NHL could learn from free-flowing world juniors

The coaching at the NHL level has gotten so thorough and data-based that games have the blood drained from them

nhlCALGARY, Alta. Jan. 13, 2017/ Troy Media/ – For a tournament that didn’t have an under-23 team, I suppose the World Junior Hockey Championships were all right. I mean, those close games and dramatic finishes are nice if you like that sort of thing, but without Team Europe as your drawing card, it’s hard to make these 18/19-year-olds look interesting.

OK, we jest. The semis and finals of the WJC were everything that makes hockey a compelling sport. Perhaps the best word is authenticity – something lacking in the recent World Cup creation of Gary Bettman and Don Fehr. The passion of the players and their families in the stands plus the high level of skill made this another WJC triumph.

So did all the mistakes made by these young players. Because, let’s face it, it’s the youthful enthusiasms for sending pucks into harm’s way that produce so many of the momentum swings in these contests. Put simply, the kids don’t know enough yet to know what they don’t know. So they try stuff.

The pro game, meanwhile, is over-coached to the point of strangling the flow most fans love in the world juniors. The coaching at the NHL level has gotten so thorough and data-based that games have the blood drained from them. It’s progress of a sort. Like robocalls instead of a human voice.

My good friend and former NHLer Perry Berezan has a solution: allow one coach only behind the bench during games. Increase the odds that someone might go rogue and create a breakaway. Allow guys to improvise in a way that they once did when a lone coach stood behind the players. It’s mistakes – but also bursts of individual creativity – that give a game flow.

So let’s see more WJC calibre of play and less of the Stepford Hockey Players.

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Speaking of international hockey, it’s still up in the air whether NHL players will participate in the Winter Games next year in South Korea. A number of the European players say they’re going no matter what commissioner Gary Bettman says. This is a nice sentiment and completely at odds with the huge contracts they’ve signed with NHL teams.

In the end, it will likely come down to how much money the league can recoup from the International Olympic Committee. That’s the Bettman way. Capital before principal. Currently, the league gets bupkes for sacrificing its best players and three weeks of games to the lads from Lausanne. If the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation coughs up enough gelt then it’ll be Seoul or bust for Bettman.

It is believed that it’s a bad idea for the NHL to go around the globe to play in a country that doesn’t know a high stick from a high hernia – and will not be buying into hockey ever. Worse, the games will be seen live in the middle of the night in the heart of hockey – North America. Even Europe will not get the games in prime time.

So how does this grow your sport? For this Olympics, send the under-23s that Bettman loved so dearly last fall. On a continuing basis, the NHL should propose to stage an Olympic tournament in either North America or Europe to run concurrent with the Games when they’re on the other side of the world – as the next two Winter Games are. Use the best players. Games would be seen in prime time. A revenue bonanza for both the NHL and the IOC.

The plan makes too much sense. Hence, the NHL will go to war with Washington Capitals captaim Alex Ovechkin & Co over their contracts. It will stamp its feet and hold its breath with the IOC talks. And it will remain a regional sport run by people with small minds and limited imagination.

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Is Canada ready for Toronto to finally have a good hockey team? For some time, the Leafs have been a punchline in Canadian culture. Without a Stanley Cup or even an appearance in the Cup final since 1967, you could instantly bond with Canadians from outside southern Ontario by making a joke about the futility of the team.

Q: Why are the Maple Leafs blue?
A: Because they’ve been choking since 1967.

But it appears that, much as many might wish it, this cannot go on forever. As of Sunday night, the Maple Leafs are on the cusp of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. After going a blazing 7-2-1 in their past 10 games, a playoff spot looks promising. (And would be only the second playoff appearance since 2006.)

Worse for Leafs haters, the organization once run by the zany Harold Ballard seems to have found an organizational competence. While president Brendan Shanahan is a first-timer in the executive suite, he’s had the good sense to surround himself with legendary GM Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock, the dean of his generation. They have rooms full of analysts, scouts and accountants to exploit Toronto’s natural advantage as the largest Canadian market.

In addition, they’ve collected some brilliant young players, led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Nylander. While Edmonton has proven that assembling prospects is no guarantee, it might actually work in Toronto.

And then where will the rest of Canada be? Bitching that Toronto is the glue that binds the nation. To the Raptors, Blue Jays and TIFF would be added another bragging point for the locals to inflict on their fellow citizens. If Toronto were the first Canadian team to get a Cup since 1993 (when Montreal captured the prize), then we might have to pack up the whole of Confederation.

So don’t ever change, Leafs. Stay as you are. Not that you’ve ever listened to us before.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on [popup url=”http://anticanetwork.com/” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]anticanetwork.com[/popup]. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster. Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.

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