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With Fewer NHL Stars, World Championship Has Been Full of Upsets

Upset victories have been a common theme at the men's World Championship this month, creating one of the most competitive international tournaments in quite some time.
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It's been impossible to watch the World Championship and not love the absolute chaos happening on the ice in Riga, Latvia. If you need a bit of a recap after four days, all of this has happened:

Latvia beat Canada. Kazakhstan beat Finland. Denmark beat Sweden. Belarus beat Sweden. Kazakhstan beat Latvia. Slovakia beat Russia. Germany beat Canada.

Slovakia is first in Group A. Germany is first in Group B. Canada and Sweden have yet to win and Kazakhstan could make the playoffs in its first tournament back since 2016.

What in the world?

This year's World Championship had no clear favorites heading in. Canada may have had a roster nearly full of NHLers, but very few are among the top players on their respective teams. Russia's roster was nearly solely made up of KHLers and featured a pair of inexperienced netminders.

And it's not like you can fully use the excuse of COVID-19 preventing a team like Canada from bringing their stars as a reason for its loss to Latvia. The Latvians had zero full-time NHLers on the roster on Friday. Team Canada had 17.

This tournament has been completely bonkers.

Like with what we saw at the 2018 Olympics, when you take away the top talent, you can close the gap a little bit a create a truly compelling product. Of course, you won't get the highest-quality hockey you could ask for, but you're getting competitive, tight action on a large scale with the most teams of any international hockey event with 16.

A tournament of this magnitude would be better with players like Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane every single year, but it's unrealistic, too. The NHL's late start and subsequent later end means players are either still in the Stanley Cup playoffs or choosing to stay home after a grueling 82-game regular season schedule - the longest in hockey. The European leagues have been done for a while and the players have been waiting their turn for a shot at a championship.

The North American teams typically have never taken this tournament as seriously as Europe, and it's not hard to see why. Many of the continent's top stars are still busy. There's enough late-night playoff hockey to keep you occupied. And the early morning starts don't exactly bode well for a North American audience, so many diehard fans dismiss the tournament for that reason.

An ideal world would have the best-on-best taking part. If all goes well, at least we'll get that for the 2022 Olympics in China and maybe in a few years at a revived World Cup. But the men's World Championship is held at a tough time for the planet's top stars to be there, so we have to make do since there aren't many other times that benefit the majority than the one we have right now.

All teams are impacted by missing players. Latvia losing Elvis Merzlikins means a lot more than Canada not having Carey Price or the United States not having Connor Hellebuyck. But when there's a championship on the line, the players will do whatever it takes to win - and this year has been a treasure trove of heartwarming moments of underdog nations pulling off big upsets, often for the first time against their opponents.

Would a year featuring top talent produce this many crazy outcomes? Probably not, but that's the beauty of this tournament. You truly don't know what to expect on a given day. When the top three in Group B play are Latvia, Germany and Kazakhstan after four days of action, you know it's been a wild run.

The scenes in Latvia were incredible after the historic first win against Canada. Even though no fans could see the game in person on home ice, the win meant so much for the nation that Riga was sent into the streets to celebrate for hours on end. And like all the underdog nations that have pulled off incredible wins, the hope is that exposure at that level against top countries will help spark an interest in young kids to want to play the game. That's more important than seeing the same teams win year after year.

The World Championship is great because you truly have to expect the unexpected. That's been the theme in Riga, and after over a year of major events getting canceled on a near-weekly basis, it's nice to see top-level international hockey creating the usual drama we expect from an event of this size.

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