BERNE – Even in these days of media saturation, some hardcore NHL fans (particularly in North America) don't bother to track what's going on at the IIHF World Championship. And boy, are they missing out.
Nobody is going to argue that the playoffs in the world's top pro league aren't a great spectacle. (Who isn't looking forward to seeing Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin go head-to-head in the second round?) But the Worlds offer some things that the NHL doesn't. Here are five of the biggest.
FOUR-ON-FOUR PLAYOFF OVERTIME
The NHL adopted four-on-four OT for the regular season as of 1999-2000, and I believe that within the lifetime of most people reading this, the NHL powers that be will someday decide that four-on-four OT is also the way to go for the playoffs. From a strictly commercial standpoint, it's beneficial in that it greatly increases the chances that overtime will end quickly, rather than turning into a marathon that disrupts regularly scheduled TV programming.
But as the IIHF World Championship has demonstrated since 2003, four-on-four offers many other advantages. More ice means more room to skate, more scoring opportunities, and a greater chance that the winning goal will be a “nice goal” rather than an ugly rebound or a deflection off a skate. The tension is incredible from the first drop of the puck, even more so than in five-on-five play.
Just look at the dramatics that led up to Anson Carter's video-reviewed, wraparound gold-medal winner for Canada versus Sweden in 2003, the open ice Dany Heatley enjoyed en route to his tremendous slapshot that lifted Canada over Finland in the 2004 quarter-finals, or Ilya Kovalchuk's lightning-powered OT winner against Canada in 2008.
THE CRAZIEST UPSETS
When Anaheim (the eighth seed in the Western Conference) eliminates San Jose (the top seed) in the first round, it's just not that shocking. It's a reflection of the parity in today's NHL. Teams are admittedly not as evenly matched across the board at the IIHF World Championship, because the tournament also serves as a development tool to spur the growth of hockey in emerging countries like Denmark, Belarus, and Hungary. If those countries don't play the Canadas, Swedens, and Russias, they'll never be able to compete effectively with them.
Consequently, since that gap still exists, there is more of a surprise factor when one of the lower-echelon teams beats a favourite at the Worlds. Whether it's Latvia's 3-2 shootout win over Sweden on April 27 at this tournament, Denmark's 5-2 shocker versus the USA in 2003, or Norway's 4-3 victory over Canada in 2000, it's always memorable.
TRULY INTERNATIONAL CELEBRATIONS
When the Tampa Bay Lightning wins the Stanley Cup, celebrations are mostly confined to the Tampa Bay area. If the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs prevail, not even half of all Canadians rejoice. But when the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Finland comes out on top at the IIHF World Championship, an entire nation goes wild over the success of the players representing their country.
Also, with all due respect to the towel-wavers of Vancouver and the octopus-throwers of Detroit, the colourful, crazy demeanor of World Championship fans is at a whole different level. As Canadian defenceman Shea Weber commented about the atmosphere in Kloten after beating Hungary 9-0: "Nothing against our fans in Nashville, I love them to death, but this is different. This is something special to be a part of. It's really neat."
From the soccer-style singing and clapping of German and Austrian supporters to the irrepressible drum-beating frenzy of the Latvian crowd, the World Championship provides a United Nations-style sea of colour and sound in the stands. And the hockey party spills over into the beer tents, the restaurants, the streets, and everywhere else in the host cities.
TIGHTER RULE ENFORCEMENT
It's always ironic when GMs try to convince their players to stay away from the Worlds due to a perceived risk of injury. Sure, you can get hurt in this tournament; hockey is a contact sport wherever it's played. But the IIHF's commitment to “Fair Play and Respect” makes it less likely that a player will get seriously injured.
The IIHF rulebook forbids all hits to the head, and players are obliged to head to the bench when they lose their helmets, significantly reducing the chances that players will suffer unnecessary concussions. Fighting is punished with a match penalty, which decreases the risk of broken noses and orbital bones. The use of no-touch icing also means fewer players will crash dangerously into the boards while trying to chase down the puck--and with this point, even Don Cherry is in agreement.
Much like with four-on-four OT, these are measures that will likely be adopted all across the hockey world, given time.
BIGGEST GLOBAL SMORGASBORD OF TALENT
Some North American fans still labour under the impression that “ALL the best players are playing in the NHL playoffs.” That just doesn't fly anymore, if it ever did (and it certainly didn't in the 1970s and 80s in the era of Soviet and Czechoslovakian dominance).
First, there is a huge available pool of NHL talent for the 16-nation Worlds: fourteen teams prior to the start of the tournament, and sometimes 22, depending on the start date of the playoffs. Second, it's the NHL teams that are playing best that go deep into the post-season, but the individual players from non-playoff or eliminated teams, in many cases, are just as talented as or even better than the Stanley Cup final participants.
Case in point: the 2008 IIHF World Championship finalists.
Let's make a simple statistical case: take the top five scorers on each team, and isolate how many of them can be counted among the NHL's current elite talents (boldfaced).
CANADA: Dany Heatley, Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash, Mike Green, Derek Roy
RUSSIA: Alexander Semin, Alexander Ovechkin, Sergei Fedorov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Morozov
Now do the same for the 2008 Stanley Cup finalists.
DETROIT: Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Jiri Hudler
PITTSBURGH: Sidney Crosby, Marian Hossa, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone, Sergei Gonchar
By this count, it's seven to six for the World Championship squads. That's not to say you couldn't make a case for the non-boldfaced Stanley Cup players, most of whom are key players on their clubs and will be 2010 Olympians. But at the very least, it's even.
Yet let's also not forget that the world of hockey isn't exclusively the NHL. And just for one, Alexei Morozov would be hotly courted in North America if he ever decided to leave the KHL.
In fact, the Worlds attract a ton of great non-NHL players, from Sweden's Linus Omark, Kenny Jonsson, and Johan Holmqvist to the Czech Republic's Jaromir Jagr, Jan Marek, and Roman Cervenka.
Moreover, when you talk about a global smorgasbord of talent, you're also seeing players here from Switzerland, Belarus, Latvia and other countries that excel on the big rinks of Europe, sometimes superior stickhandlers and skaters, who simply may not have the physical strength that most NHLers possess.
If variety is the spice of hockey, then the IIHF World Championship is one tasty dish.
Lucas Aykroyd is IIHF.com's correspondent in Vancouver, the home of the 2010 Winter Olympics. He has covered all IIHF World Championships since 2000, plus the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.