The World Cup of Hockey’s failure to launch

The NHL wants to prove it doesn't need the Olympics to grow the game and its brand internationally, but so far it hasn't been convincing

RED DEER, Alta. Sept. 11, 2016/ Troy Media/ – I can’t get excited about the World Cup of Hockey. Pre-tournament games are underway but my pulse has yet to go a tick over mildly interested.

It’s strange for a sports nut to roll his eyes at an event that pits the best against the best. But this tournament (running Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 in Toronto) amounts to the National Hockey League trying to take its puck and go home.

The NHL wants to prove it doesn’t need the Olympics to grow the game and its brand internationally.

However, the World Cup doesn’t have the lustre, stage or the intrigue of the Olympics – and it never will.

The NHL has long had a contentious relationship with the Olympics. Commissioner Gary Bettman and company have never liked that the Olympics interrupt their season every four years, congesting their schedule. They’re frustrated by their restricted ability to cash in on the Olympics. And the games are often played on the other side of the world, in the middle of the night in North America.

Now the league is balking at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea, although the players are interested.

And when money speaks, the fans almost always lose out.

In almost every regard, the World Cup of Hockey comes up short in comparison to the Olympics:

  • Prestige – The World Cup will always pale in comparison to a gold medal. It may be the ugliest team trophy in sport. The crystal-wrapped, twisted silver abomination first trotted out in 2004 is that much worse when put beside the majestic old Canada Cup – the tournament the World Cup replaced. And today’s hockey players grow up dreaming of becoming Stanley Cup champions or Olympians, not World Cup champs. On the international stage, even the annual world championship has more credibility than the World Cup.
  • Memorable moments – What do you remember from the two previous World Cups? Brett Hull being booed by Canadian fans in 1996 for being a traitor, despite first being rejected by Hockey Canada. Or, in 2004, Canada’s championship consolidating the country’s grip on hockey supremacy – a return to power announced by Canada’s gold at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City? Sure there were some terrific games – especially as the Canada-U.S. rivalry overtook Canada-Russia. But in comparison, the Olympics burst with nostalgia, every four years writing a new chapter of glory and heartbreak.
  • Patriotism – Certainly, the NHL is banking on nationalistic fervour to make the tournament a success. But it has some glaring holes. While the Olympics ooze national pride, the World Cup has two teams without a country or an anthem (although Team Europe and Team North America are the tournament’s most intriguing entrants).
  • Schedule – The World Cup amounts to a pre-season tournament for the NHL as players are still finding their game. At the Olympics, they are in mid-season form.
  • Spirit – The World Cup is a pure cash grab by the NHL. If this was just about growing the game, smaller hockey nations would have a shot of at qualifying. Some of the more memorable Olympic contests are the close calls for hockey superpowers against countries like Switzerland and Germany. At the Olympics, you see players from other leagues whom you have never heard of before. The World Cup will have one player with no NHL experience or connection (Michal Birner, Czech Republic). Also, the NHL Players’ Association likely wouldn’t be on board with the World Cup if it were not getting a 50-50 share from the expected $100-million windfall. The prize money ($1 million for the winning team, $500,000 for the runner-up) is nice, but money doesn’t buy spirit. While some countries award players for medals won at the Olympics, that money is the furthest thing from the mind of most athletes.

I appreciate that the NHL hit the reset button on the World Cup of Hockey with a new format and centralized the tournament in one city. It’s setting the foundation for an expanded international catalogue expected to include a Ryder-Cup-style tournament (Canada or North America versus the world?) launched in the 2017-18 season. And there’s still the chance that future World Cups will include the top six International Ice Hockey Federation countries with qualifying tournaments for the final two spots.

But for the NHL’s international intentions to be legitimate, they must still find a way to include the Olympics. There is no real replacement to get a sports fan’s pulse racing.

Troy Media columnist Josh Aldrich has spent the last 14 years covering the wide world of sports in B.C. and Alberta. Josh is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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