“The end does not justify the means.” It’s a phrase we have all used at some point.
But as the World Junior Championship came to its conclusion in Saskatoon, we are left to wonder if “the means did not justify the end.”
To be certain, the end was spectacular. The final game had everything you could want from any sporting event, never mind simply a hockey game: high drama, great skill, fast pace, 11 goals, comebacks, even overtime. The result was not what Canadians had hoped for, but even defeat should not overshadow the excitement generated by two young hockey teams on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday night.
Yet, the final game also served to point out that at its best, this tournament is perhaps the most compelling hockey we get to observe all winter. While at its worst, this is a tournament with flaws that demand to be addressed. Simply put, this is an event with too many participants in which the discrepancy between the top and bottom is cavernous.
While it would be nice to have 10 countries capable of being competitive, that was not the case this year, nor has it ever been. Latvia and Austria were embarrassingly inept. The Czech Republic and Slovakia were only marginally better. The Swiss had one memorable evening in beating Russia, but were otherwise outclassed. And the Finns? Well, nobody doesn’t like the Finns, but they are rarely good enough.
This means the tournament almost invariably evolves into a competition between four teams: Canada, the Americans, the Russians and the Swedes.
Now most would readily agree that you could reduce the field to eight without controversy. Many would acknowledge six would be just fine. But let me offer the notion that four would be perfect.
The truth is the only Canadian games worth watching were the two memorable tussles with the U.S. Games with Russia and/or Sweden might have been similarly compelling, but the schedule and the 10-team field prevented that from happening.
There is no question this tournament has historically been a failure when played outside North America; and even in Saskatchewan it was impossible to stir up much interest in the vast majority of the games that were played. Simply put, there are too many teams that have no business being in the competition.
I don’t expect there to be a change between now and the next world juniors in Buffalo – and certainly not a reduction to the top four. But just imagine if every game had the quality of play and the kind of high drama we observed Tuesday night. This is an event worthy of a higher standard.
Bob McCown, author of the book McCown’s Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments, hosts PrimeTime Sports, the most listened to sports talk radio show in Canada. Reaching more than a million listeners each week McCown is known for his argumentative nature and acerbic demeanor. You can read more of McCown’s work at fadoo.ca.