Like most people who follow international hockey, the World Championships are a great event to coincide with the NHL playoffs. Canada vs Finland in the afternoon, Montreal vs Boston in the evening. What’s wrong with hockey all day? Obviously nothing, but the highly criticized tournament (by North Americans) put on by the IIHF does have some flaws that could make for BETTER hockey match-ups each day, so you aren’t skipping out on the Denmark vs Germany bore fest right before the NHL takes center stage.
The IIHF currently uses a two group, 16 team format and have since 1998. Before then, the tournament still had a two group format, but had four less teams to choose from. The bottom team from both Group 1 and Group 2 would then face off in a relegation series to see who would fall down to Group B for the following year. Today, the IIHF likes to give more teams the opportunity to compete in the highest division, with hopes of eventually advancing their hockey program in the future. Heck, it came down to a the final period of the Division IA World Championships this year until we found out who the two teams were moving on!
Yes, it’s great a variety of teams have the chance to compete to earn promotion. But that’s not my concern. Look at the two teams that were relegated in 2010, Kazakhstan and Italy. In 2011, it was Slovenia and Austria. In 2012, Kazakhstan and Italy. 2013? Slovenia and Austria. Who replaced them? Kazakhstan and Italy. Notice a tend yet?
Oh by the way, say hello to Slovenia and Austria in 2015.
You’ll have to back to 2009 to find a team that is different, Hungary. Hungary, who struggled in the Division IA World Championships this year despite hopes for promotion, have played in the top division only once, that being 2009, since 1939, the last year before they went on a eleven year hiatus. Other than that, it’s been a four horse carousel between the top two divisions with no one finding a way to stay alive for an extended period of time. For the teams that get relegated, they will likely dominate the Division IA Championships the next year, move back up, but with only a few games against the tougher competition, they’ll move down again in what seems to be a never-ending cycle.
This is where I propose a couple of options:
- Twelve team tournament with one team relegated.
- Sixteen team tournament with a separate four team relegation tournament
Think about it. Italy won’t ever be on par with Canada, even if they decide to stack half their team with Canadians. Does that mean we should completely ruin Italy’s accomplishment of making it to top division? No, but at the same time, is it fair for them to just waste their time in the relegation train without really proving themselves? Again, no.
I’m a Canadian. I’d bet anything I’ll never live to see a day in which Canada gets relegated in a IIHF event. Even if the country doesn’t get all the star caliber NHLer’s we are used to seeing every four years, I’d pick them over the best from France any day. France doesn’t stand a chance in the medal race, but they have proved for long enough they can survive. That’s why I suggest twelve teams over eight so we don’t totally ruin the efforts of some of the smaller countries.
This year, the bottom four were Germany, Denmark, Italy and Kazakhstan. I predicted a month in advance that those would be the bottom four teams that really had any chance of getting relegated this year. Was it luck that I got that right? No, because Germany has only finished in the top eight five times since 2001, while Denmark has finished eighth only once back in 2007. Do I need to even explain my reasoning for the other two?
Now, put those teams into Division 1A and do one of the following: A) Increase the amount of teams to ten, OR B) restructure the bottom levels. It wouldn’t be fair for the teams who had to fight their way up to Division 1A, only to have to do it all again unfairly, so let’s try Group A. For the first few years, yes, Ukraine and Hungary would have a tough time adjusting to the tougher competition. In the long term, however, they will have many more years of tough, wide-span competition to build up on. Instead of having just two teams mainly battling for the top, with other’s such as Japan and Hungary trying to sneak in to no prevail, the lower countries would have much more stronger competition to battle against, which can only help in the long term.
That brings me back to the top group again. In the short term, Italy doesn’t have any chance against Canada, Sweden, etc. But what happens if they all of a sudden start to face the tough competition they aren’t used to annually instead? Instead of just rotating between the divisions, Italy begins to develop a strategy that works against the tough teams, like France has shown over the past two years, and begins to develop that way. Does that not seem more effective for the bubble countries? Italy did come ahead of Kazakhstan, who, interestingly enough, came on top of Division 1A last year. If you take that into perspective, you can see the potential for more than just the same two teams going up and down in a single relegation system.
Even if its the same teams going up and down, it helps the smaller countries who now can face teams their own level while not having to change the way they play. The same Denmark team that would be able to place a beating on South Korea likely won’t play the same when they’re facing 40 to 50 shots from players making multi-million dollar salaries in the NHL. While that’s obviously expected, when you cant get any consistency, how does that benefit anybody? At the end of the day, does Canada feel like their 6-1 victory over Denmark was a big accomplishment? With twelve teams, their will be a lot less meaningless group stage contests that really could be eliminated in favor of more interesting, closer competition.
Now, if you don’t like the idea of cutting down to twelve teams, lets keep the 16 team format, but add a new twist. Instead of having a constant rotation, like mentioned many times already, the IIHF could try doing a relegation tournament with the top two teams from Division IA and the bottom two from the top group. Each team can play each other in a Memorial Cup style round robin, with the top two teams moving on. That could result in, potentially, the same two teams sticking in despite not playing well enough in the main tournament, but this would at least add some consistency and potentially help all the teams in the long run.
In recent years, we’ve began to see the rise of Latvia, France and Switzerland at the international stage, even with a lack of NHLer’s to choose from. That all comes from playing the same teams over and over again and figuring out strategies that would work in their favor. Yes, we may still see some stupidly uneven games, but in the long run, you’ll see a lot less teams falling victim to the torture and developing their game accordingly.
It’s worth giving both options a try. Neither format is perfect, as player availability will always have an effect on the tournament. But as you know, the current format still needs work before the smaller countries can really start to move positively towards the future. The IIHF recently reviewed a couple rules in regards to the action on the ice, but with no mention of a change off the ice, we may not see a change for years to come. Regardless, this is just another to throw out their and, hey, who knows, maybe we’ll see changes some day.
Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.