So the World Junior Hockey Championships has come to a close with the USA taking home the gold for the third time in the last 10 years. Once again Canada didn’t win gold. In fact, they didn’t even win a medal. So let’s bring out the boos and the jeers and start calling for the end of the world. Let’s round up a lynch mob and go camp outside PearsonTorontoAirport and wait for Steve Spott to step off the plane. Let’s tout Malcolm Subban as an overrated, flash-in-the-pan choke artist and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a dishonourable, heartless leader of a bunch of spoiled NHL wannabes. Because it’s gold or bust right? I mean if Canada doesn’t win gold, they blew it right?
Why don’t we quit whining and crying about the referee’s calls and about which goalie should have started and give the US, Sweden and Russia their deserved respect as great hockey playing nations? All you have to do is travel to southern California and see what is happening down there with regards to hockey development. Take a plane down to Plano, Texas and check out their hockey development program that is beginning to churn out budding superstars like Stefan Noesen and Seth Jones.
Countries like Switzerland, Austria and Germany are no longer pushovers. There is incredible hockey development going on in lesser known countries like Japan, Korea, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia. The game of hockey has grown far beyond the boundaries that we only see on TSN and in the Hockey News. Former professional players who have ventured to leagues like the high-paying DEL in Germany and the EBEL in Austria, Slovenia and Croatia have taken it upon themselves to help grow the game abroad and enriched hockey development globally over the past twenty years.
We now see superstars from countries we never knew played hockey like Anze Kopitar of Slovenia and Thomas Vanek of Austria. Guys like budding superstar Nino Neiderreiter and NHL captain Mark Streit from Switzerland have helped propel said country into the hockey forefront. With the growth of the game comes a globalization of the hockey superstar. The NHL, for instance, is only arguably the highest paid league in the world now and with its constant structural turmoil and painful lockouts, who knows what lies ahead for the perennial league of all leagues.
When I played overseas in Belgrade, Serbia I was amazed at how naturally talented the domestic players were. Stride for stride and pass for pass, they exhibited just as much or more natural ability on the ice as any Canadian or Russian. All that was missing was experience against stiffer competition and systematic structure.
Before I went to play for HK Partizan, I never even knew where Serbia was and if they even knew what hockey was. At our first practice of the season I saw the hardest shot I had ever seen in my life and I had blocked shots from former NHLer Greg Pankewicz, who won the CHL Skills Competition’s hardest shot event with a 101 mph laser the season before. Branko Mamic, a domestic Serbian player, possessed an absolute cannon. He, like all domestic players, had never played beyond the professional league in Serbia due to the country’s strict policy of providing releases for domestic players. Not only could he hum a puck but he could hit like a freight train.
The skill development in Belgrade was amazing. Everyday I would watch the same youngsters, ages six to thirteen years old, spend hours on the ice after school receiving instruction from the pro team’s head coach Vadim Musatov, who played 10 years in the KHL and was involved in the “Punch-Up in Piestany” as a member of the Soviet team alongside Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny. These kids were naturally athletic and were now receiving top-notch skill development from a young age.
In just the last five years, with the influx of hockey development and coaching from other hockey hotbed nations such as Russia, Canada and the Czech Republic, Serbia has seen its international success blossom. In 2009, the Serbian national team took home the gold medal at the Division II World Hockey Championship, ensuring themselves a berth in the 2010 Division I tournament. They are just a small example of a nation that is quickly becoming relevant in the sport of hockey.
The point of it all is that yes Canada still has the most hockey players registered per capita and it is our national game. But, hockey has grown so much globally since the days of the ’72 summit series, that we now have an abundance healthy competition at international events. It’s not that Canada is regressing in development. The rest of the world is just catching up.
With hockey forefather nations like Canada and Russia spreading hockey guidance and development world-wide, we are witnessing hockey globalization. It’s the growth of the sport that can only benefit everyone involved in the game. The NHL may be on hold, but there is fast-paced, top-notched hockey being played in the OHL, WHL, QMJHL, NCAA, AHL, KHL, DEL, EBEL, Swedish Elite, Finish Elite, EIHL, and many more leagues world-wide. In the last forty years, there is probably not another sport on the planet that has grown in global relevance and pace than the game of hockey.
So in the wake of the latest Canadian catastrophic “melt-down” at the international stage of hockey, take a step back and put things into perspective. We can either brood over the loss and debate about who is to blame for dropping the ball, or we can accept that it is a good thing that there is more parity in hockey around the world. Embrace that the great game has taken seed in so many other nations and that quality of the game has grown to such heights. There is nothing wrong with having pride in your country and wanting to see them win, but it takes the ultimate show of heart and character to display grace in defeat and give credit where it’s aptly due.