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Most historians believe Canada gave birth to the game of ice hockey, probably sometime in the 19th century. But now, in the year 2005, there's no doubt that hockey is a global sport.
The Ligue internationale de hockey sur glace, now known as the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), was formed in 1908 with Belgium, Great Britain, France, Switzerland and Bohemia as the inaugural members. Great Britain won the first European championship, which was held in 1910, in Les Avants, Switzerland.
International competition was restricted to Europe until 1920, when Canada and the United States joined the IIHF. It was also in 1920 that Canada and the U.S. first competed in a major international event, the Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Canada, represented by the Winnipeg Falcons, won the gold medal and the IIHF later awarded this event the title of first World Championship. Canada also came out on top in the first official Winter Olympics hockey tournament, at Chamonix, France in 1924, where the Toronto Granites won gold. For the next 30 years, Canada dominated play at the world level, using only amateur players. During this time, its chief rivals were the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Great Britain.
Behind the scenes however, the Soviet Union -- using the game of bandy, played on a frozen soccer field with a curved stick and ball as a basis -- was developing a national hockey team that would stun the hockey world with its high level of play. In their World Championship debut at Stockholm, Sweden, in 1954, the Soviets won the gold medal. From this date until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Soviets won seven Olympic and 19 World Championship gold medals. They added an eighth Olympic gold in 1992, playing under the name of Unified Team.
The Soviet Union's domination of world play in the 1960s caused Canada and other countries to call for new rules to allow professionals to participate in world championships. Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Finland, the other elite European hockey nations, were giving the Soviets only token opposition. The Canadians argued that although the Soviets claimed to be amateurs, they were actually professionals, because playing hockey was their full-time job. Despite this argument, the IIHF refused Canada permission to use minor league professionals at the 1970 World Championship. Canada withdrew from the tournament for several years to protest the ruling.
The IIHF opened the doors to professional players in 1976, in time for the 1976 World Championship in Poland, where the United States became the first country to use National Hockey League (NHL players). Because the dates of the World Championship conflicted with the NHL playoffs however, countries were restricted to the use of professionals whose teams either didn't make the playoffs or were eliminated early. Canada iced its first team of NHL players at the 1977 World Championship in Vienna, Austria, but was not able to win another gold medal until 1994.
North American fans clamored for a competition that would match the best players of all countries against each other. As a result, Canada Cup tournaments were held in 1976, 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991, with Canada clearly establishing itself as the world's top hockey nation by winning four of the five events. The Soviet Union won in 1981. The Canada Cup's successor, the World Cup of Hockey, hosted by the NHL, made its debut in 1996. A second tournament was held in 2004. The U.S. and Canada, respectively, won these tournaments.
When the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989 marking the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, the complexion of world hockey changed dramatically. The Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991. Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on January 1, 1993, each country icing its own team thereafter. Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Ukraine, all former republics of the Soviet Union, formed their own teams and in most years two or three of them have been good enough to qualify for the World Championship tournament's top level.
In the early 1990s, Canadians who had seen their teams go four decades without winning an Olympic gold medal, applied pressure on the NHL to allow its best players to compete. NHL players participated in the Olympic hockey tournament for the first time at Nagano, Japan in 1998 as the league took a two-week break in the middle of its season. The Czech Republic was victorious at Nagano, but Canada reigned supreme at Salt Lake City, U.S.A, in 2002, on the 50th anniversary of Canada's last Olympic gold.
Ninety-seven years after its founding, the IIHF now conducts World Championship tournaments annually for men's teams at four different levels according to calibre, as well as World Championships for women, World Junior Championships and World Under-18 Championships. Membership in the IIHF now stands at 63 countries, following the recent addition of Mexico, Thailand and Turkey.
Attracting almost as much attention as the senior events, in Canada at least, is the World Junior Championship, which is held each year over the New Year period. The best players under the age of 20, many of them already drafted by NHL clubs, compete for medals. There have been eight World Championship tournaments for women, and Canada has won the gold medal at all of them.
Women's hockey made its debut at the 1998 Olympics in Japan, with the United States upsetting Canada to win the gold medal. Canada got its revenge against the Americans at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
By DENIS GIBBONS
An expert on the history of international hockey and a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, Denis Gibbons has worked as chief of research (ice hockey) for the ABC, CBS and NBC television networks at the last five Olympic tournaments (1988-2002).
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