August 31, 2016

World Cup of Hockey Previews: Finland

Do not be surprised if World Cup of Hockey 2016 is the tournament that finally sees Finland come out on top.

Finland has been a world power since the early 1990s. Yet they have never won it all in a best-on-best tournament.

They have medalled (2 silver, 4 bronze) in six of the last eight Olympics. People have long forgotten that Finland finished second at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, falling 3-2 in a tight championship game. They have won two gold medals (and 8 silver, 3 bronze) at the World Championships, though that isn't truly best on best. 

Let's just say they are overdue for a championship.

The Finns have the perfect mixture to get the job done - experience, depth, goaltending, skill. They are so strong positionally and can roll all four lines in waves.

The Finns will be taken as far as goalies Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne take them. No country has better goaltending than Finland, not even Canada. 

With an average age of 24, the Finnish blueline is a little less experienced than some in the tournament. But the team's bread and butter is team defense. These young stars will be well sheltered by the hardest working group of forwards in the tournament.

The Finns feature four lines that play hard-nosed, two way hockey. So many, of their forwards can be described as reliable or savvy. This is very much a team that is more than the sum of it's parts.

With the likes of Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu now retired, Finland desperately needs a superstar to emerge to lead this team offensively. While all eyes may be on 18 year old Patrik Laine, this very much be Aleksandr Barkov's coming out party. Barkov may be the NHL's best kept secret right now, but not for much longer. I truly believe he is on the verge of being a top 10 player in all of hockey very soon.
Finland has the goaltending, team defense and balanced attack to take this tournament. I suspect Finland will 

August 30, 2016

World Cup of Hockey Preview: Czech Republic

It was not so long ago that the Czech Republic was the top hockey nation in the world.

Rewind your clocks 15 or 20 years back to 1996 to 2001. In that five year span the Czechs, backed by legends Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr, famously won the 1998 Olympic gold medal. They also took four World Championships and two World Junior championships in that time frame.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.
  • They have not been a threat at an Olympics since.
  • They won the 2010 World Championship, but have averaged 5th place ever since.
  • Since 2001 they have medalled just once at the World Juniors. 
If this trend continues, by the time the World Cup of Hockey presumably returns in 2020, the Czechs might be part of the amalgamated Team Europe entry should that gimmick itself return. Perhaps Switzerland could take their place. The Czechs have some systemic issues that begin right at the grassroots levels, and that is now showing at the elite level.

The likelihood of the Czech Republic winning the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is not good, at best. 

Up front the Czechs feature some nice talent in the likes of Ondrej Palat, David Krejci, Jakub Voraceck, Tomas Plekanec and Tomas Hertl. They could really benefit from some early power play chemistry.

But do they have the depth up front to compete? They will be relying heavily on the likes of Martin Hanzal, Vladimir Sobotka and Radek Paksa to provide a 200-foot game and make things uncomfortable for the opponent.

You will of course notice Jaromir Jagr's absence. He has retired from international hockey, preferring to save his aging body for the long NHL season.

In net the names Petr Mrazek, Michal Neuvirth and Odrej Pavelec will not likely keep opposition shooters awake at night. Now obviously anything can happen in these short tourneys, but the Czechs may have the weakest goaltending in the tourney.

The no-name blueline certainly will not help out the goaltenders. The big bodied Canadians and Americans will likely feast upon this weak group. Andrej Sustr, Roman Polak, Jakub Nakladal, Michal Kempny, Michal Jordan? Hey at least we've heard of Radko Gudas and Zbynek Michalek.

The coaching staff will have to protect his blueline greatly and that will only be accomplished if the Czechs can control the neutral zone and avoid puck chases and the odd man rush. That means forwards playing low and their own scoring chances will dwindle because of it.

It could be a short tournament for the Czech Republic. 

August 29, 2016

World Cup of Hockey Legacy Project

I usually keep pretty good tabs on all the hockey news out there. And I also have an interest in how hockey can have various philanthropic and socioeconomic benefits at all levels.

So it shocked me when I learned about the World Cup of Hockey Legacy Project, the latest in a series of Legacy Projects by the National Hockey League and it's partners.

Usually the NHL media machine is a little more in-your-face with such good news stories. I'm sure they are in the local markets that benefit from these efforts, but being removed from such markets it was all unbeknownst to me.

NHL Legacy Projects are designed to leave a lasting effect on the city where the NHL hosts special events. They do this for All Star games, Winter Classics, Stadium Series games and so forth.

We're not just talking about fixing up a local rink or dropping off some sets of sticks for kids here.

The World Cup of Hockey project focuses on improving the education health of Toronto's youth. They, along with the NHLPA, MLSE Foundation and Hockey Canada, are transforming a vacant 42000 square foot facility in Toronto's Moss Park neighborhood to house sporting courts, classrooms, office spaces, a nutrition hub, and multipurpose atrium.

Hockey-centric programs will be heavily featured here, of course. And this is the type of neighborhood where these parties do need to make a difference. 42 per cent of the neighborhood population are new Canadians, with Chinese and Filipinos making the bulk of that number. They will be introduced to hockey and Canadian culture at what is being dubbed MLSE LaunchPad. Perhaps they will embrace our game as a participant or as a spectator as they have embraced our country.

Hockey isn't the only focus, and not even the ultimate goal here. Promoting healthy minds and bodies through sports while integrating life skills programs is ultimately more important. After all, hockey is a game that unites us all and teaches lifelong lessons such as goal setting, teamwork and sportsmanship.

It is wonderful to see the NHL, the NHLPA and the various business partners seeking ways to contribute to their communities. We need more stories like this.

August 26, 2016

Top Ten Games Played In September

Hockey in September? How can a world-class tournament be held at such an unusual time of the year. The Canada Cup and World Cup have given us some Septembers to remember.

Here’s a look at the ten greatest games in Canada Cup/World Cup history:

Sept 9, 1976 - Czechoslovakia 1 – Canada 0 – This hockey classic is considered to be one of the greatest games ever played in the Montreal Forum and in Canada Cup history. It was a nearly technically perfect game featuring brilliant goaltending by Rogie Vachon and Vladimir Dzurilla. The atmosphere was simply electric until Milan Novy quieted the crowd by scoring the round robin game’s only goal late in the third period.

Sept 15, 1976 – Canada 5 Czechoslovakia 4 (OT) – After the classic round robin match, Canada blew out Czechoslovakia 6-0 in game one of the 1976 finals. Game 2 returned to classic status with a dramatic end of the third period and exciting overtime. Czechoslovakia came form a 2-1 deficit to take a stunning 4-3 lead late in the third period. Bill Barber was able to pounce on a misplayed puck to force the extra frame. In overtime Darryl Sittler scored one of the most famous goals in Canadian hockey history to capture the inaugural Canada Cup.

Sept 11, 1981 – USSR 4 – Czechoslovakia 1 – Everyone talks about the Cold War between Canada and the Soviets, but the rivalry between the Soviets and Czechoslovakians was always intense as well. The Czechoslovaks started the game with a blistering pace, and were cheered on by the Ottawa crowd. However Vladislav Tretiak turned in one of his greatest performances, stopping 26 of 27 high quality shots in an exciting game that saw the winner advance to the finals.

Sept 13, 1981 – USSR 8 – Canada 1 – The Soviets greatest victory over Canada ranks as Canada’s most humiliating defeat. To make matters worse, it came in Canada’s Cathedral of Hockey – the Montreal Forum. Sergei Shepelev scored three times and Vladimir Krutov made Guy Lafleur look foolish on another en route to the Canada Cup championship. The Soviets celebrated and were truly the most dominant force in hockey.

Sept 13, 1984 – Canada 3 – USSR 2 (OT) – Heralded as the greatest game ever played at the time, Canada dug down deep to upset the Soviets in the qualifying game for the finals. Outside of the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets had dominated the international scene since 1979, and included a convincing 6-3 round robin victory over Canada. But a gutsy effort saw Canada come from behind to force overtime. In overtime, Paul Coffey, of all players, came up with one of the biggest defensive plays in tournament history when he broke up a Mikhail Varnakov – Vladimir Kovin two–on–one and, with the relentless help of tournament MVP John Tonelli, turned the play into a Mike Bossy winning goal. Canada would go on to defeat Sweden in the anti-climatic Canada Cup finals.

Sept 13, 1987 – Canada 6 – USSR 5 (Double OT) – With Russia capturing game one of the best of three series, Canada needed a victory to force game 3. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were teamed together full time for the first time in the tournament, and the result was pure magic. This game was so entertaining even the 17,000 plus fans in Hamilton left the game exhausted. Regulation time saw end-to-end rushes and dramatic action. Canada was clinging to 5-4 lead when Valeri Kamensky scored one of the most famous goals in tournament history to force overtime. The pace in overtime never slowed. Halfway through the second overtime Gretzky sets up Lemieux for the winner. It was Lemieux’s third goal of the night, and Gretzky’s fifth assist. Gretzky would call this game the greatest game he ever played.

Sept 15, 1987 – Canada 6 – USSR 5 – Game 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup will always be remembered for Wayne Gretzky’s and Mario Lemieux’s last minute heroics. The game itself was a notch below the entertainment standards of the game two days earlier, but the drama experienced by Hamilton fans was just as intense. The Soviets stunned Team Canada with a 3-0 lead by the eight-minute mark. But Canada, led by grinders like Brent Sutter, Rick Tocchet and Doug Gilmour clawed away at the Soviets’ lead with one of the gutsiest efforts in hockey history, and to set up the Gretzky-Lemieux dramatics.

Sept 7, 1991 – Canada 6 – Czechoslovakia 2 – The 1991 Canada Cup saw the emergence of the Finns and Americans, and downfall of Russians, and was anti-climatic if only because Canada was never really challenged. This game was one of the most interesting as Eric Lindros played in his first game in the province he refused to live in. Montreal fans booed the Team Canada teenager loudly, but Wayne Gretzky put on a show to put the political sideshow aside and help unite Team Canada. Gretzky scored 2 goals and 1 assist. Lindros left the crowd in silent amazement with a thunderous body check that put Martin Rucinsky out for the series.

Sept 7, 1996 – Canada 3 – Sweden 2 (Double OT) – The Canada – USA showdown in 1996 almost never happened, as Sweden put in an incredible effort against Canada in the qualifying game. Philadelphia fans witnessed Curtis Joseph and Tommy Salo engage in a class goaltending duel, which lasted 13 seconds shy of a full two overtime periods. Paul Coffey set up Theo Fleury to snap home the winning goal just seconds after Sweden had 4 tremendous opportunities to capture victory.

Sept 14, 1996 – USA 5 – Canada 2 – In the new political world Team USA emerged as the new hockey power and managed to dethrone Canada in game 3 of the thrilling finals of the first World Cup of Hockey. Montreal fans were disappointed to see a solid Canadian effort fall short against the Americans. MVP Mike Richter put in one of the greatest performances in tournament history, repeatedly stoning a barrage of Canadian scoring opportunities. Brett Hull, Derian Hatcher and Tony Amonte finished strong tournaments with strong performances to give USA hockey supremacy for the first time.

August 25, 2016

2016 World Cup of Hockey Coverage Coming To GHL

When it comes to the World Cup of Hockey, I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert. After all, I did write the book about it.

Back around the turn of the century, co-author Patrick Houda and myself set out to write an encyclopedic history of the Canada Cup tournaments. The publisher, Warwick, wanted to spin it more to the World Cup or American audience, even though at that time the 1996 tournament was the only incarnation. Hence the change of focus. I don't even think the publisher exists anymore. Shows you what they knew.

By 2002 the original book was published. A revised edition came out in 2004, just in time for the 2004 tournament.

The book, like my other print book Legends of Team Canada, was remaindered some time ago, so copies are hard to get admittedly.

Point is, I want to return to my roots. While I - like many of you - have mixed feelings about the World Cup of Hockey's return, I, too, will return, if you will. And that I am very much looking forward to. 

So stay tuned to GHL for growing collection of original writing on the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.

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