To change or not to change?

COLUMN - Simply jumping into a new WJC format isn’t wise

30.12.2008
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Scotiabank Place Kanata Ontario Canada

The World Juniors help develop emerging nations like Germany and Kazakhstan. Photo: Andre Ringuette IIHF/HHoF Images

OTTAWA – There’s nothing quite like a 15-0 game to get the dialogue started about tournament format changes. Around Canada’s 10th goal versus Kazakhstan last night, talk turned from the game on the ice to the disparity between the two nations skating.

Admittedly, Kazakhstan and Canada are in two different leagues at this year’s U20 World Championship – and the game scores, especially in Scotiabank Place, have been lopsided to say the least. But this isn’t cause to jump at the first format change that makes sense only for this year’s championship.

Consider that it wasn’t so long ago that the Swedes were staving off relegation, and now look at them -- media darlings and medal contenders. Remember the USA’s struggles in the 90’s, or when the Czechs were winning medals? (And don't forget that Germany, a nation just promoted from Division I, gave Canada its stiffest test of the tournament to date on Monday night.) Junior hockey is cyclical – which is why prudence must be used when changing the format of the U18 or U20 championships.

The IIHF has formed a competition committee to create proposals to improve the current championship format, not only for the U20 but for all categories. As it stands, this season there will be seven different U20 championships played, from the top division down to Division III. Any change to the format impacts a lot of teams and must be weighed carefully. It must take into account, not just one season’s performance at any given junior event, but the entire development progress of a nation.

With that in mind, below are the top four format changes that have been bantered around in the media, locker rooms and other hockey circles, along with the positives and the negatives of each proposal. It will take time before the competition committee presents its proposals, but just like the nations at this IIHF World Junior Championship, the IIHF hopes to develop and evolve to keep its championships at the highest possible level for the participants and fans.

Proposal: Cut the championship to eight teams and drop the two “weak links.”

Reasoning: Only the elite should play at an elite event. There are seven top hockey nations (CAN, CZE, USA, SWE, FIN, SVK, RUS) in the world, and the eighth spot gives enough space for an additional junior program to develop.

Positive: By cutting the championship to eight teams, the event would become more compact with an atmosphere of “every game counts.” The tournament could go back to a big round-robin format (which would be less than ideal due to a lack of a medal game day), or be played in two four-team groups. Having eight teams would ensure that only the true elite nations are at the top level.

Negative: Having eight teams would lead to at least one elite team being relegated. With 10 teams it is already difficult for nations to stay at the elite level (examples include last year’s Swiss U20 team, or the Czech U18 team from two years ago). Cutting the tournament to eight teams would put every team in danger of dropping down a division, as seventh and eighth would be relegated. That would be goodbye Slovakia, Switzerland, and yes, even Sweden if you consider their performance around 2003-2004. Remember Canada’s eighth-place finish in 1998 after winning the gold medal the previous five years? There’s no free ride for any nation. Also a consideration is the lost revenue from fewer games for the host nation.

Likelihood: Very low

Proposal: Expand the tournament to 12 teams so it’s weak vs. weak and strong vs. strong.

Reasoning: Giving more teams the opportunity to play at a high level will improve the quality of junior hockey across the globe and give more nations stability and money for their junior development programs.

Positive: More teams would have a chance to play in an elite atmosphere, and with the right format would only meet teams of a different caliber, after earning the right to do so. Bubble teams, like Switzerland and Belarus, could build up their junior programs without the annual threat of relegation looming. More games would also mean more attendance and money for the host nation.

Negative: The format would get bogged down with too many teams and the event would lose its compact format. The disparity between the gold medalist and the 12th-place finisher has the potential to be huge. As we have seen this year, there is a big discrepancy just within 10 teams, so making the tournament bigger would not necessarily make things better. It would also make life harder on the organizers to juggle 12 teams, as 10 is already a handful. Finally, playing at a level where you really don’t belong does not enhance development.

Likelihood: Low

Proposal:  Have the IIHF go back to a “vertical” championship format (only one team is relegated each year and Division I goes back to one group).

Reasoning: There is too much bouncing back and forth between teams that get stuck in the relegation/promotion cycle. This would give teams a chance to establish themselves at the level that suits their national programs best.

Positive: It worked well before, and the teams that were relegated and promoted were in most cases the teams that deserved either fate. The current format would also remain virtually unchanged, with the exception of the relegation round sending only the last-place finisher down. It would provide extra stability to the championship as there would only be one new team each year instead of two, and help minimize the ‘bouncing ball’ effect of teams like Germany that go back-and-forth between Division I and the top division every year.

Negative: It would become extremely difficult for a budding team to make its way up to the elite nations. Belarus can -- to a certain degree -- thank the two-team relegation system for its surge in junior hockey. The same can be said for Austria, which likely would not be returning to the top level next year if only one team was given a pass. It would also make most of the relegation process meaningless as teams could secure their place in the next year’s championship relatively early.

Likelihood: Medium

Proposal: Play a September qualification tournament between the bottom two teams from the top division and the top two teams from Division I.

Reasoning: The class that plays in any given IIHF World Junior Championship will be the class that qualified for the event and a better representation of the team for that specific year. It would help to eliminate the “weak class” phenomenon.

Positive: Junior hockey is very much a yearly phenomenon. Just ask any scout and they refer to countries as a “good class” or a “bad class.” The Kazakhstan class that earned the right to stay in the top division last year was good, while this year’s class is at the other end of the spectrum. Switzerland had to use a good class at the Division I level this year after a less-than-stellar class got the nation relegated last year. If the Swiss had played a round robin tournament against Latvia, Germany, and Norway in September with their current class, chances are they would be here in Ottawa. By playing the tournament at the start of the season, it means that the team is representative of what it should be like at the top division.

Negative: Name any hockey player that is in top shape in September. It puts a lot of pressure on the nations to get their teams ready to determine their fate at virtually the first puck drop of the season. It would also mean yet another international event in an already packed calendar, and could put a damper on some of the more traditional Four Nations’ exhibition events that countries play during the international breaks. It is also a tough proposal for the smaller nations to swallow. Imagine, you have earned your right to join the elite nations, only to be told you have to “double qualify” in order to punch your ticket -- it’s a bit of a slap in the face.

Likelihood: Medium

Finally, all the above proposals would provide more or less “band-aid” solutions and would not address the fundamental issue; namely, that several countries’ youth development programs need a new and more dedicated approach -- or simply more time to reach the level of the “Big Seven” countries. No development program has ever improved through championship format changes.

JENNY WIEDEKE

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

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