NOT PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Oh, to be in Prague. Oh, to walk Ostrava.
I’m sure the sights are lovely, the architecture magnificently historic and all that, but it’s the hockey being played in those cities that has captured my attention.
The 2015 IIHF World Championship has been such a blast, even from six time zones west, so let’s say it: this is the best one ever. At least through these North American, NHL-trained eyes. Seriously.
Can you recall a previous edition of the Worlds — such a poor man’s Stanley Cup Playoffs that the spring tourney has been relegated to punch-line status, alongside golf jokes — being so rich with stories and rewindable plays and intrigue heading into the medal round?
Saturday offers two hand-plucked semifinals — USA versus Russia, Canada versus Czech Republic — that will lead to a fantastic, star-studded gold medal matchup Sunday no matter how it shakes out.
Would you like Canada-USA and watch Sidney Crosby face Jack Eichel? How about Late addition Alex Ovechkin’s attempt to avenge the Capitals’ elimination and snuff out Crosby’s bid to join the Triple Gold Club?
Or would you love to see a slimmed-down, 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr try to win gold for the host country at a tournament he’s been playing since 19-freaking-90? (Jagr has lasted longer at the Worlds than Harry Shearer did with The Simpsons.)
Consider the big-name talent going for gold: Bobrovsky, Crosby, Ovechkin, Giroux, Seguin, Tarasenko, Jagr, Hall, Voracek, Malkin, Eichel, Kovalchuk…
Why does this World Championship trump any other in recent memory? Star power is just one reason. Let us count the other ways.
1. Jagr is playing like he’s 18 again.
Remember, there was a bit of a love-in for Jagr at the 2014 Olympics, with most thinking it would be the wanderer’s final appearance in international competition.
Yet here he is scoring six goals in eight games, including two in a thrilling quarter-final win over Finland, including the game-winner.
“@68Jagr on a mission all game,” tweeted Hayley Wickenheiser, a player who knows a little about the big stage. “Ugly but well earned goal. So fun to watch!”
And young Czech Pavel Zacha, a projected first-rounder at the NHL Draft took notice.
“The atmosphere here is great, comparable only to NHL playoff hockey,” Jagr told NHL.com. “But I haven’t been in the playoffs for a while. And here, the fans have different style of supporting with all the jumping and chanting through the entire game. It’s great that people here are crazy about hockey. It’s the reason why we want to do something extra for them.”
2. Jack Eichel is playing like he’s 23.
Were it not for the World Championship, we wouldn’t be blessed with this opportunity to watch the two greatest hockey phenoms play so late into May. While Connor McDavid is video-gaming the OHL final, 18-year-old Eichel has taken full advantage of Team USA’s intriguing decision to win this thing with a lineup of the young and unproven.
The future Buffalo Sabre has responded with six points in eight games, including an overtime game-winner and a gorgeous setup for Brock Nelson.
3. Best. Attendance. Ever.
When the home side defeated Finland in Thursday’s quarters, the crowd was deafening on television.
The Czech Republic has already surpassed the Worlds’ attendance record, previously held by Minsk, Belarus (640,044 in 2014), and it will demolish it with four more games on tap.
The previous record was passed during the first quarter-final game in Prague, Canada vs Belarus, on Thursday, 14 May in Prague.
With six games to go, 652,348 fans attended the games at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Prague and Ostrava, Czech Republic.
4. Canada is dominating the way Canadians think Canada should.
Team Canada hasn’t skated past the quarter-finals since 2009, but the curse has been spun into a crusade.
The 58 goals Canada has scored (in just eight games) marks the most any country has scored since NHLers started participating in 1977, and there are still two games left. The last time Canada filled the net this frequently at the event: 1962.
Four of the tournament’s top six point-getters are Canadian, and that doesn’t include Tyler Seguin, tied with Sweden’s Filip Forsberg for the lead in goals with eight. (All those goals not being scored on Frederik Andersen and Ben Bishop and Henrik Lundqvist? They’re in Europe.)
Saturday gives us a fun face-off between the most dangerous Philadelphia Flyers: Canada’s Giroux vs. Czech Republic’s Voracek.
5. The ridiculous highlights.
Ilya Kovalchuk’s no-look goal. Sergei Bobrovsky and Pekka Rinne matching each other save for save in an incredible round-robin shootout. And Roman Josi turning Jake Gardiner inside-out during his best Bobby Orr impression…
6. The unofficial GM meetings.
With so many NHL head coach and general manager jobs up for the taking, Prague has been converted into Boca Raton.
Free agent Mike Babcock is over there, no doubt getting wined and dined. Free agent Todd McLellan is interviewing for the Oilers when he’s not coaching Oilers (Hall, Eberle) to victories. And who knows what other deals and deliberations are transpiring in the arenas’ corners?
7. The players look like they’re really enjoying themselves.
Whether it’s Eberle beating Giroux at a Claude Giroux video game, Jagr goosing Giroux mid-interview, or Brent “Yetti” Burns bombing Seguin’s TV appearance, we get the sense that competing hard and enjoying the ride don’t have to be exclusive.
Oh, to be in Prague this weekend…