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5 Big Global Sports for Your Winter Olympics Hangover

5. Men's World Ice Hockey Championships
Date: May 9-25
Location: Minsk, Belarus

If it seems like we've been rough on the NHL's involvement in the Winter Olympics, it's only because the league routinely handles international play better during the World Ice Hockey Championships.

Each year, it frees up its players at the end of the season to go play for their respective national teams. As teams are eliminated from the NHL playoffs, players from those squads join as well. Not only does it not interfere with the NHL schedule -- NHL owners hate that aspect of the Winter Olympics -- but it showcases the world's best talent in a far better format.

Where the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament featured a scant 12 teams, the World Ice Hockey Championships feature a field of 16 teams in the top echelon alone: The U.S., Canada, Russia, Belarus, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. That's only the top tier.

There are three other tiers of teams that play their respective championships in different cities on different dates. Nations can work their way up based on their performance in each year's tournament, and all four levels are a great way to determine how hockey is growing throughout the world. Japan and South Korea have growing hockey cultures and inhabit the second tier of the World Ice Hockey Championship structure. Israel and South Africa, meanwhile, just became third-tier teams.

Who does that leave in the entry level, you ask? Hong Kong, North Korea and the United Arab Emirates, just to name a few. This is the kind of international event that the NHL -- and event partners such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Mondelez -- should be promoting, but the fact that it falls during the NHL playoffs means that the league usually keeps its mouth shut, lest a viewer change the channel.

It has no problem parking the games on its own NHL Network every so often while no one is looking, though. Otherwise, the world championships go largely uncovered here in North America.

It isn't clear that they'll be covered here this year, but there are numerous online options for getting feeds from Minsk. Many are of questionable legality, but they'll provide multiple games and a whole lot of analysis.

NHL owners aren't big fans of the world championships during Olympic years and some North American players even grouse about having to play in them. The NHL already has a terse relationship with the event's organizers, the same International Ice Hockey Federation that oversees Olympic ice hockey. Meanwhile, North American hockey's worst cynics will note that Canada hasn't won a gold medal in the event in a decade, while the U.S. hasn't come out on top since 1960.

That's too bad. The NHL hasn't come up with a decent option for international play since the Canada Cup and the World Cup of Hockey -- which hasn't been played in a decade. It would be nice for fans here to see what a functional, all-inclusive international tournament looks like and for, oh, maybe an upstart sports ecosystem such the one Fox Sports is building to pick it up just to fill time, but for now fans are going to have to hope that the NHL Network decides to dedicate even moderate space to it this year.

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