Commentary: Return of World Cup needs to be done right

The World Cup of Hockey – rumored to return since before the Sochi Olympics a year ago – is here, and it’s slated to be run in late-summer 2016 in Toronto.

The World Cup has been held twice – in 1996 as a precursor to NHL participation in the Olympic Games, and in 2004 shortly before the year-long NHL lockout. And both were great tournaments – the United States’ victory in 1996 was the nation’s biggest victory in international hockey since 1980, and the first-ever in a best-on-best tournament. Canada won the 2004 edition, which was known to be the last hockey anyone would play for months. Prior to that, Canada Cup tournaments were had been held at semi-regular intervals since 1996.

In-between, the World Cup’s necessity has been somewhat overshadowed by the Olympic Games, which has featured the best players in the world every four years and has been a spectacular tournament year-in and year-out – with Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic winning gold and the U.S. piling up a couple of silver medals. It’s been great for the exposure of hockey at the biggest stage for winter sports in the world, bringing in casual fans. And there’s no bigger prize in international sport than an Olympic gold.

There are two problems with the Olympic tournament. For starters, the NHL season has to shut down for two weeks at midseason every four years, and while most players get a break to rest and recharge, the best players are playing several high-level games in a Stanley Cup-level atmosphere, which, added to an 82-game schedule and up to 28 playoff games, can be a bit of overload on a season. It also leads to an increased risk for injury. The other is jurisdictional – the IIHF and the IOC control the Olympic tournament, meaning the only real value the NHL gets from the tournament is exposure, while the other two cash in on the NHL stars, while the league risks its top players every year for little to no financial benefit (and actually, potential harm to the club team, if a a player injury happens as the team is making a playoff push).

With the World Cup, the NHL can control everything – rinks, officials, revenue, television rights – while putting its greatest asset, its players, on display.

So, by all accounts, it appears the World Cup is replacing NHL participation in the Olympic Games – thereby turning the 2018 tournament in Peyongchang, South Korea, into a tourney featuring an assortment of players who get released from their AHL teams, European pros (whose leagues schedule around key international tournaments), players from Russia’s KHL and top junior and college players. While that tournament will certainly carry interest because it’s the Olympic Games, it will lose some of its luster by not being a “best-on-best” tournament, and revert back to the status it held prior to 1998. It will serve to introduce fans to new players – as the World Junior Championships does now – and new stars. Several of us remember how the Ice’s Ray LeBlanc became a national superstar during the 1992 Games, and Peter Forsberg’s shootout goal to give Sweden the gold in 1994 before he became a Colorado Avalanche star.

But, if previous indications are correct, the NHL could be taking a big risk, exposure-wise. The two previous World Cups were a blip on the radar in the United States – the games were played out-of-season, when hockey’s not on the mind of the casual fan, and were televised on hard-to-find networks. Europeans considered it a lesser tournament than the Olympic Games and the annual World Championship. So, essentially, the World Cup became an every-so-often summer version of the World Junior Championships – a really great tournament that is very important to Canada and barely on the radar screen anywhere else. By pulling NHL players out of the Olympics – the biggest international stage to showcase NHL players – and putting them into a September/October tournament at the height of football season in the U.S., the league risks a significant loss of exposure for its players and momentum for the game worldwide, on a level that the World Cup brings soccer or the Olympic Games brings most other professional sports.

For the World Cup to work, a few things must happen:

  • It must be a true international tournament, truly crowning a world champion. As a result, the North American wing of pro hockey (the NHL) needs to be in coordination with the IIHF to make sure the best players and national federations are on board. As a result, it needs to be seen as a bigger deal than the World Championships and the Olympics. In a best-case scenario, it would replace the IIHF World Championship on a quadrennial basis, to draw exposure in both Europe and the United States, in addition to Canada. Unfortunately, because neither side seems willing to cede jurisdiction of its big events (the NHL appears to be ready to run the World Cup without IIHF involvement, and the IIHF has run the Olympics with NHL players but no NHL involvement), this cooperation seems unlikely.
  • As a result, it needs to involve only national teams. The current NHL proposal is to take the “Big Six” countries – USA, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic – and add two mixed teams. One would be a team of players from non-Big Six European countries (Slovakia and Germany would likely be the two biggest suppliers of players, but Latvians, Swiss, Belorussians and Lithuanians would certainly be a part of it, too), the other would be a combined USA/Canada 23-under team. Adding non-national teams in an international tournament would only reinforce the perception that it’s an “exhibition tournament,” and as a result, will remain off the radar screen outside of Canada. The head of the KHL has already stated Russia’s biggest priority is the spring World Championships.  There’s nothing wrong with creating a 10 or 12-team tournament with the top IIHF-rated nations outside of the “Big Six” and playing a true championship that would replace the World Championships that year. As a hockey junkie who looks forward to the Olympic tournament every four years, and loved the two previous World Cups (and celebrated the United States’ win in 1996 lustily), having a tournament with just six nations and two All-Star teams would basically turn what could be a great tourney into a farce. No true international tournament in any other team sport – soccer, basketball, volleyball, et al – features non-national All-Star teams. None.
  • There has to be buy-in from the rest of the world. Right now, European countries gear up for the World Championships (which are basically treated as an exhibition tournament in North America, as they overlap the NHL, AHL and ECHL playoffs here in the States, requiring the U.S. and Canada to send a mix of players from teams who have been eliminated from the playoffs, college and junior players and players playing in European leagues) and the Olympics, while in North America, we will be gearing up for the World Cup. That’s got to change – for this to be successful, everyone has to be on the same page and give the World Cup the magnitude it deserves as a best-on-best tournament.
  • It must be close to hockey season, which it will be. Current proposals are to run the tournament concurrently with NHL training camps, so top players won’t actually have to play a month extra of season. It’s a lead-in to the year, when players are getting into top shape, rather than a lead-out, which is a good thing.

The World Cup is an intriguing idea. I’ve enjoyed previous ones, especially with the best-of-3 series to decide the champion, and the high level of competition. But for it to become a truly big, international tournament that would be seen by players and fans alike as a true and valid replacement for the Olympic Games, it needs to be treated as a truly big, international tournament, and rolled out on that stage. It’s a big risk the NHL is taking by rolling this out and ostensibly replacing its Olympic participation, but if it’s done well and takes off, it could be a great showcase for hockey.