The thrilling World Baseball Classic final has us (and Connor McDavid) longing for a best on best hockey tournament
Photo credit:© Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports
8 months ago
On Tuesday night, one of the greatest baseball games ever took place as the 2023 World Baseball Classic came to a close, with Japan beating the USA by a final score of 3-2.
The interesting thing about this year’s World Baseball Classic champions is that Team Japan consisted of just three MLB regulars. Shohei Ohtani, Lars Nootbar, and Yu Darvish. Darvish is a pitcher, and his only involvement in the final was pitching in the eighth inning and allowing Team USA to claw back within one after leaving a meatball over the plate for Kyle Schwarber to blast over the right field wall.
The point here is that with just two MLB bats in their lineup, Japan took down a USA team littered with MLB talent. This undoubtedly grows the game of baseball worldwide and shows many around the world that although the MLB undoubtedly has the most talent of any professional baseball league, the baseball being played in Korea, Japan, and elsewhere is certainly high quality, and has diehard fans.
And for hockey, things are similar. Crowds in Europe are boisterous, passionate, and loyal to their teams. Sure, the players may not be as good as the players in the NHL, but the fans of these leagues certainly don’t seem to mind.
For years, fans in countries like Sweden and Finland have been denied the opportunity to see the best players from their countries face off against the best players in the world on the international stage for years now.
This isn’t due to a refusal or lack of understanding by the NHL on the importance of growing the game internationally. Playing games in Europe and Asia is a prime example of the NHL attempting to do just that. In 2017, the Canucks played a preseason game against the LA Kings in Shanghai. If you recall, the crowd at that game got loud any time there was anything even resembling contact between two players. The NHL continues doing this, so clearly, they understand the value in growing the game on the international level.
So why don’t players get to participate in international tournaments?
The big holdup, it would seem, is that there’s not really a way for the NHL to directly profit off of the Olympics. They tried the World Cup of Hockey to mixed reviews back in 2016, but thanks to a pandemic and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that tournament hasn’t returned since. The NHL can use whatever excuses it wants, but prior to 2016, the tournament hadn’t happened since 2004.
How can you build something that fans can get excited about if they have no idea when it’s actually going to happen? This is something the World Baseball Classic has seemingly figured out. The tournament has only been around for 17 years, and first took place in 2006. Then it was 2009, 2013, 2017, and 2023. Each year, the tournament has seemingly gotten more and more popular each time the tournament has been held.
It feels like Tuesday night’s final moment of Shohei Ohtani striking out Angels teammate Mike Trout for the game’s final out was the perfect way to send the tournament off and get people excited about the 2026 WBC. The moment was viewed by millions worldwide, and had far more eyes on it than any moment from last year’s World Series between the Phillies and Astros.
The easiest way to explain Tuesday night’s World Baseball Classic finale to a Canucks fan is with the following scenarios:
Imagine Elias Pettersson, representing Team Sweden, faces off against Team USA in the final. Thatcher Demko, who at this point is considered the greatest goaltender in the world, along with Quinn Hughes, who, with two Norris Trophies under his belt, has solidified himself as one of the game’s best defencemen — line up opposite Pettersson.
They don’t meet much during the game itself, but it’s close, and goes right down to the wire, and heads to overtime.
But in this world, there’s a crazy 1-on-1 overtime, and Pettersson faces off against Hughes, with Demko in goal, of course.
Okay, we’re not going to continue with this crazy fan fiction, but you get the point.
Tuesday night’s World Baseball Classic was incredible for the game of baseball. And yes, it came down to two of the greatest players to ever step foot on an MLB field, who also just so happen to be teammates.
It’s hard for the NHL or the game of hockey to replicate a scenario as perfectly scripted as that, but getting the best players to a tournament where they can showcase their skills is a start.
And this isn’t to say great moments can’t be created in hockey, too. Just look at 2010, for example. Anyone who watched Team Canada go for the gold against Team USA remembers exactly where they were when a young Sidney Crosby scored five hole on Ryan Miller in overtime.
Perhaps ahead of next season, the NHL can organize some sort of exhibition game or series between Team Canada and Team USA. After all, both of these teams’ rosters would be made up entirely of NHL talent. It’s far from a perfect solution, but it’s certainly a start.
It’s a travesty that Connor McDavid is already 26 years old and has never suited up for Team Canada beyond the World Juniors. Hockey fans deserve to see what a line with both McDavid and Crosby on it looks like! And McDavid himself seems to agree.
“It’s what we’ve been asking for in hockey for a long time,” said the Oilers captain on Wednesday. “Best on best. Look, everyone’s been talking about baseball and ‘did you see Ohtani vs. Trout?’ That’s what hockey’s been missing for about a decade now.”
The NHL can’t keep dipping its toe in the water, and it can’t keep using Olympic participation as a bargaining chip. Seeing the game’s stars continue to express their displeasure about a lack of best-on-best international competition while sports like baseball continue to lap hockey is a disservice to fans of not only the NHL, but to the sport as a whole.
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