournament has the same qualification requirement, meaning that the European teams essentially play at least five times during the season; and these are not silly little friendlies but important games. The increase in games increases the visibility of these teams, and it would be vital if we are to have meaningful development of the international game. The Olympics are fun, but it’s a bit of a letdown to know that, realistically, we’d have to wait four more years to see Crosby, bandmate Rick Nash, Mike Richards, Jarome Iginla and the rest of the gang in Team Canada colours or Ryan Miller, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Kesler and Team U.S.A. We should be able to see these teams far more often and, besides, the Olympic games are the highest quality hockey out there. Furthermore, the qualification games can serve as important “tune-up” games for the Olympics, allowing the national teams to tinker with the rosters before the games “really” matter (though teams would have to find chemistry in a hurry considering too many losses means they don’t qualify for the major tournament). We could even go a step further and stage actual “international friendlies” (just like soccer), giving teams more of a chance to build a line-up they’re comfortable before the games would actually matter (such as in the qualification tournament). At the end of the day, we need to have more meaningful international contests held, and held at more regular intervals, because that increases the visibility of the competition, the one aspect of the international game that is sorely lacking (outside of the Olympics).

The final thing international hockey needs is a real international club tournament. Above all else, the one thing the Olympics showed me was how close players in “lower leagues” such as the Elitserien or the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) are to regular NHL players, making me think that games between the European clubs and the NHL wouldn’t be as one-sided as people think. In fact, the 2009 Victoria Cup saw an upset of sorts when the Zurich Lions, who feature such luminaries as Ari Sulander and Patrick Baertischi, defeat the Chicago Blackhawks (yes, the same Blackhawks now up 3-0 on the San Jose Sharks in the Conference Finals). It is true that was just a meaningless exhibition game, but it at least shows that European teams aren’t the pushovers that we think they are. Furthermore, by staging a real club competition, it’d give a chance for the best players to be showcased around the world far more often and really cement hockey as the world’s second “global sport”. Finally- and this is open to debate- how many Swedes, Russians, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, etc. who could possess NHL skills at a young age choose to give up the sport because they don’t want to move all the way across the Atlantic to a different country? You may scoff at that notion, but it’s a *big* adjustment to make (one that I doubt many of us would make if given the chance to stay home), and if I was a player and faced with that predicament, I might just take up soccer because at least it gives me the opportunity to stay home more often. By giving the European nations an equal shot at the global championship, it means that prospects in those nations don’t have to “give up the game” because they can now compete at a high level at home. I recognize this means removing the NHL’s exclusivity on the Stanley Cup which is probably not going to happen, but I hope I can make this idea intriguing enough for NHL people to at least consider the idea.

I know a lot of my suggestions would require a restructuring of the NHL year and that makes them less palatable. However, if the NHL- and the IIHF- is serious about growing the international game, they should be series about reorganizing their competitions to make the international game more successful, because it would benefit both immensely if it would. Simply put, the international competitions have to be more meaningful and held more often, because that increases the visibility of that aspect of the game. I’m positive none of the players are refusing to play in the WC’s because they don’t like their country- they’re refusing to play because the WC’s are essentially meaningless. Having a complimentary “regional tournament” gives the players another meaningful international competition on top of the Olympics. Getting that set up should be the first step.

At the very least the IIHF has to get rid of its tired WC tournament and its whiny communications director. Because snippy articles like this won’t grow the game but limit it, since this article won’t inspire players to play for an organization that has openly declared their contempt for them. How is that for being counterproductive.

-DG


Comments:
Absolutely love it, what a great idea. If only this could somehow happen.. unfortunately, I don't think it ever will.
 

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-DG

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