Switzerland: The Only B-Level Team to Improve in Hockey

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIFebruary 19, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 18:  Sidney Crosby (C) of Canada reaches for the puck during the ice hockey men's preliminary game between Switzerland and Canada on day 7 of the 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 18, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Canadian Olympic fans can rise from their knees in prayer.  The medal they want the most, the men's Olympic Hockey gold medal, won by their best players, with an unbeaten record is still possible, only now there are going to be some doubts in their minds.

Their best team barely escaped with a 3-2 shootout win over a country that is traditionally not rated in the "big seven" group, but on the B-level, Switzerland.

This is the second Olympics in a row in which the Swiss have played the Canadians tough.  The first was worse, as they shutout Team Canada 2-0 in 2006, and helped send Canada to a humiliating seventh-place finish.

Switzerland's second good showing against Canada means one of two things:  Either Canada is nearly as bad as it was four years ago, or there is now a "big eight" instead of a "big seven."

In this case, I prefer to stress the positive aspect.  Even though they were badly out shot, Switzerland had goaltending equal to Canada's, and the Swiss came back from a 2-0 deficit.

In the history of hockey since the 1972 Canada-USSR series, Switzerland is the only country to make any real progress.

Congratulations to the Swiss and black eyes to the rest of hockey.

Unlike football, but more than basketball, and baseball (which has been expelled from the Olympics and whose every fourth year world tournament the Americans continue to belittle and ignore the results), hockey has pretensions of becoming the No. 2 two sport in the world behind soccer.

It is the only one of the "big four" North American sports where "foreigners" have most completely been recognized as "equals" or even "superiors" to the North Americans.

But hockey doesn't deserve many pats on the back, not when you consider what the sport could be.

That Switzerland is the only country from the "B-level" to now compete frequently with the top-seven teams says it all.  Hockey has failed broaden its base in the nearly 40 years of European NHL participation.

Every Olympic tournament, every world championship, the situation is the same.  Except for the occasional upset, the same top eight advance to the next round while the last four battle it out to see who gets relegated.

This year, Germany, Belarus, Latvia, and Norway will probably do the honors.

Other proud members on tier-two include Austria, Italy, Denmark, France, Japan, and Khazakhstan. 

This also doesn't include countries that also have ice like Great Britain (Scotland), the Netherlands, Poland, Estonia, China, and Lithuania.

On the women's side, the situation is worse.  The Olympics are virtually a two-team tournament, and now there is talk of possible expulsion for lack of competition.

Curling puts hockey to shame.  Last year, China, a fairly recent participant, won the women's world championship.

If hockey thinks the sport is going to develop internationally without real help from the "big seven," it is sadly mistaken.

Inviting tier-two countries that have no chance to win to participate is boring for the fans and humiliating for the losers.

How about the "big seven" raising the standard of play elsewhere instead.

They have had nearly 40 years to do something and only Switzerland can hang its helmets with the top teams.

Hockey won't get any fresh interest and investment from elsewhere as long as things continue the way they are. 

But the "big seven" seem content with this situation.  If you want to improve, that's your problem, buddy.

Maybe one day hockey will be the No. 2 sport behind soccer. 

But it won't happen unless the "great powers" actively start to raise the standard of play elsewhere, starting with the tier-two countries, I've listed above.

Meanwhile Canadians will debate whether their team played down to the Swiss level or whether Switzerland played at the level of Canada.

Perhaps it is fear—that they might be eliminated from a major hockey tournament by a B-level team—that makes the "big seven" want to maintain the status quo and keep the other countries at the second level, instead of developing international hockey.