World Hockey Championships Betting
by Trevor Whenham - 05/06/2008
The World Hockey Championships is underway for the 72nd time, but a lot of sports fans wouldn't know that it had ever happened. There are a few reasons for this. First, of course, it's hockey - as popular outside Canada, Sweden, Russia and small pockets of a few other countries as an ice cream cone would be at the North Pole. Second, though it is taking place in Canada this year, this is the first time since 1962 that it has occurred outside of Europe. Despite those reasons and several more, though, this tournament is for real. It is the annual gathering of all the superstar players who aren't superstar enough to carry their NHL teams into the playoffs, or to win once they get there.
Though you might not be interested as a fan, there are lots of reasons to be interested as a bettor. There are big talent gaps between good teams and bad, the games usually go relatively true to form, and the betting volume is low so the lines can often be soft. Intrigued? Here's a primer and a few picks to get you started:
The tournament is already underway with preliminary rounds, and it will continue until the finals on May 18. It is taking place in two cities - Halifax and Quebec City. Sixteen teams are competing, and they have been split into four groups for round-robin play. Each team will play every other team in its group. The top three teams in each group proceed to the elimination rounds.
Pay attention to this, because it is important - Canada is going to win the gold medal. I am boldly looking into the future and calling that, and it's not just because I am a Canadian. The reasons are many. First, Canada is always a safe bet. They have won 24 titles in 72 years, so they win better than one of every three of these things. In recent years, their form has been even better - three golds and a silver in the last five years. Second, the team has ridiculous depth. Canada is by far the biggest producer of players for the NHL, and hockey is life in most of Canada. Few teams will have their very best players at this tournament, but Canada's second and third tier players are the best there are just by sheer volume.
Most significantly, the home crowd advantage will be huge. The games are being played in two hockey-starved cities, so Canada's games have long been sold out, and tickets will command a serious premium from scalpers. Canada does well in major international events hosted at home because they want to (oh yeah - they'll win the gold in the 2010 Olympics, too), and this will be no exception. The last major factor is the Olympics in 2010. Because they are at home, and because it may be the last Olympics with NHL players, every Canadian player wants to make that team. This tournament is a chance for several players to audition for that team, so they will be playing very hard.
Canada will be heavy favorites in most of their games, but there may still be value available - especially in the elimination rounds.
Russia - This team is making headlines in the NHL. Alexander Ovechkin is a lock to be the MVP, and Evgeni Malkin will likely be the runner-up. Malkin is still in the playoffs in Pittsburgh, but Ovechkin leads a Russian team with talent - Sergei Fedorov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin. They lack depth, though, and they haven't won this event since 1993. They are in contention for a medal, but don't get fooled into thinking that Russian hockey is the powerhouse it used to be.
Sweden - The Swedes won the gold in 2006, but they aren't particularly consistent in this tournament, and they seem to be in a rebuilding phase internationally. This year's team has very little NHL talent, and none of current star caliber (Niklas Backstrom will be a star, but he just finished his rookie year). If you need a major power to fade in this tournament look no further.
Finland - These guys are on the rise, with a bronze in 2006, a silver in the Olympics, and a silver last year. The team took the interesting step of installing a Canadian coach, Doug Shedden, for this tournament. If that experiment works then he has the talent and the hunger to make some noise. A trip to the podium is certainly possible.
Czech Republic - This is a hard team to call. They won gold in 2005, and silver the next year, but they plummeted all the way down to seventh last year. The team lacks most of the big Czech names from the NHL, and they will be fighting an uphill battle here so tread very carefully if you want to pick them.
United States - The Americans are legitimate international contenders, but I'm not trying to offend anyone when I say that they are lousy at the worlds. They have just two bronze medals in the last 15 years, and they have dipped as low as 13th in 2003. It's not that they don't have the talent. They just don't send it to this tournament. There are some impressive young players on the team - Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, Patrick O'Sullivan - and they will get valuable international experience. They play Canada early on and that will be a good indicator of their chances, but it is hard to imagine that this is the year they make a breakthrough in this tournament.