Thursday, May 7, 2015

Your guide to the World Championship

Right now, a typical NHL fan is spending just about every evening watching hockey. If the game goes to overtime, that can extend well into the middle of the night. On weekends, there are games on in the afternoons, as well. Which leads to an important question: What should we be doing in the morning?

Could I interest you in some hockey?

The IIHF’s Ice Hockey World Championship is taking place this month in the Czech Republic, and, thanks to the magic of time zones, that means we’ve got meaningful hockey to watch all morning. Granted, it may be a little bit tricky to drag yourself out of bed at 6 a.m. to watch Norway play Belarus, but hockey fans will find a way. After all, you can sleep in July.

The tournament has been running since last Friday, but if you haven’t been keeping track, don’t worry. There are still plenty of games left to go, and I’ve put together a handy guide to bring you up to speed. Here are 10 things you need to know about the World Championship.

1. This tournament is for the championship of the entire world!

Sounds pretty exciting, right? This is the big one. It says so right there in the tournament’s name. Whoever wins this one will be the undisputed world champ!

2. It’s not really a world championship in any meaningful sense.

Look, the World Championship is a nice tournament. It’s fun. It matters to the players who go. But it’s not a real world championship, and never really has been.

The tournament’s biggest problem is timing; since it takes place every year while the NHL playoffs are still going on, many of the world’s top players aren’t able to play. And even among those who are available, finding an excuse not to go has become a bit of an annual tradition. So while the World Championship always features lots of recognizable names, it’s never really a definitive best-on-best scenario.

That said, lots of top stars do end up playing (more on that in a bit), and the quality of play is high. But as far as international prestige goes, the World Championship is far back from the Olympics, the World Cup, and even the World Juniors. At this point, you could probably also make a strong argument that the Women’s World Championship is more meaningful, too.

But none of those tournaments are going on right now, so … on to the World Championship!

3. There are a whole lot of teams.

International men’s hockey is generally considered to be a six-country sport, with gusts up to seven depending on how you feel about Slovakia. The big six — Canada, Russia, the USA, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland — tend to dominate, with the occasional feel-good run by an underdog nation mixed in.

Since it’s kind of hard to run a six-team tournament, major events often work in two more teams and run with eight. Occasionally you’ll get 10 or even 12, with some preliminary tournaments to narrow down the field and give the countries with weaker programs a chance to play meaningful games. But once the real deal gets going, you want to avoid having too many teams cluttering up the schedule.

Not the World Championships. This year’s field features 16 teams, divided into two groups. And every team in a group plays each other in the round robin, which means …

4. All of those teams create lots of mismatches.

Most days on the round-robin schedule have a distinct “mid-’80s Saturday-morning wrestling” feel — you’ve got one good matchup if you’re lucky, and then a whole lot of squashes. Luckily, this year’s tiebreaking procedure doesn’t rely on total goal differential, so there’s no incentive for the stronger nations to really run up the score. But hockey is hockey, and you can take your foot off the gas only so much. We’ve already seen Canada beat Germany 10-0 and Sweden drop Latvia 8-1. That will continue as the round-robin portion wears on; there are basically one or two important games on the schedule for the top nations, and the rest are batting practice.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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