It’s time to bring back the World Cup of Hockey

World_Cup_HockeyOfficiating always comes under subjective scrutiny in any sport. As the sport continues to grow and get bigger and as games get more meaningful, we tend to focus more on the rule enforcers. In international competition, politics come into play and at the very worse can taint your sport for life.

The International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships just wrapped up their 2014 tournament in Minsk, Belarus. Taking place every May, the tournament has attempted to showcase the best of the best in international hockey. However, its timing has always been debated as strange with the NHL playoffs proceeding at the same time. Many people feel, at least on North American soil, that this tournament is really just a waste of ice.

Russia became 2014 World Champions after a controversial defeat over Finland. The Finns got robbed by very questionable officiating and after playing one of the best games in their nation’s history, was forced to be regulated to second. Calls were blown on the ice in favour of Russia and penalties that should have never even be questioned were called against Finland.

Finnish graffiti artist Hende Nieminen went to the walls of Helsinki after the championship game to show his distaste. (Photo: Hende Niemenin)
Finnish graffiti artist Hende Nieminen went to the walls of Helsinki after the championship game to show his distaste. Translated, it says “Silver is not shame, but the judges are.” (Photo: Hende Niemenin)

Talk immediately became not of the two talented teams on the ice but of the black and white striped individuals who dictate the play. Some say the refs played in Russia’s favour to make up for their horrible demise at the Sochi Olympics. You’ll never be able to find out if there was a motive behind their calls or if they’re just terrible international referees but it shines a black eye on the sport.

It’s time to bring back the World Cup of Hockey.

The World Cup of Hockey came to fruition in the mid 1970’s, originally called the Canada Cup. Doug Fisher and Alan Eagleson formed the tournament on the basis of showcasing the best hockey talent of the world through various nations and their competing squads. It would be held every three to five years and would take place in NHL venues before the start of the NHL regular season. As the Winter Olympics were still considered amateur competition and the IIHF World Championships always coincided with the NHL playoffs, this tournament would truly hold the best of the best.

1996USAIn the mid 90’s the Canada Cup changed its name to the World Cup of Hockey. The World Cup was played under NHL rules and NHL officiating. The United States won the inaugural championship beating Canada. Along with their North American counterparts, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Germany and Slovakia each iced their own squad. Another tournament was held in 2004 during the lockout and proved to be successful.

The problem is this tournament is not held often enough to put an end to the IIHF World Championships. There’s talk of another World Cup happening in 2016, a non-Olympic year, which would put a 12 year gap between tournaments. NHL rules and rinks provide the game with the best players on the ice. There’s no reason for international rules and referees to come in a game with a political contest in mind, this isn’t the 1960’s anymore.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be talking about this nor would I be writing this article. I don’t want to read articles about how the refs are putting the sabotage to one side. Leave that to Olympic ice skating. I’d rather listen to Don Cherry scream about the World Cup.

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The Latvian: Kristers Gudlevskis

LatviaWhat an incredible performance from 21 year old goaltending sensation Kristers Gudlevskis. This is what makes the Olympics what they are; anything can and more often then not will happen. The young netminder put up over 50 saves during the quarterfinal match-up against Team Canada and almost turned Latvia into a Cinderella story.

Gudlevskis hails from a town called Aizkraukle which holds a population of just over 8,000. In a country that only has 7 ice rinks to it’s name, finding one was almost impossible. However, he carried on his passion and ended up making a few dents in the Latvian national league and also suited up for  2 games with Dinamo Riga of the KHL.

The North American shores came calling as he became the highest ranking Latvian goaltender to get drafted into the NHL. He’s since making his name and way around the AHL as he started his career with a shutout in his very first game.

Gudlevkis might be a diamond in the rough. The thing North American fans have to remember is every single team in tournaments like these are now showing how much competitive they’re becoming. The rest of the world seems to finally be catching up to play with the likes of Team Canada and Team USA. Remember, the Olympics, World Cup, and international competitions is like the Stanley Cup for these countries. Goaltending is their biggest development.

At the same time, teams like Team Canada and USA (I’m not saying they’re doing this), can’t come in cocky and take anyone for granted. Not just the players but fans alike. In International competition, anything can happen. This isn’t the National Hockey League where you can ride a losing streak for a while and come back out on top. Hell, in the 60’s and 70’s, one game could mean retraction of the whole hockey program for your country.

With Team Canada, these NHL players are not used to going a few games without points. They lead their own teams night in and night out. Confidence can play a lot in how a team performs.

So while Latvia put the brakes on a Team Canada walk through, it shouldn’t come as no surprise. These teams are only going to get better as time goes on.

And hey, Ric Flair said it best….

“To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

Women’s Hockey doesn’t count

Photo: The Star
Photo: The Star

I’m not going to name names. I’m not going to point fingers. If you’re a close follower of the Elite Ice Hockey League or even the Sheffield Steelers, I’ll give you one guess as to who uttered the words that have made the title of this article. How old are you, 12? It’s 2014, time to get a grip.

Women’s hockey doesn’t count? You must be watching a completely different tournament my friend. (If you’re even watching at all). This is the closest, tightest and most competitive this Olympic tournament has ever been. Even if Canada and the United States are still the two main powerhouses, the rest of the world is indeed catching up. Case in point: JAPAN made the Olympic tournament.

As with the junior leagues and NHL, foreign women are coming to North American shores to pursue their hockey dreams. There are scholarships galore for collegiate teams across Canada and the U.S. Canada has their own professional women’s league and the U.S. isn’t too far behind. It’s these leagues and structures that are making the girls interested in the world of hockey from the middle of nowhere, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Finland, and turning them into household names and superstars.  Finnish goaltending sensation Noora Raty  went to the same University as Phil Kessel.

Finland_national_women's_ice_hockey_teamIt’s not real hockey because it’s not physical. Hmmm. Okay, you must have missed the two brawls earlier this year. I’ll let you youtube it yourself.

These women train just as hard, hell if not harder then the men do. Why? Because they’re women. For some strange reason in this world, they
have to compete even more to get NOTICED. Once they are noticed, its bullshit male counterparts tend to come out with idiotic sayings like this. Why? Because they are threatened. They know what they see is good. God forbid, women’s hockey got more popular then men’s right?!

My Twitter timeline was FILLED with men who said to sign up Noora Raty or Florence Schilling to their favourite NHL teams because of they way they were playing. Some were saying they’d be afraid to stand in front of a Megan Agosta or Amanda Kessel slapshot. And they’re right.

kI played competitive fastball for years. My idol was Jennie Finch as I was a pitcher. I heard it all growing up, and I was even mistaken for a boy because of how hard I threw. (Or could’ve been the buzzcut I had going on but I digress.) I used to write stories in elementary school about playing in the Olympics for Team Canada. Guess what? Can’t do that anymore as they pulled fast-pitch softball out of the Olympics. Why? Less viewership. Men would rather watch men play boring baseball.

Don’t let that happen to Women’s Hockey. They deserve more then that. I’d put money on the U.S. and Canadian women’s team beating the Sheffield Steelers.

Turning Japanese: Team Canada and the dreaded Nagano shootout

Jagr and Gretzky shake hands post game. (Photo: Kathy Willens)
Jagr and Gretzky shake hands post game. (Photo: Kathy Willens)

It’s Olympic season so I thought I’d take a little trip down memory lane. It’s not such a great memory but one that sticks out of Canada’s hockey history like a sore thumb. The lessons learned at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan were pivotal to the shape of how Team Canada creates and maintains it’s roster in the present time. Sit back and enjoy the tale of Team Canada and Czech Republic’s quest for hockey gold.

The 1998 Canadian Men’s Olympic hockey team came into Nagano looking for a score to settle with the United States. Just two years earlier, the US captured gold at the 1996 World Cup. What both teams didn’t expect though, was neither of them even medaling.

The Canadian team was put together with once again gold in mind. With it being the first time the National Hockey League would take a break from their regular season and allow NHL players to compete, household names such as Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, Scott Stevens, and Martin Brodeur complemented the greatest player in the world. That player named Wayne Gretzky.

With a stacked team at hand, Team Canada made its way to the medal round with a perfect 3-0 record. Wins came from the beatings of Belarus, Sweden and the aforementioned Team USA. While coming into the game against Kazakhstan a bit cocky, the hockey gods bestowed its power against the red and white. Proving just anything can happen in Olympic sport, Joe Sakic strained a knee ligament and was out for the rest of the tournament. The not so good turning point for Team Canada.

Hasek. Fleury.
Hasek and Fleury.

Entering the semifinals against the Czech Republic, Team Canada again once had the advantage. The Czechs iced a team that at the time only had 10 players on its roster playing in the NHL. Things were neck and neck and anxiety was at an all time high as both teams entered the third period with a score knotted at one.

The Canadian team was carefully put together by none other than Mr. Broadstreet Bully, Bobby Clarke. With a little input from head coach Marc Crawford, the Team Canada brass was beaming with pride with their selections. On paper, there was no way anyone could come close. Back home, some of the choices were controversial. Eric Lindros was named captain ahead of the likes of Gretzky, Yzerman and Raymond Borque. Clarke’s pick of Lindros may have been a bit biased as he was General Manager of Lindros’ Flyers at the time. A sleeper pick that had heads shaking was Rob Zamuner. Continue reading “Turning Japanese: Team Canada and the dreaded Nagano shootout”

What will it take for Team Canada to win gold?

Spoiler: They won’t.

sochi-2014-logoLook, I’m the biggest patriotic Canadian in my neck of the woods but I know reality when I see it. Of course, I will be cheering my heart out for the boys in red and white but I truly don’t think gold is in the cards this time around. Maybe I’m just a realist.

Maybe this article will come and bite me in the ass.

While Team Canada is indeed sending over an impressive and stacked team to the frozen Olympic ice of Sochi, Russia, there are plenty of details that pile up against them in their run to make a repeat at winning gold.

A few solid lines of forwards (we do have the best forwards in the tournament, no doubt) and defense is not enough when it comes to international competition. It may get by in the NHL, but not on the world stage. You need impeccable goaltending. With Team Canada selecting Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, and Mike Smith, I just don’t think that’s enough to hack it.

Sadly, his time is over. :( (Photo: sports.msn.ca)
Sadly, his time is over. 😦 (Photo: sports.msn.ca)

That’s not their fault however. Our goaltending hasn’t been up to snuff in years. When these 3 goalies are hot, they’re insanely hot. The key is to catch them on their good streaks because when they’re bad, they’re downright terrible. Thankfully, Carey Price has been standing on his head for the Canadiens lately so that is something to get excited for.

Another big factor is the size of the ice. Olympic style rinks and European/Russian rinks in general are bigger then the NHL and North American ones. This has proved to be detrimental to Team Canada in numerous international tournaments, not just the Olympics. On top of which, hockey is played in an entirely different way; it’s more about speed and stick handling compared to our well known physical game. Luckily some of our players have had the chance to play in European leagues during the lock out so that might be a bit of an advantage but it won’t be enough.

Russia-hockey-logoLastly, Russia will have the biggest advantage of everyone as they are the home country. Now, I now the Cold War has come and gone, the Summit Series is a twinkle in everyone’s eye but I still wouldn’t put anything past them in terms of sabotage. Hell, it’s 2014, I shouldn’t have to be thinking like this but the reality is I am. With all the media surrounding the Games and with the likes of a few players on the American team telling their families to stay home for fear of violence, it’s just in the back of my mind.

Hopefully everything I’ve written here turns out wrong. Hopefully Team Canada does in fact repeat. Hell, hopefully they’ll medal. The odds are good yet the goods are odd.

Will Jamie Benn be Team Canada’s Bobby Ryan?

Hockey_Canada_LFor some strange reason that I can’t seem to explain, I have never been fond of Jamie Benn. Maybe it’s because he’s on a west coast team and I have an east coast bias that’s been instilled into me since the day I was born. He just never really stood out to me.

That is, until this year.

Since being named captain, the Dallas Stars franchise player has come around full circle in my eyes and I’m finally starting to see what the fuss is all about (not that my opinion matters in this vast world of hockey but I digress). Maybe it’s because he finally has rock solid linemates in Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin but the kid is setting up and finishing plays like there’s no tomorrow.

In terms of points, Benn is notched at 36 and when we look at Canadian players in the NHL, that’s only one behind the likes of Claude Giroux and Matt Duchene. It also puts him ahead of Team Canada veterans Eric Staal and Logan Couture who some say are shoe ins. In my eyes, Benn has proven himself worthy enough over any of those four this season.

Jamie+Benn+Dallas+Stars+v+Colorado+Avalanche+rzaZ8LhDmz6lAnother thing.

While projecting a Team Canada roster, you’ll have arguably the best gold medal team at any given time on paper. Let’s not kid ourselves here though. I’m a proud Canadian but let’s face it, facts are facts. This is the Olympics. In Russia. (With sub-par goaltending.) History doesn’t like Canadians on foreign ice. Olympic and European sized rinks require speed, finesse and stick handling abilities.

Enter P.K. Subban.

Hopefully Stevie Y and company got a good look at last night’s game between the Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens. Subban was just filthy in his win for the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. His style of play is perfect and is built for international play. In a game that could have went either way, both Benn and Subban looked remarkable and are definitely making sure their names get brought up during roster selection.

Hey, Yzerman. No pressure eh.

What is wrong with David Poile and Team USA?

ex_usa_hockey_2010USA Hockey unveiled its 2014 Olympic roster after the Winter Classic on a snowy Sunday afternoon at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While most of the usual suspects were on the team, as always a few surprises were left off. You can say all you want about Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle. They deserve to be there more than a couple who were picked in their spots but one name that didn’t get called that really upsets me is a New York Islander.

Kyle Okposo.

The St. Paul, Minnesota native is a having a phenomenal first half of an NHL campaign. He has combined for 9 points in his past five games; scoring two game winning goals despite the Islanders in general having a very poor outlook. All said and done, he’s sitting at 40 points and is well ahead of a few that made the team.

David Poile’s explanation is that Okposo wasn’t made for big ice. Well, most of the American and Canadian players weren’t made for big ice to begin with. Most never trained on it growing up. Well, Mr. Poile, you can’t give me that excuse. Okposo played on an Olympic size sheet of ice at the University of Minnesota and proved to be exceptional. Damn shame.

Another player that I think deserves a shot at Olympic…..well maybe not a medal but Olympic experience is Tampa Bay’s goaltender Ben Bishop. I saw Bishop play live a few times while he was in Ottawa and he is remarkable. His huge frame takes up most of the net and is decisive to what Team USA is going to face in Sochi. He’s second in the NHL for save percentage. Jonathan Quick is ranked 24th and Jimmy Howard doesn’t even place in the top thirty.

Something’s wrong with this picture. I think we need to stop focusing on who has “Olympic experience” as a means to be able to choose them to an international team. Yes it’s great that they’ve been here before but how is anybody else going to be able to get a shot if they’re never chosen?

Anyway, good luck in Sochi Team USA. You’re going to need it.

Sochi 2014: Team Latvia

LatviaAnother surprise entry into the 2014 Sochi Olympics is Team Latvia who qualified at the beginning of this year.

The majority of the team is made up of players from Dinamo Riga of the KHL. Lone NHLer Arturs Kulda of the Winnipeg Jets could easily make an impact on the blue line with being paired up with Georgijs Pujacs or Kristaps Sotnieks from Riga.

From the forwards perspective, Latvia has sharpshooter Zemgus Girgensons who spent last season in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans. He was drafted 14th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2012 and hasn’t looked back at his homeland since.

Jānis Sprukts is another powerful forward who spent some of his junior years with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. He’s also had stints with Rochester Americans, Florida Panthers, Dinamo Riga and is currently playing for CSKA Moscow in the KHL.

Team Latvia is actually head manned by Canadian Ted Nolan for the past two years. Nolan has had a bit of a controversial NHL career but a success coaching one. The Latvians must have seen something in Nolan as he’s been their bench boss since 2011.

Of course we can’t go without mentioning one of my favourite hockey Latvians, Arthurs Irbe. Although he’s retired, I’m sure he will be apart of the Olympic program in some way, shape or form. Goalie coach? We can only hope.

SOCHI 2014: Team Norway

NIHF-logoAlright, another team on this side of the globe that people rarely hear about. You’re gonna read and learn a few things about the mightiness of Norway.

 

Ole-Kristian Tollefsen will definitely be a part of Norway’s 314x407squad. If you’re not familiar with the name, you should be. Tollefsen was drafted in the third round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets. After playing 4 seasons with the Syracuse Crunch and Columbus, he signed a one year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009. In 2010, he was sent to Detriot for Ville Leino. He is only one of 7 Norwegians to play in the NHL. He’s currently playing in the Swedish Elite League and if you don’t remember him from the Vancouver Olympics well, let me refresh your memory:

Yeah.

Anyway, the majority of their roster can be found playing in Sweden, and quite a few are with Modo and Frolunda. However, the GET-ligaen, the Norwegian premier league, hosts a bevy of talent as well. The most recent champs, the Stavanger Oilers have been known to go on 18 game win streaks and we all know that’s not an easy thing to do.

It’s been said that Norway or Norwegians don’t really care about hockey. Well, from my research, it’s alive and well. Norway currently features 5 mens leagues that each serve as a breeding ground for the other. Women have their own two league system including an Elite league. Oslo, the capital, hosts 16 teams itself! Of course, this is still a developing hockey nation in the modern sense but there’s still plenty of ice time to be had in Norway.

No longer the land of death metal bands.

SOCHI 2014 – Team Austria

568px-Austria_Bundesadler_2.svgAustria’s national team will have a Canadian connection, at least with it’s coaching staff. Former Prince Albert Raiders defenseman Emanuel Viverois is slated to take on the head coaching duties while former coach of Prince Albert, Rob Daum will be his assistant.

Team Austrai definitely has their fair share of fire power. Thomas Vanek, who is coming from the Buffalo Sabres will definitely bolster the line up. Along with former New York Islander and current Lake Erie Monster Thomas Pock on defense, Austria will be strong competitor.

Competing in their first Olympic games since 2002, there are a couple other NHLers that Austria might invite to camp. Carolina’s Andreas Nodl and New York Islanders Michael Grabner could definitely help out the team in their division. Their best goaltender Bernhard Starkbaum, is currently playing with Modo Hockey in Sweden.

Austria will definitely be put to the test but don’t count them out. This year’s Olympics will feature a strong cast of countries.