I was lucky enough to be in Canada during the opening round of the ill-timed, underexposed World Cup of Hockey—formerly known as the Canada Cup—which is the best-kept sports secret of September. Hockey is a year-round passion in the Great White North, where newspaper coverage of the eight-team World Cup tournament has been extensive and TV ratings high. In the U.S., even though the American team got off to a brilliant start by beating Canada, Russia and Slovakia, the event was shunted to the dark recesses of sports sections, broadcast over obscure cable outlets and overshadowed by more traditional September pursuits: the start of the NFL season, baseball's pennant races, U.S. Open tennis and Tiger Woods's 60th-place finish at the Greater Milwaukee Open. Pity, for if you remember what games were like in the old six-team NHL, the World Cup of Hockey was your chance to relive the past.
That's a mouthful, because the six-team NHL, which lasted from the 1942-43 season through 1966-67, is often referred to as the Golden Age of Hockey. For good reason. With so few teams and so many talented players throughout Canada to choose from, the caliber of play in the NHL in that period was higher than at any time since. Virtually every player—forward or defenseman, first line or third—could skate, pass and stickhandle with aplomb. The goaltending, done mainly by only six men, was almost beyond belief. And with so many terrific minor leaguers waiting for a spot, every NHL player came to play every night, fearful of losing his job. There were no listless games. The action was fast-paced, hard-nosed and great fun to watch.
That changed dramatically in 1967, when the league doubled in size. Less-skilled players began to fill the rosters, men who needed to clutch and grab and interfere to neutralize their betters. Thugs were brought in solely to intimidate and beat up smaller, more highly skilled players. Fighting in anger had always been part of the NHL game, but fighting as a tactic was new. Play got sloppier and less interesting. Stickhandling became a lost art. Crisp passing plays were the exception, and dumping and chasing the puck into the offensive zone became a widely practiced tactic. The gap between the haves and the have-nots widened, so that bad games began to outnumber good ones. Still, expansion followed expansion, and today the NHL has 26 teams.
To bridge the talent gap, NHL executives had to look beyond Canada's borders, first by signing U.S. college players, then by luring top European players to North America. The trickle from overseas became a stream with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and that has been good for the game. Today, any list of the top dozen NHL forwards would include at least six from Europe: Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic; Sergei Fedorov, Alex Mogilny and Pavel Bure of Russia; Peter Forsberg of Sweden; and Teemu Selanne of Finland. All told, more than 110 European-born players competed in the NHL last year, elevating the league's skill level to its highest since, oh, 1967.
So the World Cup of Hockey—with teams from Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and the U.S.—is something of an NHL All-Star tournament. The majority of the players are from the NHL, and most of those are among the league's upper-echelon performers. The result has been fast-paced, hard-nosed games that are great fun to watch. Even supposedly weak sisters Germany and Slovakia have proved they belong. Germany routed the favored Czechs 7-1, and Slovakia nearly upset Canada, giving up two third-period goals to lose 3-2. The quality of play has been the best you'll see all year. Clutching and grabbing have been minimal, bodychecking has been fierce, and players, spurred by national pride, have played with passion. A few fights, born of anger, have even sprung up.
The surprise team has been the U.S., which on Sunday advanced to the best-of-three finals against Canada by beating Russia 5-2. This isn't another miracle on ice, like the winning of the 1980 Olympic gold medal. Team USA is skilled and well-coached, solid from the goal outward. What it lacks, what American hockey players have always lacked, was best articulated by forward Brett Hull late in a 9-3 U.S. win over Slovakia, when he began singing the old Aretha Franklin hit Respect on the bench. Tired of playing in the shadow of Canada and Russia, the Americans have turned the Cup into a coming-out party.
For those who have been too busy watching traditional September events to notice, the good news is that this tournament's format will be used at the 1998 Olympics, when the NHL will interrupt its season so players can showcase their skills at the Winter Games. They are skills that deserve center stage.