torsdag 12. mai 2011

In defense of the World Championships

Norway was elimninated in the quarterfinals of the World Championships today by Finland by a score of 4-1. It was the second time ever that we reached the quarters and we did it without our three best forwards Patrick Thoresen (sitting out to spend time with his family), Mats Zuccarello Aasen (injured) and Tore Vikingstad (decided that he's too old for the national team). One thing I've seen during the whole tournament is attacks on the tournament. It's been called the "NIT", "a loser's tournament" and a joke. I disagree strongly. This is why:

Let me start by agreeing that yes, the tournament happens at an unfortunate time. Most North American fans are watching the playoffs, many of the best players in the world are wrapped up in those same playoffs and many players are tired after long, gruelling seasons. So it's not a best-on-best tournament. That much is for sure. That said, it features much better American and Canadian players than it used to do 15 years ago. But I see why it is easy for North Americans to write it off and make no mistake, us Europeans KNOW that it's not a best-on-best tournament. Maybe playing it in September would be better, but for now it is what it is and believe me, it serves a great purpose in its current form.

For one thing, it's something to do for NHL players and others after their seasons end. But this is not a big reason. A bigger reason is that it is a great window for players to show their skills. In 2008 a good tournament lead to Jonas Holøs and Mats Frøshaug from Norway getting drafted into the NHL. Mats Zuccarello and Matthis Olimb's play there and in the Olympics definitely lead to them being signed to the NHL as free agents last summer. This happens every year. Players from Europe who never got drafted get a chance to show their skills for NHL scouts. And NHL clubs also get a good chance to look at draft picks who are still playing in Europe. So it's a big window for NHL recruitment. But more than that, it's a big window to show oneself for European scouts. For a player it might be the ticket to getting out of the Norwegian league and into the Swedish one. Or to be picked up by a different team. The World Championships are vital for European players as a chance to show off their skill and get to the next level, wether that is a different European league, the KHL or NHL. While this is important for the NHL, it is VITAL for European hockey.

Secondly and most importantly, the World Championships grow the game of hockey. While media and modern technology have bridged the gap of the Atlantic a lot so that many kids in Europe now grow up following the NHL and dreaming of playing there, the World Champs are a big deal in Europe. It's on TV in every country that plays and in countries like Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic etc it is followed religiously. In those, already established, hockey nations, the World Champs is something they NEED to win and something that keeps the interest in hockey up. Without it, I think both the interest in hockey and the recruitment to youth hockey would be weakened. But it is even more important for the non-traditional hockey nations. Believe me, the surprising success of Norway, Denmark, France and Germany has been noticed in those countries. In Norway hockey is small most of the year. We get some pieces here and there about the local league. Simple recaps of big games in the web papers and in some of papers and some small notices about the NHL. There is not much coverage on TV. Every World Championship game is on TV. And the papers follow up with huge headlines. The success this year (added to the attention for the Olympics last year) has made hockey reach an all time high in Norway. Games, recaps and even previews have been the top headlines in online papers the last two weeks. People are talking about it, people are watching, people are leaving work early to catch the games. I have honestly never seen hockey this popular in Norway and it warms my heart. Will it have a huge ripple effect? Maybe not, but it will makes some more people follow hockey, either in Norway or internationally, it will make TV and papers give hockey more attention and it sure as hell will get a lot more attention for the build up to next year's tournament. And I'd imagine that a lot of young kids see this on TV and think "I wanna play too".

In a perfect world, Norway would capitalize on this by getting a nice TV deal for the country's hockey league (the one now is weak), get other national team games on TV, get NHL on more accessible channels and build more ice rinks. All those are needed to fully capitalize. And most likely, none of those will happen too easily or too fast. But this helps us get the attention needed to get close to those things and even without them, I think I can safely say that hockey is bigger than it has ever been in Norway right now. And that is a thing of beauty. And I'd imagine it's the same for the other smaller nations having success.

So while it's easy for North Americans to laugh about this tournament, it serves a big purpose for European hockey and for the growth of hockey. Over here it's no laughing matter, it's a big deal and a thing of beauty. So instead of talking shit about the tournament, try to turn in to a few games. Maybe you'll see the next NHL star in the making! Maybe not. But at least you'll see some good hockey, some players you've never seen before and experience hockey on a world level. It's no Olympics and it's very flawed, but this tournament is still a very good thing.

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