As Team Canada readies itself for the 2013 IIHF World Championship in Helsinki and Stockholm, TSN.ca Producer Shane McNeil offers up reasons why hockey fans should pay close attention to this year’s tournament.
Originally published on TSN.ca – May 3, 2013.
There was a time not so long ago that international hockey was dominated by a small, elite group of nations.
At the start of every major international tournament, it was a pretty decent bet that either Canada or Russia would be taking gold.
By 1992, the two nations had combined to win 14 of 17 Olympic gold medals (excluding two by the Americans and one by Great Britain in 1936). Canada or the USSR had combined to at least appear in every World Championship gold medal game since open competition began in 1976 and had won every Canada Cup.
Further to pro dominance, one of the two nations had won all but two World Junior Hockey Championship gold, save Sweden’s 1981 victory and the double disqualification debacle in Piestany.
Other nations were showing up and, on occasion, winning. But by and large they were going to challenge the two superpowers.
In the mid-1990s, however, things began to change.
With European players flooding the NHL at previously unprecedented levels, the competition began to shift between 1994 and 2000 and rest of the world caught up.
Sweden would ride the talents of Peter Forsberg to Olympic gold in 1994. The United States would out-muscle Canada to take the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and Dominik Hasek would steal Olympic gold for the Czech Republic in 1998.
Suddenly, over a span of five years, the order of global hockey power shifted and Canada and Russia found themselves struggling to keep up with the nations they had ritually beaten in the past.
The last decade at the World Hockey Championships has been a study in balance.
No team has won more than two consecutive gold medals since the Czech Republic three-peated in 2001. Five of the traditional “Big Six” hockey nations have won at least one gold medal, with the United States being the lone nation to have failed to do so.
To open the matter up further, Slovakia won its first ever international gold by winning the 2002 World Championship.
Over the last decade, the field has widened in terms of top-flight international hockey and the Worlds can claim a lot of the credit for that success.
In 1992, the tournament expanded from an eight-team competition to two groups of six. The wider competition field allowed nations such as Norway, France, Poland and Italy to join one of the World’s most prestigious tournaments.
While those nations are still struggling to compete, there has been some success from the nations that were not traditionally seen as international threats over the past 10 years.
Germany, Switzerland and Belarus have all boasted top-four finishes at major international tournaments since 2002, whether at the Worlds, the World Juniors or the Olympics.
If the field weren’t opened up to give these teams a chance to test themselves against and learn from the elite nations, there’s no way these teams could have hoped to compete regularly with the best.
The Worlds – which expanded from a 12- to a 16-team tournament in 1998 – have provided that second wave of nations a chance to try their hand at beating a team of professionals from the world’s top hockey nations on an annual basis.
This has benefitted not only the nations mentioned above, but has also helped these countries develop NHL-calibre talent for the first time.
Kazakhstan, Denmark and Ukraine have all begun to develop NHL talent over the past 10 years and beyond that, these nations are now challenging one another in terms of qualifying for the top tournaments.
Belarus – which has participated in three of the past four Olympic tournaments – was unable to qualify for Sochi. What’s more surprising is that Germany was also unable to qualify, ending a streak of 16-straight Olympic appearances for the Germans.
Instead, it is Slovenia and Austria that have earned their chance to play the big boys. Their qualification is all the more impressive when one considers that NHL stars Thomas Vanek and Anze Kopitar were unavailable to their respective nations during qualification.
The field is starting to level out and it may be sooner rather than later that some of these fresh, unproven nations begin to challenge for medals of their own. When that happens, it will almost certainly be at the World Championship, where these teams are starting to become more than just a stepping stone.