While the bulk of the Canadian hockey media has its attention turned to Ufa, Russia and the World Juniors, I have to admit I find the pro-calibre hockey out of Davos, Switzerland a little more compelling. Daniel Wagner has already posted about the story lines of the Spengler Cup tournament, which features a team made up entirely of Canadians playing in Europe, but I like the idea of a holiday tournament season more than the tournament itself.
For those not in the know, ever since 1923, HC Davos, one of the the Swiss League’s oldest and most prominent clubs, has hosted an invitational tournament open traditionally to European clubs, although North American participants are welcome. Team Canada sends over a group every year made up of players in the European league or given clearance to bolt by their AHL squads. It’s not an All-Star roster by any means, but this time around, Canada was able to secure John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Smyth among others.
However, they’re playing alongside Byron Ritchie, Josh Holden and Jacob Micflikier, not players who had a whole lot of NHL success, but make their living full-time in the Swiss league. It seems like an awesome place to make a living and play hockey, and this week I’ve been inspired to go to Davos over the Christmas holidays and take in the Spengler Cup, because it’s unique in the hockey world as an annual, meaningful tournament among international club teams.
I have no fancy stats or long-form analyses of the tournament, but I’ve enjoyed the hockey. I’ve enjoyed the club atmosphere, that it feels the Canadian squad is just like any other competing and not put together like an all-star roster. They have star players, but you can’t just give Ryan Smyth a hockey stick and skates on a European ice surface and expect him to dominate. Unlike the other tournament that takes place this time of year, the players Team Canada are competing against are full-time players. It bugs me when the Olympics roll around and Canada doesn’t roll over the Norwegians or the Germans or the Swiss like people expect, and they call out the team for being flawed. A pro hockey player is still a player who does what he does full-time. You’d expect him (unless his name is Jack Johnson) to be somewhat good at his job and tougher to play against. For German junior players that got whopped by the American and Canadian junior teams, not a huge percentage will end up finding full-time jobs playing hockey.
So there’s that. The competition is better. The players are good enough, teams are reinforced by enough talent, that the ice surface is effectively used. One of my gripes with the international ice surface is that teams with not a lot of talent can more effectively trap since it takes longer to get from the side of the ice to the scoring zones. There’s more room to circle back and re-group. It’s a different game, and one I’m not sure that I like, increasingly tactical over the bang-bang type of play that we’ve come to love in North America. Simply put, without excellent players on the ice, a European game will be more restrictive and offence rarer.
The Spengler Cup is, unfortunately, the only regular tournament that takes place between club teams in different leagues. This isn’t just Team Canada and HC Davos. HC Fibourg, another Swiss team, competes, and this year’s invited teams were Adler Mannheim of the German league, Vickovice of the Czech league, and Salvat Yulaev of the Continental Hockey League (KHL) whose home rink in Ufa is being taken over by junior hockey players this week.
In soccer, leagues have international windows where they stop club play to allow for international tournaments. Recently in discussions about the schedule (guys like Tom Tango, Nick Cotsonika, and everybody’s favourite, Tyler Dellow, have chimed in) I think hockey fans have come to accept that an 82-game season isn’t necessary. I see no reason why you’d want to play a team in league play any more or less than twice—once at home, once on the road. As excellent as Vancouver-Chicago games have been in recent years, there’s something more special if they’re rare. Conversely, when the NHL does reboot this season, there’s an almost definite chance that an exciting team like Carolina will only play in 15 of 30 NHL buildings. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be kept to the East, and only half the league will get a chance to see the Stanley Cup Champions Los Angeles Kings.
A shorter league season, like in European football, would provide a more open window for these cool little tournaments to pop up. I think I’d love to see the Boston Bruins take on CSKA Moscow on international ice, or to see how a fast-paced team like SKA St. Petersburg would do on the shorter, more offensive North American surface. Ryan Lambert made the point over at Flames Nation this week that international tournaments increase the visibility of the league, as well as the interest. There’s also that built-in bonus of games being played in the early afternoon in the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s to show professional-calibre hockey, leaving the prime time for NCAA college bowl season.
Recreating the Spengler would be a tough sell, particularly if you started letting NHL-level clubs jump in. I suppose the honest solution would be a smaller North American league, which in turn disperses some of the talent back over the European clubs. Losing a player like Evgeni Malkin to Metallurg Magnitogorsk isn’t an issue if Metallurg Magnitogorsk plays an NHL team four or five times a year in various tournaments and international club competitions. A shorter NHL season and quicker resolution of the Stanley Cup playoffs (which I’d prefer acting like an open North American tournament similar to the FA Cup) would lead to greater interest in the World Championships. It looks particularly bad that Canada and the United States remain the lone two hockey countries that are so feverishly and adamantly uncommitted to an event that’s quite popular in Sweden, Finland and Russia. From what I understand, club-level play in Russia is secondary to the international competitions.
Unfortunately, these are pipe dreams, but the lockout forces us to re-think how hockey ought to be played, in a perfect universe. You begin to understand that the game of hockey, as well as popular teams like Toronto, Montreal, Boston and even Los Angeles, would have worldwide appeal and really owe nothing to the NHL, who serve to keep teams rooted in North America, appease a few season seat holders and restrict overall competition. I’d like to see a lot more play, a lot more clubs, a wider variety of players, and I think tournaments like the Spengler are the way to do it, as long as there were strong enough incentives to make it worthwhile for quality NHL clubs to spend their holiday seasons in Moscow or Stockholm.
But mostly, I like the idea of sitting in my pyjamas, watching NHL players at 2 in the afternoon on December 27th, which was an excellent decision I made Thursday.