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Raising the bar

Column: What’s the perfect number of teams for the World Championship?

13-05-08
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Krisztian Palkovics and Gabor Ocskay celebrate Hungary's Worlds comeback after 70 years. Could they also be part of the best 14 teams? Photo: Seinosuke Uchigasaki

QUEBEC CITY – The relegation series are over, as Slovenia and Italy have been dispatched to Division I. Now international hockey fans are gearing up for the medal round games. It’s an exciting point in the tournament. But can even more steps be taken to heighten the competitive quality of hockey at the World Championship?

As has been reported earlier, the IIHF Sport Committee, plans to do a thorough evaluation of the current tournament format. There’s a proposal to reduce the elite division to 14 nations, featuring two groups of seven teams each. The proposal originated with some of the upper-echelon nations, who suggest that having fewer teams will enhance the quality of the World Championship.

At the IIHF Semi-Annual Congress this autumn in Montreux, Switzerland, the situation will be analysed. The idea behind going to 14 teams would be to raise the bar, to have games at a higher level by making the IIHF World Championship top division a more exclusive circle. Presumably, this should result in tighter games and scores.

The idea is plausible, and the format would be simpler to follow. Under the current system, it’s not possible to know in advance which teams will be matched up in the Qualifying Round (the second stage), whereas with 14 teams, fans would know in advance which six round-robin games they’d get to see in a particular seven-team group.

But how many nations would benefit and how many would be endangered? After all, under this system, the 13th- and 14th-place team would be relegated.

Let’s take a look at past results to get an idea of the potential impact.

Since the World Championship expanded to 16 teams ten years ago, none of the teams promoted from Division I (formerly the B Pool) has ever had the chance to win a medal, nor has one developed into a threat for the perennial title contenders. Many fans would enjoy seeing a higher level of hockey without having to take a prominent team out of the mix.

But let’s take a closer look at this year’s standings: Slovakia has finished 13th and France 14th. Under a 14-team system, the Slovaks, who won gold in 2002, would have been relegated. Imagine a nation that’s usually a fixture in the “Big Seven” being obliged to play in Division I next year against the likes of Great Britain, Japan, Croatia or Australia.

In recent years, the only case where an elite nation has fallen that far came at the 2007 World U18 Championship, when the Czech Republic had to leave the top 10 nations for a season. It dominated this year’s Division I tournament with a 5-0 record and a 36-5 goal differential, and will be back in the top division for 2009.

Maybe some nations will think twice about the merits of a 14-team system when they consider that they could end up being demoted if things go badly.

What else could have happened if the World Championship had gone to 14 teams in the past?

  • Team USA would have been relegated in 2003.
  • Latvia, every organisers’ darling thanks to its hockey-crazy, globe-trotting fans, would have been relegated last year. Imagine: no horns and maroon flags in Halifax!
  • NHL stars like Anze Kopitar (Slovenia) and Cristobal Huet (France) could only be present in Canada 2008 as spectators. (Or perhaps they’d be sunbathing in Hawaii instead.)
  • The Norwegians wouldn’t have surprised the crowds in Halifax by qualifying for the quarterfinals, by earning points against Finland and Germany, not to mention its narrow defeat versus Canada. They would be playing Division I hockey instead.
  • As things stand now, Hungary has been promoted for the 2009 IIHF World Championship after a 70-year absence. But under a 14-team system, you’d rarely see “brand-new” teams like this, because it’s likely that more experienced Division I teams such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, or the recently relegated teams from Italy and Slovenia would get the inside track.
  • Some national associations which applied to host a World Championship (Belarus, Denmark, Latvia, Hungary) would be closer to the places that mean relegation. Chances for their applications would, at least, not be enhanced.

 
The bottom line is that if a decision is made to go to 14 teams, there would be benefits, but some nations would also pay the price for it.

Ultimately, it will be up to the 50 member associations with voting power to decide. As often happens with votes, not everyone will necessarily share the perspective of the top nations, and much persuasion will be needed to effectuate change.

MARTIN MERK

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