For about three days in late September, it felt as though the World Cup of Hockey might not be such a good idea after all. The event had surprised a lot of cynics with its terrific start, an electric performance by Team North America and a feel-good underdog story as Team Misfit/Europe made its unlikely run.
Then the final started. The drama followed Elvis and left the building. Everyone except those inside Europe’s dressing room had ceded the top prize to Canada. The gimmick that was Europe, albeit a good gimmick for a while, was ultimately exposed. A 10-minute walk down the road in Toronto, the Blue Jays were fighting for their playoff lives in front of 50,000 fans, a chunk of whom were paying well over face value to get into the Rogers Centre. Meanwhile, back at the Air Canada Centre, scalpers were taking a bath. The ACC was bereft of atmosphere. The told-you-so’ers were having a field day. Olympics or bust, baby.
Then on Thursday night, Canada made its stunning comeback and the picture faded from black and white to a hazier shade of grey. The balloon got some of its air back. Now what?
We understand the NHL’s dilemma. The majority of fans want NHL players to go to the Games. The players say fairly emphatically they want to play. As things stand, there is no bigger stage than the Olympics.
But there are obstacles and drawbacks. The expenses to shut down the league for a couple weeks and foot the bill for massive insurance premiums and travel are significant and the IOC, for now, is balking at picking up any part of the tab. We’re talking many millions. Meantime, the Olympic ideal has taken a rib-kicking over the years. Scandals, corruption, steroid use and controversial legacies in some of the host cities have tainted the Games’ image.
Back at home, the World Cup, despite the mixed reviews, reportedly turned a profit of $60 million. It may not be an enormous sum on a per capita basis once you start dividing the pie, but it’s not chump change, either. And there’s plenty of room to grow.
Yes, you read that correctly – the NHL and NHLPA re-launched an event on which they can build, but they have to commit. It’s not known for certain that they were using the World Cup as leverage with the IOC, hoping the threat of withdrawal would make the IOC blink. Hopefully, that’s not the case, but rather it was serving as a Plan B in the event things didn’t work out with the monolith.
For the World Cup to continue successfully, the NHL and PA have to say goodbye to the Olympics. This hockey world is not big enough for the two of them. The World Cup needs to be played in regular intervals (probably four years) and become the ultimate international hockey prize, like it was during the Canada Cup days.
The benefits are plentiful. It forces the league and NHLPA to work together toward a common goal, which hopefully greases the skids for the next round of CBA negotiations. OK, Gary Bettman doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to his negotiating tactics, but I’m optimistic he’ll mellow a bit with age. But I digress.
In addition, the NHL and PA have total control over all aspects of the event; they aren’t at the mercy of a larger body. It benefits us as fans (and media) because we get better coverage, better access, better photos, better ability to see the games in person, or at times that are convenient.
As for format, there are myriad ways they could go. There’s still a sizeable portion of observers who think the Team North America concept should get another crack. Team Europe, on the other hand, as impressively as they gelled and played so emotionally for one another, is almost certainly a one-and-done.
If the hockey overlords continue to believe that there are only six strong nations, why not limit the event to those countries? Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic (or a replacement), the USA and Canada could play a five-game round-robin, everyone plays everyone, and the top four seeds advance to the semifinal. That way, all games would still matter, but there wouldn’t be a situation like Team USA faced this time around when after losing to Europe, it had a must-win game against Canada.
There are other variations. But they key is to stay the course, commit to one best-on-best event, and build a brand. Give it 20 years to grow, not two or three or four. Eventually, it would be a win-win for the hockey world.