Every four years, the Olympics offer some of the most exciting hockey you're ever going to see, but you have to sit through a whole lot of garbage to get to it.
The combined goals for and against for the winning teams in the first two days of the tournament were 28-10. Four and two-thirds goals per game scored, one and two-thirds allowed. And that's with more than a few disappointing results for the favorites; Canada having only beaten Norway 3-1, for instance, is the kind of thing that should get Mike Babcock relieved of his duties in a sane and rational world. And that really tells you everything you need to know about the preliminary rounds. Of the 12 teams in the three groups, there are perhaps five that have any legitimate hope of medaling, and the rest are just out there to be cannon fodder.
Charge of the Light Brigade and all that, sure. There's honor in going into a tournament knowing you'll be blown to bits. But the real question is pretty obvious: Why do we keep doing this? The U.S., Russia, Finland, Canada, Sweden. Those are almost certainly going to be the top five teams in Sochi. This first set of games that everyone has now played told us nothing we didn't already know, except perhaps that Canada is still capable of playing with its head up its ass for half a game. But even that game, hilarious as the histrionics it engendered might have been, always seemed like one of those Premier League matches in which the vastly better team played disjointedly for the first 60 minutes against a team in the relegation zone, then rounded into form and scored three times in the final 14 minutes. Many of these games are close for a while. The Slovenias and Slovakias of the world can only take body blows for so long before they finally slump over and can't muster a defense any more. Games get ugly, games get bad. Games get predictable, games get difficult to sit through.
There's really no reason for 12 teams to make this tournament. No reason at all. Even if you whittled it down to, let's say, eight, there are still a few teams that get run over pretty hard by the heavies of the world. There used to be the “Big Seven” in this sport, but even that number is dwindling; anyone who watched the U.S. crumble the Slovaks up into a ball yesterday morning and throw them — nothing but net — into the nearest wastepaper bin doesn't need much more convincing that the Slovaks' days of being competitive squads are effectively dead in the dirt, having been fading for at least the last decade, or perhaps a little longer.
You'll recall that around the early 2000s there were still a pretty good number of Czech and Slovak players coming up through the ranks in North American hockey, but their ability to regularly churn out such prospects seems to have diminished excessively, for whatever reason. One could make an argument that those teams were only still good at that time because many of the players on their rosters who were making an impact on global hockey had been trained by coaches under the immensely successful Czechoslovakian system, but with the dissolution of that nation. Those guys were still around the middle of the last decade, but getting on in years. They've now long since retired. The few effective players they have now at the NHL level are usually in their mid-30s; another way of looking at it is: If the Czechs for example were regularly producing quality hockey talent, wouldn't they have found a way to squeeze the ghosts of Petr Nedved and Jiri Novotny off the roster? The Slovaks, meanwhile, have Marcel Hossa on the team.
(Hell, even though the Russians could medal in Sochi — and they also may not — let's not forget that this is a country that has won exactly one best-on-best tournament in its history, so perhaps the death of amateurism and the Soviet model hasn't really held up as a big help for them either. They continually develop elite forwards, to be sure, but we don't have a ton of evidence that they can develop much else. Vladislav Tretiak is, as they say, not walking through that door.)
I think, too, it also comes down to an issue of roster selection and coaching. Canada and the U.S. can make scandalous and hotly debated mistakes when picking their teams — leaving off Bobby Ryan, including Chris Kunitz, etc. etc. etc. — and still cruise to glory. One mistake with a Slovak roster and you go from maybe being in the running for a medal round appearance if you're lucky, to flattened by everyone in your group. These coaches don't give themselves the best chance to win; want to know the reason the U.S. scored seven yesterday? Zdeno Chara, probably the most effective defenseman of his generation and pretty much the biggest reason the Bruins have been among the best teams in the league these last several years, got just 18:01 in the defeat. Andrej Sekera? He got 19:08. Far be it for me to question the coaching acumen of Vladimir Vjutek, but if you're not letting your one truly dominant NHL big dog out to run 25 minutes a night at least, you're not doing your job correctly. This may be another developmental issue; there are lots of opportunities for coaches to grow and become better in North America, through Hockey Canada and USA Hockey and also the many varied leagues operating under those organizations, but who knows what goes on in Eastern Europe these days.
So the fact of the matter is that something needs to be done to make this tournament more entertaining that it is currently. There is a sort of brutal glee to be derived from Phil Kessel's line pumping goal after goal past Peter Budaj, or watching Sidney Crosby (eventually) start carving up a bunch of guys defenders from the Norwegian league no one has ever heard of, but it's also like rooting for Starbucks to run a local cafe out of business and then have its owners beaten to death in front of their children as they lock up for the last time.
This is an argument I've been making about World Juniors for a while. The same few teams dominate it every year, piling up ludicrous video-game goal differentials on their way to the podium, and in the end there's no real point to having your Germanys and Norways in that tournament every year, because they come up, stick around for a few years, then get relegated to the lower levels of the tournament once again. It's the same principle here, in the Olympics more or less. The first six games of the tournament all had fairly predictable winners (Swedes over Czechs, Swiss over Latvians, Americans over Slovaks, Finns over Austrians, Russians over Slovenians, Canadians over Norwegians). You could have sketched out those results the second the schedule was announced.
So why have them at all? Either reduce the number of teams that qualify to something that's going to make the field more competitive, or do what the International Olympic committee has already done with the women's tournament: The best teams play each other for seeding, and the worst teams play each other for the honor of being pushed into the opening stages of the medal round, where they will be clubbed mercilessly for 60 minutes as a reward for having embarrassed themselves the least of the teams that had no real business being there in the first place. We talk about the ways in which the NHL's playoff system is ridiculous, allowing more than half the league to squirm its way into the postseason, and that's in a system in which the difference between teams Nos. 10 and 20 really isn't that big. The difference between teams Nos. 6 and 7 in the Olympics is gargantuan and, worse, growing.
Again, the difference between the top and bottom Olympic teams is pretty broad, but if you want to see the divergent directions in which the hockey world is moving, look at those World Junior results. Look at draft rolls. The senior game is slower to develop because you have guys who hang around for 10, 15, 20-plus years, but in junior hockey you're getting a new crop of kids every two or three. That's development at its most granular level, and the evidence is shockingly moving more toward the existing seats of power than away from it.
Top players are coming more and more frequently out of those best countries only, and less and less frequently from once-great nations that now lie in relative ruin. The gap is going to get bigger unless something changes, until one day you have what is essentially a four-team tournament (because I'm not ready to give up on Finland's ability to grind and goaltend its way to the occasional medal just yet).
The latest IIHF data shows that registration growth in the Czech Republic and Finland led the way worldwide last year, but the number of countries with six-digit enrollment is still just three (the Czech Republic, the U.S., and Canada). And the fact of the matter is that the bottom 60 countries with programs recognized by the IIHF have about 5,000 fewer registered players than the U.S. alone. And Canada's another 115,000 north of that.
You want to see hockey grow globally, of course, but is there really all that much growing that can be done by watching these lesser nations bring knives and boards with nails through them to tactical nuclear wars? They're getting vaporized before they get off the plane these days, and we've seen little in the way of compelling evidence that they're able to turn it around.