Much of the NHL community treats the International Ice Hockey Federation as a nuisance, a distraction, an ankle-biting interloper. For example, NBC Sports once bought rights to the IIHF World Championship just to keep the medal round off of TV in America. The short-sighted logic appears to be that if National Hockey League fans pay too much attention to skaters in Europe throughout the morning and afternoon, they’ll forget to tune-in to Stanley Cup action at night.
Nothing could be less truthful. Just as in the soccer landscape, newbie ice hockey fans learn about club teams by following national teams, and vice versa. NHL enthusiasts get to see prospects and veterans wear the Maple Leaf or the Stars & Stripes and compete in unique settings. IIHF fans impressed by the NHL’s talent can stay up late and stream hard-hitting pro hockey from St. Louis or Las Vegas or Toronto.
An explosion of social media content – and a newly-enthusiastic NHL Network – are helping the IIHF gain popularity in the United States. But there’s still a dearth of English-language analysis leading up to many events. Only the World Juniors are touted religiously by ESPN and other mainstream media, and that’s because the World U20 is a scouting orgy for draftniks. American interest in the WJC is built on NHL-prospect fandom with few viewers caring deeply who wins or loses. Senior-level IIHF games still receive brief “obligatory” press treatment, even in Canada.
Gamblers may be hardest hit by the lack of information. Bovada Sportsbook and other online books are glad to offer markets on marquee and preliminary games alike, but handicapping such face-offs successfully is difficult when there isn’t much punditry or even game film to go on.
WagerBop’s got it covered. Scroll down for a chronological preview of Men’s and Women’s showdowns in 2020, complete with futures odds, nations, players to watch, and tips on predicting outcomes in a fascinating genre of pond shinny.
IIHF Women’s World Championships in 2020
Last year’s Women’s World Championship was a doozy. Following decades of utter domination from Team USA and Team Canada, an underdog Team Finland raced through the medal round, wound up in overtime against the Americans, and scored an electrifying golden goal in front of a host crowd in Helsinki.
Only 1 problem…the goal was erased about 15 minutes later by a video judge based on sketchy evidence, after the Lady Lions had already stripped-off their gear and collapsed in a pile on the ice. Team USA went on to prevail 2-1 in a shoot-out result that satisfied no one…except the Yanks.
Still, the tense (and questionable) outcome was a landmark in that Finland established itself as a genuine gold-medal threat, not just a here-and-there spoiler bid against North American skaters. Women’s hockey has sorely needed a kick in the pants in Europe. 2019’s drama would have been a bigger kick in the pants if the golden goal had stood as called on the ice, but no question the controversial result called more attention to the distaff game on both sides of the Atlantic.
Team USA will be favored to win IIHF gold for a 10th time when the 2020 WWC faces-off in Nova Scotia on March 31st. Canada remains a fierce rival, but has not won a WWC since 2014, and suffered a damaging blow when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded nearly a year ago. Name-brand U.S. talent like Briana Decker, Hilary Knight, and Kendall Coyne-Schofield (who is faster on skates than a plurality of NHLers) rule the division despite strong defense and goaltending from north of the border. The fact that so many Habs have been displaced from their former pro clubs only makes things worse for the 2nd-ranked national team in the short term.
In the long run, though, there’s a lot of tight competition to look forward to. Canadian skaters will benefit from playing in the NWHL against Olympic and World Championship counterparts, and meanwhile, Finland is developing 3-4 lines of talent to go with inestimable GK Noora Räty. We know that USA, Canada, and Finland will pick-up most of the gold, silver, and bronze medals each April…but we don’t know what order they’ll fall in, and that’s a boon for a sport that was once as exclusive to North America as Saturday and Sunday pigskin.
Hungary and Denmark are the new arrivals at the 2020 WWC, which will also ice teams from Germany, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. Medal-round play begins on April 7th with the gold and bronze decided on 4/10.
Other Divisions of the IIHF Women’s Worlds
Any top-level World Championship is just that – a singular championship. So the reason IIHF websites are always advertising “World Championships” (note plural) in a given gender or age group is that lower-ranked nations play in Worlds “divisions” that serve as a promotion-and-relegation stepladder to the big dance.
Typically, 2 countries are promoted to the top level Worlds after winning gold and silver in “Division 1A,” while nations in Division 1B, Division 2, and Division 2B attempt to work their way up the totem pole.
Sometimes, as with the World Junior Championships in 2019-20, there are batches of “Divisional” tournaments which follow the big’uns on the calendar – the definition of an anticlimax. But the Women’s Worlds are (mostly) doing it right with a series of preliminaries leading up to the 10-team clash in Nova Scotia. The only exception is that Division 1A, the play-in opportunity for teams looking to reach next year’s WWC, will begin in France on April 12th.
The IIHF often schedules Divisional events in the countries expected to win them. France played in the top 10 last year, and will enjoy the advantage of playing in front of enthusiastic crowds instead of the “morning skate” atmosphere of many Division 1 games.
Women’s World Championships: 2020 Schedule
WWC Division 2B: February 23-29 in Iceland (Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Australia, Croatia, New Zealand)
WWC Division 1B: March 28th – April 3rd in Poland (Poland, Italy, Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Slovenia)
WWC Division 2A: March 29th – April 4th in Spain (Spain, DPRK, Mexico, Latvia, Great Britain, Chinese Taipei)
WWC: March 31st – April 10th in Halifax, Canada (Canada, USA, Finland, Russia, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary)
WWC Division 1A – April 12-18 in France (France, Austria, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden)
2020 Men’s Ice Hockey World Championship
Each year the World Championship takes place overseas, and the North American media has truly ridiculous things to say about it.
Here’s a few of the popular myths about the IIHF Worlds:
- None of the top NHL players go
- North American pros don’t try hard even when they do play
- Non-NHL players at the Worlds are of poor quality and even AHL skaters could beat them
- The Worlds and 1st/2nd-round NHL playoff series occur simultaneously
A cursory glance at World Championship dates and rosters is all that’s needed to debunk
your Twitter feed almost everything listed above. The Worlds (or “World Cup” as the tourney is known outside of North America) begin on the 2nd week of May, a month after the NHL playoffs begin. By that time, more than 80% of the league is out of the Stanley Cup race.
It’s true that not all of the NHL skaters invited to the Worlds choose to play. Injury issues, contract haggles, and even plain old lack of enthusiasm keeps a chunk of premier players out of service when their national team calls in the postseason.
But a lot more All-Stars of the National Hockey League manage to make the World Championship than the event’s haters would have us believe. Team Russia in ’19 was a “PlayStation” roster, the kind of lineup you might create if you chirped “I wanna be Russia!” at a video-game party and started fooling around. Kucherov. Ovechkin. Malkin. Gusev. Kuznetsov. Orlov. Zaitsev. Dadonov. 2019 team captain Ilya Kovalchuk – still a fine-enough NHLer to score at a point-per-game clip for the Montreal Canadians in January – played scant minutes on a reserve line.
Oh, and the Russians didn’t win. They didn’t even get silver. Finland, a country which does struggle to recruit its NHL pros to the Worlds (ever since Edmonton Oilers legend Jari Kurri left the GM chair, anyway) wound up beating a Canada team led by Mark Stone and Thomas Chabot in the gold medal game…with 0, count ’em, 0 active NHL skaters in the lineup.
Which pretty much takes care of Myth #3.
The typical European club team couldn’t win 2 games out of 20 against an NHL schedule. But the best Euro pros – whether it’s Ladislav Nagy of the Slovak league (who retired in 2019 after kicking tail at a final WC in his homeland) or Karill Kaprizov of the KHL or Grégory Hofmann of the Swiss “National League” – have more than enough speed and skill to hang with anyone in the world. In fact, the leisurely pace of a European schedule benefits them when it comes time to play in the Worlds, and many of the leagues skate on over-sized ice rinks of the variety used (for now) in international games.
North American squads have grown star-studded and dynamic in the last 10 years as state-side interest in IIHF hockey rises. If there’s a systemic weakness in World Championship rosters, it’s the goaltending, since the NHL hoards most of the best goalies on the planet, and GMs work to discourage their most valuable commodities from playing extra games in which injuries could occur. Imagine if Lamar Jackson wanted to play 3 more weeks of football following the NFL playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens wouldn’t be altogether happy with that. Still, most of the best NHL goalies from Europe go to the Worlds when they’re available. Sub-par goaltending is more of a problem for Canada and the United States than for Sweden or Russia.
No one will convince me that Antoine Roussel or Gary Suter packs up his gear, hops on an overnight flight across the Atlantic, and attends a 2-week training camp because he doesn’t give a damn and is hoping to phone it in. There’s nothing lazy about the performances at a World Championship, but the western media is often too lazy to cover them.
There should be a handbook for American fans who are criticized for taking the Worlds seriously. The players don’t care can be countered with photos of Canada’s Ryan O’ Reilly sacrificing his body to stop Russian forwards, and all of the best players are still in the Stanley Cup playoffs should be answered with a simple question – how the hell did the top 80 NHL talents wind up skating for a total of 4 teams, and if so, why didn’t those teams win 70+ games apiece in the regular season?
Finally, there’s the haters’ favorite go-to – that the World Championship isn’t best on best. To the so-called ice hockey fans who chant that slogan, only an international event in which every single player is headed for the Hall of Fame would be worth watching. But some of the same people tune-in faithfully to watch the Minnesota Wild vs Florida Panthers in a league where the best athletes are divided-up among 31 clubs. The only “best on best” NHL hockey occurs during the All-Star Game, which bores most of the people watching it. The farcical “World Cup of Hockey” was Gary Bettman’s attempt to create a best-on-best world tournament and it too failed to catch on. Let the occasional Olympic hockey turn into a celebrity beauty pageant – the Men’s Worlds are just fine warts and all.
Sure, it would be fun if Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin played for their national teams every year, but it’s also interesting to see different squads on the ice each May. IIHF teams can be compared to NHL clubs in the sense that legendary rosters are few and far between, and the true test of a top-ranked program is being able to win medals consistently despite lineups changing due to circumstances.
London pays closer attention to international pond shinny than Las Vegas, and the opening futures lines on each World Championship (especially on the women’s side) are usually based on the odds out of Betway or similar books.
At that point, however, offshore operations such as Bovada Sportsbook sometimes let gamblers have at it and balance lines vs the action like a racebook does prior to the Kentucky Derby. It can open up nice long-term investments at low risk if you’re familiar with the bad assumptions made by NHL-centric pundits.
Handicapping the 2020 Worlds in Zurich and Lausanne
Bovada currently likes Canada (+220) to win the 2020 IIHF Worlds in Switzerland, pinning its shortest gold-medal futures line on the Maple Leaf. Russia isn’t far behind at (+295) and Sweden is the 3rd most-popular line at (+390). Each country appears to be getting a fair share of wagers to win gold in 2020, considering that London placed 9/4 on Canada, 3/1 on Russia and 4/1 on Sweden as of the new year. Each market feels overpriced on both sides of the pond, since all 3 national teams have chronic problems which have led to disappointments as recently as 2019.
Canada’s got a weird syndrome going – the Habs have been icing All-Star goaltenders with less-than-ideal lineups of skaters, and A-grade lineups of skaters with questionable goaltenders. All kinds of talent suited-up for Team Canada in 2018, including O’Reilly and Connor McDavid. St. Louis Blues defenseman Colton Parayko made the trip to Denmark too, but not to protect world-class goaltenders. The team’s goaltending was so bad that Canada gave up 5 goals on 22 shots in a loss to Finland and was later drilled 4-1 by Team USA in the bronze medal game. Last year, it was the reverse – Matt Murray arrived as an anchor between the pipes, but national-squad loyalist O’Reilly was busy winning a Stanley Cup for St. Louis, and the Canucks were too inexperienced to win gold.
Sweden faced an even worse situation in 2019 – internal discord. Players sniped at one another through the media, and a program formerly known for its harmony and teamwork turned into a motley group of malcontents before losing to Finland in the quarterfinals. It’s hard to imagine that such a scenario sprang-up out of nowhere, but the Swedes did win 2 golds in a row in 2017 and 2018, and gamblers may be hoping that vinegar will turn into wine in the Tre-Kronor dressing room.
The Russian “Red Machine” may appear cursed after putting such a stellar team on the ice last spring only to fall to a Cinderella bid. But there are undoubtedly politics at work to prevent the program from reaching the holy grail. For instance, a practical GM would have gone to Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Mozyakin of the KHL, hat-in-hand and bent knees, asking for 1 more go-around in 2019. You’ve got to think the 2 aging play-makers would have agreed to skate with an all-time great lineup. But the Russians went with less-reputable KHL youngsters in those roster slots, and failed to adapt to Finland’s strangling neutral-zone trap in an 0-1 semifinal loss.
Perhaps it’s NHL standings driving the betting odds. Handicapping the Worlds ahead of time is a matter of looking at which key players are most-likely to be healthy and available for an April training camp, and a number of clubs with elite Canadian, Swedish, and Russian skaters appear bound to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2020. Nikita Gusev plays for the New Jersey Devils, who have no realistic chance at a postseason bid, and the strange decline of the Nashville Predators could leave Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg out of the playoffs along with a host of talented Canadians.
But it looks like Finland (+700), Team USA (+800), and the Czech Republic (+1200) could be just as blessed by how the NHL is shaking out. Nashville could send not 1, but 2 Finnish goaltenders to the Worlds; teenage Suomi phenom Kappo Kakko plays for the New York Rangers and his club season is likely to end after 82 games. Forward Tomas Hertl has missed a string of potential World Championships with the Czech Republic thanks to playing for San Jose…but the Sharks are swimming in deep water with 46 points in 50 games so far this year.
I’d be more-inclined to wager a unit on Switzerland (+1600) than the USA at twice the price, since USA Hockey stupidly puts “developmental” players on each Worlds squad as if training them for an Olympic Games appearance that will probably never happen. The annual presence of Jocky McWolverine from the Michigan frosh team is a big reason why the United States hasn’t won an international gold since Lake Placid in 1980. It’s hard to win the Worlds when your GM has other agendas in mind. As for the 16-to-1 underdogs, Switzerland’s domestic league is a perfect training ground for the big-rink IIHF brand of shinny, and the Swiss could suit-up close to 10 NHLers this spring if the league standings don’t change drastically within 2 months.
Lower Divisions of the Men’s World Championships
As tough as it is to handicap the top 16, it can be even harder to predict what will happen in Division 1 each cycle. The nations are extremely well-matched, and the round-robin-only format means that there’s no such thing as “developing” throughout a Group stage. Teams either show up 100% ready to win from the get-go, or lose and fall back.
A good betting tip is to wager on countries that don’t have any players in the NHL, KHL, or AHL (hear me out) and disregard nations with scattered name-brand talents. At the Division level the Worlds are all about organization, and it’s easier to organize when skaters aren’t 10,000 miles away playing for fat contracts. As a team like Ukraine loses to pedestrian opponents in D1 year after year, it loses a grip on its North American and European pros, meaning that Ukraine has to ice squads of minor-league athletes, and subsequently lose again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Meanwhile, a nation like Romania – which I mistakenly thought would tank in Division 1 last cycle – can flourish thanks to its best players (like Robert Rooba) giving their all for the flag, despite a Romanian depth chart as thin as a vegan on diet pills.
Men’s World Championships: 2020 Schedule
WC Division 4: March 3-5 Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, South Africa, Philippines)
WC Division 3A: April 19-25 in Luxembourg (Luxembourg, DPRK, Chinese Taipei, Turkey, Turkmenistan, UAE)
WC Division 3B: April 20-23 in South Africa (South Africa, Hong Kong, Bosnia, Thailand)
WC Division 2B: April 19-25 in Iceland (Iceland, Belgium, Bulgaria, Georgia, Mexico, New Zealand)
WC Division 2A: April 19-25 in Croatia (Croatia, Australia, China, Iceland, Netherlands, Spain)
WC Division 1B: April 27th – May 3rd in Poland (Poland, Estonia, Japan, Lithuania, Serbia, Ukraine)
WC Division 1A: April 27th – May 3rd in Slovenia (Slovenia, France, Korea, Austria, Romania, Hungary)
WC: May 8th – 24th in Switzerland (Group A: Canada, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark, Belarus, Great Britain / Group B: Russia, Finland, United States, Switzerland, Latvia, Norway, Italy, Kazakhstan)
Olympic Qualifying Games in 2020
Last but not least, you may see a few match-ups between modestly-ranked nations pop up on betting boards at weird times in 2020. But they’re not friendlies, nor are the teams getting together just for the hell of it.
The International Olympic Committee leaves the IIHF to organize FIFA-style qualification rounds for Winter Olympics hopefuls, and despite the Beijing Games sitting 2 years away on the calendar, the final Men’s Ice Hockey slots will be earned this summer. Slovakia will be 1 of 3 pre-qualified nations to host 4-team qualification rounds alongside Latvia and Norway, following the end of pre-qualification group play in February. Canada, USA, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic are already in the 12-team Olympic tournament, with China appearing as host.
Slovakia could dominate Group D if players belonging to NHL clubs are able to travel home and play in August. Tomas Tatar of the Montreal Canadians and around 10 other Slovak skaters have logged NHL minutes this season. Furthermore, “Our Boys” would get a much bigger boost from North America’s participation than Group D opponents Belarus or Austria. Denmark may also prove indomitable vs Norway in Group F thanks to GK Frederik Andersen and a host of skillful play-makers. But France vs Latvia in Group E could be a heck of a grudge match with the presence of forwards like Roussel for the French and Zemgus Girgensons of Team Latvia and the Buffalo Sabres.
Since there may not be an official WagerBop preview of Olympic Qualification past tonight’s publish, we’ll update this space when more is known about the rosters.
UPDATE: We now have results from the “pre-qualification” round in February, and subsequent 4-team groups each vying for a single placement (3 total) among Men’s Ice Hockey nations at the Winter Olympics in China.
Group D will consist of Slovakia, Belarus, Austria, and Poland, with the Poles potentially having the worst shot to compete in the table. Latvia, France, Hungary, and Italy will contest a well-matched Group E, and Group F will pit Norway, Denmark, Korea, and Slovenia in round-robin meetings with Olympiad participation on the line.
Good news first – if NHL veterans and prospects are able to skate in the late-August events, spectators who clamor for “best on best” – translated to “what if all countries played their 20 top-ranked skaters every time” – might be about to get it. Or at least a glimpse of it. Obviously, the best 8 hockey nations are already in the Beijing Games and have no need to create dream rosters in August. But if those still fighting for a spot are able to suit-up something like best-case-scenario national squads, we’ll know exactly what the mid-card of a “Fantasy World Tournament” would be like.
NHL superstars have played in summer qualifying games before. It’s exciting to contemplate, and if it happens, the spectacle could further expose the NHL as a phone call away from helping the fantasy event take place in Beijing.
Bad news? The inclusion of all available talent in the final Olympic Q-Round would benefit a few countries a ton more than others, causing lopsided scores. Belarus, Austria, and Poland combined have far less NHL players handy than the Slovak national team. Denmark is quietly putting terrific skaters (and goaltenders) in the National Hockey League, and a 1st forward line of center Lars Eller and wingers Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand could demolish Group F. Consider that Denmark already scares NHL rosters at the Worlds with a backbone of solid European skaters. Now imagine the same team with 5-6 additional veteran play-makers from North America, well-rested Frederick Andersen in goal, and young guns Alexander True and Joachim Blichfield on the 3rd line.
Heck, if the NHL doesn’t go to China in 2022, the Danes might rival the Slovaks as summer-2020 squads that would be gold-medal favorites at the actual Olympics. Slovenia can potentially call on Anze Kopitar, and Norway has Mats Zuccarello, but that’s about where it ends. Korea is praying that Group F is a non-NHL player-attended affair.
Group E is where the closest games would occur if the GMs can go crazy in an all-out battle for qualification. Bookmakers will make France the favorite, since the IIHF’s “Blues” are (like Denmark) a star-alignment away from having at least 2 awesome lines. Antoine Roussel of the Vancouver Canucks has been amazing in international games, and Colorado Avalanche veteran Pierre-Édouard Bellemare – who played for Team France in the 2016-17 Olympic qualifying tournament – would have bigger numbers right now were he not sharing minutes with dozens of talented skaters in Denver. Latvia is already a proud opponent with merely its Russian, Swiss, and Czech club players, however, and thrives like a poor man’s Team Finland when even a few NHL snipers can come along for the ride. Rudolfs Balcers is currently stashed in the AHL but the Ottawa Senators, but the 22-year-old’s slender frame has only helped him score more than a PPG in recent World Championships. He’s dangerous on the big ice. Elvis Merzļikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets can probably out-netmind any goaltender France or another Group E nation can find. With tighter final scores E-for-expected, that’s a blessing indeed.
Don’t look now, but at least 2 or 3 of the ice hockey teams listed in that funky “OGQ” at the sportsbook could be more fun to watch than anyone on the Men’s side in February 2022, depending on how evil Gary Bettman decides to be at any given time.
Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Qualification Schedule
Final Qualification Group D: August 27-30 in Slovakia (Slovakia, Austria, Belarus, Poland)
Final Qualification Group E: August 27-30 in Latvia (Latvia, France, Italy, Hungary)
Final Qualification Group F: August 27-30 in Norway (Norway, Denmark, Korea, Slovenia)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.