Monday, 2 January 2017

Socialism Works

There were no surprises when it came to the quarterfinal round at the 2017 World Junior Championship this year. There were some impressive efforts, but the four superpowers of hockey marched on to Wednesday's semifinal round as Russia and the US will tangle while Sweden and Canada look to renew acquaintances in the other semifinal match. Credit teams like Switzerland and Denmark for shaking up the tournament with upset wins and timely points, but the only real surprise is that Finland is playing in the relegation series against Latvia. Otherwise, it's status quo when it comes to the final four teams in this tournament.

The question, though, is why has Denmark jumped past former World Junior Championship mainstays such as Germany, Latvia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to become a perennial performer at this tournament?

There's no doubt that having solid junior programs and competent hockey federations helps in churning out good teams at international junior tournaments. Denmark has a developing system with just over 2500 junior-aged players in its ranks presently, but that pales in comparison to the vast junior programs of the final four teams. The Americans have just shy of 310,000 junior-aged players. Russia has nearly 88,000 players of age for this tournament. Sweden has over 41,000. Canada has some 455,000. To say that a country like Denmark has the manpower to compete with these teams is laughable. And yet they do as Denmark showed everyone this year.

Where the country has really made strides in developing and strengthening its program, in this writer's opinion, is the state-sponsored access it gives to people of all ages who want to play hockey. No longer are financial restrictions or the inability to travel with a team holding players back in terms of development. Denmark sees "[t]hree out of four children and about half of the adult population participate in a sport on a regular basis" thanks to the efforts of the country's socialist views on sports and involvement in sports.

According to InGoal Magazine's Greg Balloch, Michael Lawrence is one of the key reasons why we're seeing the smaller countries compete with the superpowers on a regular basis. Lawrence is the owner and head instructor of PRO Goaltending and current goaltending coach for HC Ambrì-Piotta. With the development of a number of Danish-born NHL players, the interest in playing hockey in Denmark has risen, and goaltending is becoming a large reason why we're seeing these "underdog" nations come out on top against the highly-developed hockey nations.

"The availability of development is high end, greater than it is in North America. They have more access to ice," Lawrence explained to Balloch. "Their rate of development is higher across the board – all because of their social system."

That seems like a pretty simple concept - more ice-time for players yields faster development which means that countries like Denmark are closing the gap faster on the hockey superpowers than the superpowers may realize, but it has also afforded Denmark the skill and talent to surpass other countries to which it once fell. By increasing their rate of development, the Danes have shown some remarkable talent in recent years with the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand leading the Danes to new heights. It's the goalies, though, who have stolen games for the Danes when they've been badly outshot, and names like Georg Sorensen, Thomas Lillie, and Kasper Krog have been front and center.

"It's still a year or two away, but Denmark is very rich in talent," Lawrence noted in 2014. "I think their national program is going to get better in goaltending very, very quickly."

I'm not here to say that Michael Lawrence is some sort of clairvoyant, but the last three World Junior Championship tournaments have seen the Danes make great strides in beating teams they wouldn't have beaten in the past and a lot of that has to do with the goaltending they are receiving. TSN analyst Ray Ferraro talked a lot in this tournament about how the teams with less talent can hang with the superpowers by limiting chances, reducing the time, and being opportunistic when they find an opening. Many times, you also see an outstanding goaltending performance to go along with a few timely goals and some desperation defensive play.

Kasper Krog's efforts against the Finns was nothing short of spectacular. The amazing toe-drag move pulled off by Mathias From in overtime against the Czech Republic outshone another excellent 32-save performance from Lasse Petersen. Krog turned in another 49-save effort in the Dane's 5-4 shootout loss to the Swiss. To say that goaltending wasn't huge for the Danish squad in this 2017 tournament would be the biggest understatement of the year. And we're only two days into 2017.

"These guys are just too athletic, too big, and now that they have a good foundation at their disposal, they’re taking off," Lawrence stated in 2014. And it appears they have with the last three tournaments acting as coming-out parties for the Danish netminders.

In the end, I'm not sure that Denmark's wins should really be viewed as upsets when Denmark's state-funding allows more kids to get greater amounts of time on the ice, and most receive free specialized coaching thanks to a system that is set up not only to keep kids in the game, but helps them thrive in it. Because of this, they're closing the gap faster than most other countries on the superpowers. They're also developing players that NHL scouts are watching as Denmark moves up the list in the IIHF World Ranking.

It's apparent that they're still one of the little guys when it comes to winning medals at the top levels of international hockey. No one is going to point to the Danes as a medal favorite in any upcoming tournaments, but the fact that they often give the superpowers a run for their money and, occasionally, pull off a win against the big teams is a sign that what Denmark is doing to develop its players might be better than what the Germans, Latvians, Belarusians, and Kazakhstanis are doing to develop their players. If Denmark gets better at hockey as a country rather than individual players who can afford ice-time and camps and all the other luxuries, the country's hockey program will be stronger on the whole.

Denmark was named as the happiest country in 2016 again. They have free health care and education. Welfare programs work to keep people afloat, and homelessness has virtually been eliminated. They fund their sports via the state so that all can play regardless of financial background or limitation. Yes, they pay more in taxes than you or I on an annual basis, but the results are paying off on the world stage as their hockey program is taking flight on the biggest stages.

Latvia will most likely be relegated following this tournament unless something goes drastically wrong for the Finns. Belarus will be elevated next season to the big tournament in Buffalo. Denmark has already punched their ticket to Buffalo, and neither the Germans or Kazaks will be there. The growth in that program is proof that what Denmark is doing to grow hockey in that country works when comparing it to the growth, and fall in some cases, of other countries' programs.

Don't fear socialism when it makes everyone better. Less poverty, more educated people, more healthy people, and a growing national hockey program of which one can be proud with each individual win on the international stage. Is there any doubt why Denmark is the happiest country right now?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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