January 04, 2010

The Day Canada Withdrew From International Hockey

Today is January 4th. On this day in 1970 Hockey Canada withdrew Team Canada from all IIHF sanctioned international hockey events.

It cost Canada the 1972 and 1976 Olympic games and seven world hockey championships, including the hosting of Canada's first ever world championship, which was scheduled to be co-hosted by Winnipeg and Montreal later in 1970.

Why? Canada had had enough of the IIHF's hypocritical and downright fraudulent policy on amateurism in international hockey.

Essentially Canada (and the United States) were forbidden from using professional players of any kind. Of course Canada's best players were all professional, starring in the NHL.

Meanwhile the corrupt IIHF allowed European countries, most notably the Eastern communist countries, to use their best players under a very thinly-veiled amateur disguise.

So while Canada was sending students and car salesmen to the Olympics and World Championships, Russia and Czechoslovakia were sending players who trained year round, day-in and day-out as hockey players, many of whom were good enough to play in the National Hockey League. As far as the IIHF was concerned they were listed as soldiers or factory workers. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

This had been an problem to some degree dating all the way back to the 1920s, but really became prevalent in the 1950s when the Soviets started dominating international hockey scene. Canada, who admittedly stubbornly clung to the amateur ideals far too long, finally had had enough and their discontent boiled over.

In July 1969 the IIHF and Hockey Canada reached an agreement that for the 1970 world tournament Canada would be allowed to use nine non-NHL professionals. Hardly a deal, but Canada took what they could get.

At Christmas 1969 Canada sent a team to Moscow for the annual Izvestia tournament. The team included five pros and they finished a very close second place. This sent alarm bells ringing at the IIHF, who immediately did an about face (something they had a habit of doing in the 1960s if it meant screwing Canada) and ruled the pros were no longer eligible, and that any of Canada's amateurs at the Izvestia were also now barred from future Olympics and world championships because they had played in a game with professionals.

Canada was irate, as you can well imagine. Finally they would take no more, and stomped their feet down. In response Canada refused to host the World Championships in 1970 and withdrew from international competition.

Here's what famed journalist Jim Coleman wrote in the Toronto Telegram the next day:

"Canada has withdrawn from the phoney world of international hockey and the vast majority of Canadians will applaud this decision. There was no point in messing around further with such hypocrites as the Swedes and the Russians. Canada couldn't gain anything from associating in such shabby sporting company. If you lie down to wallow with the pigs, you're certain to get fleas."

That pretty much summed up Canada's attitude at that point and time. They were completely fed up with international hockey and the IIHF's blatant through constant rule interpretations designed to hurt Canada and the amateur policy Canadians coined as "shamateurism."

In order to grow the game in Europe the IIHF needed to have successful European teams, and that meant they had to curtail the mighty Canadians. But the IIHF needed Canada too. During Canada's 7 year absence from IIHF events, ticket sales plummeted. Europeans still wanted to see the fathers of hockey.

Canada, meanwhile, went above and beyond the IIHF and with the help of the NHL, NHLPA and Canadian government formed a superior international hockey scene using NHL professionals and borrowing the IIHF's best professionals from Russia, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Finland.

It started of course with the 1972 Summit Series, finally pitting the best of the Soviet Union against NHL professionals. The birth of the Canada Cup series pitted the best players, professional or otherwise, from every country compete in a true world hockey championship, greatly diminishing (at least in North America) the IIHF's world championships.

Using their new found leverage, Canada successfully negotiated it's return to IIHF international hockey in 1977. The Canada Cup tournaments would continue, although with irregularity. Canada would be allowed to use NHL professionals at the world championships, although the amateur hypocrisy remained at the Olympics for a few more years. Also, the birth of the World Junior Championships was a result of Canada's return to international hockey.

The IIHF appeared to cave in, but in reality they were very happy with the settlement. They got Canada - their financial drawing card - back on the international scene, but still shackled them with a series of disadvantages, especially at the Olympics.

No comments: