The World Cup and Why Hockey May Have Peaked in International Popularity

Despite financial success, The World Cup revealed hockey’s inability to grow globally

By Brady Coyle, Staff Writer

hockey-tiffThe World Cup of Hockey has come and gone and after a relatively uncompetitive tournament, Canada has been crowned champion. More concerning than who won the tournament, however, should be that with yet another Canadian success, how many countries are truly that interested in hockey?

It is a question worth asking. Especially given the tournament organizers could only field eight teams, two of which were not independent countries, and this competition was called “The World Cup”.

The countries challenging for the title of world’s best were Canada, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Russia and the United States, known as “the big six” in the hockey world. Rounding out the list were two teams, created for the purpose of the tournament. There was Team North America, a team made up of the best Canadian and American born players under the age of 23, and Team Europe, a collection of players that came from any European nation that was not independently competing.

It was a unique tournament design, as the organizers focussed on ensuring the world’s elite hockey players were competing. This format allowed the tournament to tap into the depth of talent in Canada and U.S, while ensuring the other five teams were from the most competitive countries in Europe.

“As far as growing the game, having the six ‘usual suspects’ and two all-star teams did the opposite,” says Mihkel Kutti, a part-time employee of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) and Sports Management graduate from Western University. “When it comes to ‘best on best’ hockey, I think it was a success.”

Limited growth of the game has less to do with the appeal of hockey and more to do with accessibility to the sport. When the prerequisite for the activity involves a sizeable sheet of ice and expensive equipment, the availability of the sport has limited participants.

“The main factors that limit hockey growth are cost, safety, and infrastructure,” explains Mr. Kutti. “Participating in [ice] hockey is very cost prohibitive. Even with used equipment, it’s hard to outfit someone for less than $500, and that doesn’t include league fees or ice time.”

It is an expensive commitment to play in competitive hockey, whereas other sports, such as basketball and soccer, simply require a ball and nothing more. Hockey is one of Canada’s national sports, and is one of few countries that annually invest large sums of money into it.

Another accessibility issue for hockey is exposure. Consider international soccer competitions. The last four world cups were held on four different continents. The host cities team gets automatically entered and the entire country has international exposure to the sport.

While the host country is sometimes a favourite to win the event, it need not be the case. South Africa hosted in 2010, Russia is hosting in 2018 and Qatar is hosting in 2022. These are by no means dominant soccer countries, but there is an honour and a pride that comes with hosting the tournament itself.

In contrast, there have only ever been three World Cups of Hockey and Canada hosted the entire 1996 and 2016 tournaments and a majority of the 2004 one, as well.

Since 2005, seven of the World Junior Hockey Championships, an annual international hockey competition, have been hosted in either Canada or the United States. In fact, 1997 was the last year that a country not included in this year’s World Cup hosted the World Juniors, when it took place in Switzerland.

On the other side of the coin though, hosting an international event does cost money. While there are countries such as Switzerland, Latvia, Germany and Kazakhstan who have professional players, they are not willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into the sport.

“Many countries that could be seen as developing hockey nations, don’t have the money, resources, or expertise to build and maintain ice rinks,” says Mr. Kutti.

While hockey has currently hit somewhat of a lull in international growth beyond the big six, Mr. Kutti believes development is possible if the game is made more accessible and less dangerous.

“In order for hockey to achieve healthy, sustainable growth, all stakeholders must strive to make the grassroots game more affordable and safer.”

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