THE BEST HOCKEY YOU NEVER SAW EVERYTHING HAS BEEN JUST RIGHT ABOUT THE FIRST WORLD CUP--EXCEPT THE TIMING

September 15, 1996

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.

PHOTO: JAMES DRAKE The Cup recalled vintage days (here, 1967) and plays. [Two ice hockey players in game]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)