In 1972, if you are old enough to have been alive and to remember that year, the Summit Series captured the attention of hockey fans in Canada. Likely in Russia too. There’s stories galore about that event, TV specials, interviews, modern rethinking of the politics and the violence of the games — it’s a cultural landmark of hockey’s past that still matters today.
Do you remember the Stanley Cup Final that year? I don’t. I had a Bruins fan in my family obsessed with Bobby Orr, and I don’t. Orr won the Hart, the Norris and the Conn Smythe that year as the Bruins beat the Rangers in six games. There’s a banner in TD Garden, I would imagine. But while Orr, Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Rod Gilbert, Brad Park and Ted Irvine led their teams in that final, and those are famous names, it’s not a milestone for all fans. Orr’s effect on the game was powerful, but it was his, not the NHL’s.
The NHL has always had an uneasy relationship with international hockey. The xenophobia of the seventies and eighties is carved into Börje Salming’s face, and it took the end of the cold war and the rise of other nations than just Canada to the pinnacle of the game to make it obvious that hockey could stand some real international competition. The Summit Series pretended that only two nations played the game seriously, and that was a lie even then. The IIHF World Championships is a lie now of a different kind. That event is timed, on purpose, to exclude most of the NHL players, but none of the European league players. It is a tournament designed to foster the illusion that international hockey is outside the NHL, and the NHL is not really part of the world of hockey. It’s Russians, in other words, wanting to control the playground.
Gary Bettman has been content for most of his tenure as Commissioner of the NHL to let the Russians have the international game. He wants, I assume, the opportunity to brand NHL hockey as the only hockey that matters. While the NHL co-operated with the IOC and NBC (possibly more crucial at the time) to have NHL players in several Winter Olympics, that all came crashing to a halt when the Olympics moved to Asia and games were played at a time not very conducive to North American TV ratings. Suddenly, the NHL finally staged the World Cup of Hockey again, once in 2016, prior to the start of the regular season.
Memories of that tournament seem to focus on how much fun people found the “Young Guns” team, and not that it was the dull and defensive schemes of the European squad that won out for the right to get ground into dust by Team Canada. As a method of addressing competitive balance, it might have been a success, but for European countries lumped together in some weird modern version of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Hockey, it fell flat. And it put Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid on two different teams, and it kept Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews from proving that America is where you’ll find the next hockey superpower.
Elliotte Friedman in his 32 Thoughts blog asked, well — begged actually, for another World Cup:
Last summer, Crosby and McDavid made a point of skating together to prepare for the Olympics. Those who were there called it magic. When we consider two great players working as linemates, we generally think of one passing to the other. This went above and beyond that.
“They didn’t pass the puck to each other, they passed the puck to space,” said longtime NHL player development consultant Darryl Belfry, who was with them. “The puck is going to a space that only those two know, because of their collective genius. They’re two steps ahead, and it was glorious to watch them spring scoring chances out of nowhere.”
“They can see where the offensive chances will come from, and where others are trying to contain them. Other top players can do similar things, but not to that level. And they aren’t zipping it hard, they’re flipping it into a space…and gone. That thinking is incredible to witness…especially when you see it over and over and over again.”
Pick a spot: Montreal, Toronto, Vegas…so we can hit the tables between games. Whatever. Make it happen. The fans want it, the media wants it, the players want it.
Get it done.
I second that. Get it done. It can’t be this spring, and it would require an epic effort that started today to make it this coming September, but it has to happen. Hockey is bigger than the IIHF, the Russian desire for political control of the international game, Gary Bettman, the IOC, Chinese government criminal enterprise, and every other thing that’s brought us to this impasse. Maybe the Olympics just aren’t the right venue for hockey and never were. The early gold medals by British teams full of Canadian ringers should have been a warning of that.
Yet, we can have a tournament where McDavid and Crosby play together, where Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel wear the Team USA jersey, where Tim Stützle gets to show off to the world, and where Alex Ovechkin gets one more chance to lead the Russian team in meaningful competition. Oh, and on a personal note: one more go of William Nylander on Niklas Bäckström’s wing. Maybe Gabriel Landeskog can be on the left side.
Let’s find out what the true state of hockey in the world is. Just how good are the Finns? How far has USA hockey come in the eight years since they last played in the Olympics? What can Jon Cooper do with the best players in the world on the ice at his disposal?
Going on for nearly two years now, this blog has felt at times like the Covid Report. The pandemic has, in many ways, made the world small, made us more afraid of the outsider, more insular. But we’ve managed to hold a World Junior Championship, and are about to have another. We can have this. We can have a World Cup.
Get it done.
Happy Holidays, everyone. Have the best day, in whatever way you most enjoy. (I’ll be poking holes in walls.)