Ranking the Best Hockey Countries of the Modern Era

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

Ranking the Best Hockey Countries of the Modern Era

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Canada is coming off an impressive gold-medal performance at the 2014 Sochi Games, but is it the most dominant country in hockey's modern era? And where do teams like the United States, Russia, Sweden and Finland stack up?

    To answer this question, we've gone through each team's record in modern tournaments featuring the best possible rosters: the 1996 and 2004 World Cups as well as the 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

    Excluded are tournaments like the World Championships, which rarely include the best possible teams, Olympic Games that excluded NHL players and tournaments like the Canada Cup, which featured an intact Soviet Union.

    To further narrow the focus, we have included only games played against international hockey's so-called "Big Eight" teams (Canada, Sweden, USA, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Switzerland). That means teams get no points for routing Latvia or Austria; only wins and losses against top competition are counted.

    How do the teams stack up? Read on to see which countries have the best records in play featuring the top players in the world. 

8. Slovakia

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Record: 5-14-0 (0.263 win percentage) 

     

    Highlight

    In best-on-best competition, Slovakia's finest performance came at the 2010 Olympics, when the team beat Russia during the group round and Sweden in the quarterfinals. Ultimately, that team fell 3-2 to Canada in the semifinals and dropped to fourth after Finland won the bronze-medal game.  

     

    Lowlight

    2014 wasn't kind to Slovakia, but it wasn't as bad as the 2002 Olympics either. Slovakia lost games to Germany and Austria in Salt Lake City, tied Latvia and embarrassingly had to beat France in a consolation-round game just to secure 13th place. 

     

    Why They're Here

    The team of Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa and Jaroslav Halak has had moments on the international stage—including a gold-medal win in 2002 World Championships—but has consistently failed more often than succeeded against top opposition.  

7. Switzerland

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 3-6-0 (0.333 win percentage)

     

    Highlight

    A team founded on strong goalies and total commitment to defence, Switzerland has consistently punched above its weight, and nowhere more so than in Turin at the 2006 Olympics. There, the Swiss topped the Czechs and shut out the Canadians in group play, finishing in sixth place. 

    That was one spot better than Canada and two better than the United States. Though not a best-on-best tournament, Switzerland also won silver at the 2013 World Championships. 

     

    Lowlight

    Switzerland has fewer games played than anyone else on this list because it doesn't always reach the top tournaments. After a middling qualification tournament in 1998, the Swiss were forced to play one game for the right to participate in the Olympics; they lost 2-0 to Austria and thus didn't even play at Nagano. 

     

    Why They're Here

    Switzerland is surely the weakest of these eight teams in terms of overall roster strength, but the Swiss have found a strategy that utilizes their strengths (team play, great goalies) and allows them to hang in with and at times even beat superior rosters.  

6. Czech Republic

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Record: 9-17-1 (0.352 win percentage)

     

    Highlight

    The 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first featuring NHL players, were supposed to see North American teams assert their dominance against European professionals. Instead, Dominik Hasek and the Czechs stole the show, winning gold with consecutive wins over the United States, Canada and Russia. 

     

    Lowlight

    The 1998 win was particularly surprising given what happened at the World Cup two years earlier. In 1996, the Czechs finished in eighth place after losing all three games they played, including a 7-1 defeat at the hands of lowly Germany. 

     

    Why They're Here

    Despite the 1998 gold-medal win and impressive rosters all down the line, the Czechs just haven't done very well against top teams in international play. It seems suggestive that the team's managers and coaches haven't done enough to get the most out of their talent. 

5. Russia

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Record: 13-15-1 (0.466 win percentage)

     

    Highlight

    Russia has yet to win a tournament featuring every nation's best players since the fall of the Soviet Union. The closest it came was a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Russia went 3-0 in the group round and thus had a relatively easy road to the gold-medal game, which it lost 1-0 to the Czech Republic. 

     

    Lowlight

    The flip side of Russia never winning is that it never finishes very low, either. Technically the worst performance was a sixth-place finish at the 2010 Olympics, but 2014's fifth-place conclusion in Sochi trumps that given where those Games were held. Russia lost two games to Big Eight competition (Finland and the United States) and needed the shootout to beat Slovakia. 

     

    Why They're Here

    Russia's typically regarded as being a "Big Four" international team, but the results just don't support it. The country has fallen behind North America and Scandinavia at hockey's highest levels. 

4. United States

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    Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

    Record: 17-15-1 (0.530 win percentage)

     

    Highlight

    Team USA's first best-on-best tournament of the modern era was also its finest. The United States went 3-0 during the group round of the 1996 World Cup, topped Russia in the semifinals and then beat Canada by winning two of three games in the final round. The country has had second-place finishes since, but that was the one time the team faced the best rosters in the world and won. 

     

    Lowlight

    The Turin Olympics were hard on North American teams, and the United States took the worst of it. In the group round, Team USA lost to Russia, Sweden and Slovakia and had to settle for a tie against Latvia, with a lone victory coming against Kazakhstan. A quarterfinals loss to Finland ended the tournament.

     

    Why They're Here

    Team USA falls to fourth in these rankings by the narrowest of margins. A victory over Finland in the bronze-medal game in Sochi would have moved the team ahead one spot, but instead, the Americans' overall record drops to fourth. 

3. Finland

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Record: 15-13-1 (0.534 win percentage)

     

    Highlight

    In five of the seven best-on-best tournaments considered here, Finland has finished in either second or third place. While Finland's second-place showing at the 2004 World Cup needs to be considered, the team was never more dominant than at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

    There, Finland went 5-0 in the group round (including a 2-0 win over Canada) and eliminated the U.S. and Russia before falling to Sweden by a single goal in the gold-medal game. 

     

    Lowlight

    The 2002 Salt Lake City Games were Finland's poorest showing. While the Finns did manage a win over Russia in the group round, they lost to Team USA and then were quickly dispatched in the quarterfinals by a Canadian team that had struggled to that point in the tournament but would ultimately win gold. 

     

    Why They're Here

    Finland often gets overlooked because it has yet to win a best-on-best tournament, but unlike other top teams, the Finns are always competitive, rarely if ever putting in an embarrassing showing. The bronze-medal win over Team USA in Sochi moves them to third in best-on-best rankings since 1996.   

2. Sweden

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Record: 14-8-1 (0.630 win percentage)

     

    Highlight

    There's no question here. Sweden's gold-medal win at the 2006 Turin Olympics represents the country's high point in the modern era of best-on-best hockey. After a challenging group round that saw Sweden beat Team USA but lose to Russia, the Swedes knocked off Switzerland, the Czech Republic and finally Finland to win gold. 

     

    Lowlight

    Again, there's no question as to the low point in modern Swedish hockey. During the 2002 Olympics, Sweden rolled through the group round, beating the Czechs and crushing Canada 5-2. As a result, it got a favourable quarterfinals match against Belarus. In a shocking upset, Belarus beat Sweden 4-3 and advanced to play Canada. 

     

    Why They're Here

    Sweden's overall record against top teams is excellent—so good, in fact, that a win over Canada for gold in Sochi would have moved the Swedes to first place in these rankings. 

1. Canada

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Record: 22-10-1 (0.682 win percentage) 

     

    Highlight

    With four wins in seven best-on-best tournaments, there is no shortage of highlights to choose from, and each was special in its won way. The most prominent were the Olympic golds.

    In 2002, Canada won its first gold medal in five decades. In 2010, it won gold on home soil. And in 2014, it won gold on European soil for the first time in modern best-on-best play.  

     

    Lowlight

    The 1998 Nagano defeat probably stung more, but no Canadian loss was more humiliating than the seventh-place finish at Turin in 2006. After dropping 2-0 decisions to Finland and Switzerland in the group round, Canada was shut out again in a 2-0 quarterfinals loss to Russia. 

     

    Why They're Here

    If the best-on-best tournaments we've considered here were a seven-game playoff series, with Canada on one side and the rest of the world on the other, Canada has won four of them. No other single nation has won more than once.