At the risk of inciting another round of Slovakian whinging, the World Cup of Hockey has, so far, had a lovely symmetry to it. Everything has unfolded according to plan—and make no mistake, this tournament was planned precisely to fit the needs of the most demanding of the hockey gods. As my friend Bert likes to say, “C’est du marketing.”
On the ice, Canada seems destined to win this tournament and give the world’s most ravenous hockey nation one last meal before the famine to come. In the absence of the NHL, the European leagues will see their plates overflow with yummy NHL talent this winter, so this is just an appetizer for them. I feel sorriest for American hockey fans, though, as not only is their team playing like elderly men on a prunes-only diet, but even at the best of times, it is a lonely life being a hockey fan in the USA. A work stoppage will not alter the lives of most Americans, just make life more miserable for those who care. At least Michigan and Minnesota have solid junior and university hockey to fall back on.
This tournament was designed to sate the palates of those who matter most to the NHL: Canadian fans. Tournament organizers have not missed an opportunity to promote the product they are about to take off the market. If they actually get to see a home team win a championship, Torontonians might not come out of their daze until spring anyway, but just in case (and for the benefit of the rest of Canada) WCH 2004 has brought us the best of hockey, in a nice, tight package.
The first round featured some great matchups, though the team who scored first never lost, and never even relinquished a lead. If there wasn’t much intrigue in the games themselves, they were at least well played and there were some juicy storylines. Aside from the obvious (any game involving Canada is a given crowd pleaser; USA-Russia—think Lake Placid), the Finland-Sweden 4-4 tie was one of the most exciting hockey games I’ve ever seen. The Finnish fans, riled from an extra four hours of drinking time (Saturday hockey games are regularly scheduled for 4 PM there, but for North American television, the game was moved to 8 PM), cheered louder than the Bell Centre faithful as their team jumped to two two-goal leads. Despite the fact that it was Daniel Alfredsson who engineered the last-second, goalie-out, power-play, game-tying goal, this was an oddly satisfying sister kisser (no, Luke Skywalker was nowhere to be found). No team deserved to lose this one.
Even the Russia-Slovakia game had intrigue, as Alexander Ovechkin, the eighteen-year-old first-round pick of the Washington Capitals, played his first World Cup game and scored his first World Cup goal—and a pretty little number at that. It brought up the inevitable comparisons to a nineteen-year-old Mario Lemieux, and the question of how good this kid will be. Is he the Next One?
Or is that the “next Next One?” Ovechkin is just taking a place behind Sidney Crosby, who is the latest in a line of alleged Gretzky successors: Jarome Iginla, Alexandre Daigle, Jason Spezza, Eric Lindros and even Lemieux. There will never be another Wayne Gretzky—though that seems obvious, it’s not because there will never be another player with his skill or his imagination or a combination of both. It is because never again will a player (especially a player of such talent) be able to play in the NHL for twenty years without taking a single body check. Why is this Mario’s last hurrah? Injuries. Granted, you don’t get Hodgkin’s disease from a Bryan McCabe two-cheeker, but his hip and back woes are related to the physical grind of today’s NHL. What happened to Lindros? Concussion. You don’t get those from thinking too hard (though maybe in Eric’s case …). Ovechkin is going to be good, for sure—and it bodes well that at eighteen he’s already 6’2” and 215 pounds—but unless Dave Semenko makes a comeback, and the rest of the league decides to go non-contact, he’s no Gretzky.
The USA-Slovakia game was more about who wasn’t playing. Namely, an overweight and out-of-shape Brett Hull. And the enigmatic Czechs—including Jaromir Jagr, who nearly skipped the tournament to hang out with his new girlfriend (yeah, I would too) and who slept through the first five periods against the Finns and the Swedes—all of a sudden woke up in the third period of their match with the Tre Kronor and exposed the Swedish defence (and, unfortunately, Maple Leaf prospect Mikael Tellqvist) for the meatballs that they are. They then proceeded to eat the Germans alive, 7-2.
So what’s not to like? Will Canada win too easily? Does that matter? This tournament is an opportunity for the league to promote itself and for the players to garner sympathy from the fans (or at least show the fans why they deserve their millions—and they do, but more on that another time). The only remaining quarterfinal game should see Canada defeat Slovakia, setting up a game with the scary Czechs, who yesterday ate Sweden for lunch. The Americans will have their mouths full with the Finns, who just squeaked by the dreaded sit-and-kick Germans.
So there you have it. I predict we will see Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards match up against the Finns and their old foe, Miikka Kiprusoff, in the final. And with a little help from Kipper’s buddy Jarome, the Canadians should handle Finland and add World Cup champions to their titles, along with reigning Olympic and IIHF Men’s and Women’s champions. Although Slovakian fans may beg to differ …
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist gets rough in the corners every second Wednesday.