Worlds belong in Olympic years

Benefits of back-to-back top-level tournaments abound

12-05-10
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Veltins Arena Gelsenkirchen  Germany
Germany's Sven Butenschön and USA captain Jack Johnson are among the players who don't mind showing up at the Olympics and the World Championship the same year. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

MANNHEIM – You don't cancel dinner just because you had a great meal at your big family reunion a couple of months ago. And you don't cancel the IIHF World Championship just because the Olympics dazzled hockey fans worldwide in February.

Sometimes, you hear the argument that it's redundant to hold both the Olympics and World Championship in the same year. Didn't we already settle the question of world hockey supremacy in Vancouver?

However, there are plenty of good reasons to play the Worlds annually, regardless of what else is on the calendar.

Nobody's denying that the Olympics represent the very highest level of skill-driven hockey. But the World Championship has a long tradition, dating back to 1910, when the original IIHF European Championship was contested. Like Wimbledon, the British Open, or the Super Bowl, it's an event that sports fans now expect to enjoy each and every year.

The NHL hasn't pulled the plug on the Stanley Cup playoffs just because the Canada-USA Olympic gold medal game drew record TV audiences (an average of 16.6 million in Canada and 27.6 million in the United States). That would be as distressing to North American hockey fans as canceling the Worlds would be to their European counterparts.

Hockey fans are hungry for their favourite sport in springtime. During the 2006 IIHF World Championship in Latvia, total broadcast hours for the tournament that followed the Turin Olympics increased to 2,872, which set a new record at that time. Substantial TV viewership is also expected for Germany 2010, particularly in light of the publicity that the opening Germany-USA game in Gelsenkirchen attracted with its world-record attendance of 77,803.

In terms of tickets sold, the attendance in Latvia (331,626) was right on par with Austria 2005 (323,974) and Russia 2007 (342,708).

Yet it's not only about feeding the fans' appetite for more hockey. It's also about growing the game of hockey worldwide, which is a major part of the IIHF's mandate.

Four teams at this IIHF World Championship did not participate in the Vancouver Olympics: Denmark, France, Italy, and Kazakhstan. All of them need the exposure to high-level competition that only the Worlds offer, in order to keep climbing the international hockey ladder. Taking a year out of that development cycle would have negative consequences.

Someday, we want to see a situation where more than just seven top nations can contend for gold. For the “Big Seven” to become the “Big Nine” or “Big Eleven”, we must provide an annual opportunity for those smaller nations to get better.

In addition, it's worth noting that funds generated by the IIHF World Championship also support the Division I, II, and III tournaments. In an era when the IIHF family comprises 68 member nations worldwide, that funding is irreplaceable.

And aesthetically speaking, what about the great hockey spectacle that the Worlds always represent? This year, the focus is on youth, with many national teams injecting fresh talent into their rosters as veterans step aside following their final Olympics.

This year, we're watching the NHL's two-time defending Hart Trophy winner (Alexander Ovechkin), the hero of the '08 and '09 Worlds and a former Rocket Richard Trophy winner (Ilya Kovalchuk), the NHL's top goal-scorer (Steven Stamkos), two out of the three Calder Trophy nominees (Matt Duchene, Tyler Myers), the top two picks from the 2009 NHL Entry Draft (John Tavares, Victor Hedman), the goalie who captured Swedish Elitserien rookie of the year honours (Jacob Markström), and the Czech Extraliga scoring champion (Roman Cervenka), among others.

Kovalchuk is by far the graybeard of that group at age 27. It reflects the growing trend in the hockey world toward youth, speed, and energy. As the Who once sang: “The Kids Are Alright.”

So as usual, the table is set for dinner and everyone is invited. Cancel the World Championship in an Olympic year? Not for the world.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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