MANNHEIM – In different ways, Jaromir Jagr and Jack Johnson faced the same truth on Monday: your odds of winning an IIHF World Championship are drastically reduced if you don't use as many of your best players as possible, while your odds of getting relegated go way up.
Jagr, competing in his seventh Worlds, told reporters he wasn't happy with the response of other elite Czech players who were invited to suit up in Germany: "It's the national team. We didn't really have any success lately, and a lot of guys said no in our country. Probably the top 25 guys said no, and I think it's too much. I understand the guys are injured or they feel tired after the season, but look at guys like [Alexander] Ovechkin or [Ilya] Kovalchuk.”
The 38-year-old Avangard Omsk star has a valid point. Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are arguably the world's two most gifted goal-scorers. However, they don't act like they're too good to show up when it's time for the World Championship. Or the Olympics. Or the World Cup of Hockey.
Granted, these Russian left wings haven't gone deep into the NHL playoffs recently with their clubs. But they both consistently play close to a full 82-game slate in an explosive style, and yet invariably make themselves available to the national team.
Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are here for the 2010 Worlds: no wonder Russia is favoured to claim top spot for the third consecutive year. (Kovalchuk doesn't even have a contract for 2010-11, despite potentially being up for one of the biggest paydays in hockey history, and that didn't stop him. Swedish forward Alexander Steen, meanwhile, said no to Tre Kronor because he's contractless.)
Now, at least Jagr's concerns about the Czech Republic's fortunes are hypothetical so far. They looked fine in a 6-2 opening win over France.
But Jack Johnson? He and his American teammates are in big trouble after two straight 2-1 overtime losses against underdogs Germany and Denmark.
"Inexcusable – the U.S. should not be losing these games," said Johnson on Monday night. "It's inexcusable.”
Like Jagr, the 23-year-old Team USA captain has a valid point.
Let's see: wasn't it just over two months ago that the United States marched to the Olympic final in Vancouver? They didn't lose a single game until Sidney Crosby killed their hopes of gold at 7:40 of overtime on February 28. En route to the gold medal game, they defeated Canada 5-3 in preliminary action, and pulverized a strong Finnish side 6-1 in the semis.
All the talk at the time was of how the balance of power in international hockey is shifting toward North America.
So what is the United States doing now? Losing to Denmark, a country that didn't even qualify to participate in the Olympic tournament? It is indeed “inexcusable”.
Not to take anything away from the Danes, who have made great strides with their program since returning to the elite division in 2003. That year, they hammered the Americans 5-2 in their opener – a lesson that apparently wasn't absorbed by the 2010 USA squad.
To be fair, Denmark also shocked an undermanned Team Finland 4-1 to kick off the 2010 tournament. But at least the Finns managed to beat Germany 1-0 two days later.
In theory, the Americans might think that whoever they send across the Atlantic should be capable of defeating Denmark, which currently lacks two of its NHL-experienced forwards, Jannik Hansen (Vancouver) and Mikkel Bødker (Phoenix).
Yet what's happened here in Germany is further proof that once you take the top players of a “Big Seven” nation out of the mix, the gap between that nation and the second-tier powers (Belarus, Switzerland, Latvia, Denmark, and so on) is just not that big anymore.
If, say, the United States starts losing to countries like these, well, the World Championship is a short tournament, and bad things can happen fast.
Jagr spelled it out clear as daylight: “If your top guys don't go to the World Championship, it might happen that your team next year might play in [Division I]."
That fate almost befell the '03 American squad, which included non-household names like Brad Defauw, Jim Fahey, Chris Rogles, and John Gruden. After losing to Denmark, Switzerland, and Russia, the Americans tumbled into the Relegation Round. Facing the inconceivable, they rallied for wins over Slovenia, Belarus, and Japan to avoid a monumental embarrassment for the country that supplies more than 20 percent of NHL talent.
With the success and continuity that USA Hockey has fostered recently at the junior level with its National Team Development Program, there is no reason for a return to the bad old days when stars like Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin, and John LeClair regularly said no to the senior Worlds.
If the 2010 American World Championship team doesn't get it together quickly, all the good work that the Olympic team did in Vancouver could be undone. How so? In the IIHF World Ranking System, points earned by nations at the World Championship are just as valuable as at the Olympics. (For instance, a silver medal at either tournament is worth 1160 points.)
In other words, finishing second in February doesn't look so good anymore if you come 15th in May.
So the onus is on national federations, like USA Hockey, to invite their best available players to the Worlds, and then on those players to respond with Victor Hedman-like enthusiasm: “Hell yes!”
As the willing examples of Ovechkin and Kovalchuk show, excuses like “I'm tired” or “It's a long season” or “I already played in the Olympics” are in most cases just that – excuses.
Sure, a nation can ice whatever roster it wants, but there are consequences.
Show up, or else.