Compared to the grand spectacle that are the Olympics, the World Cup of Hockey pales as a grow operation.
You still have almost a year to prepare for the World Cup of Hockey and that might seem like plenty of time, but there’s so much to do. I mean, we haven’t even started debating whether Andrew Ladd or Jaden Schwartz should be Canada’s fourth-line left winger or who would be the best fit on Connor McDavid’s line for the North American YoungStars. Securing that second mortgage to buy tickets will take a while. And if you can’t do that, the NHL and NHLPA want to make sure you’re aware you’ll be able to watch it on computers, smartphones, tablets, Amazon Fire TV, Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, so you still have time to pick up one of those. If you figure out what those things are.
And for the Luddites among us, there’s always Sportsnet in most of Canada, ESPN in the U.S. and TVA Sports (which also owns The Hockey News) in Quebec. It promises to be a two-week hockey-palooza featuring the best best-on-best competition in the history of best-on-best competitions, highlighting the best players from the best countries, the best young players and the best players from other countries that aren’t the best.
And it’s an event that’s expected to generate more than $100 million for the league and players, an amount that gets split 50/50. With all that money on the line, no wonder there’s a chance we’ll see advertising on sweaters. It’s a concept that is verboten in the NHL, but if slapping an ad for McDonald’s or Coca-Cola on Mother Russia’s sweater will add a few million to the pot, then the league and players are for it. And that’s not the only place where the World Cup gets caught in a web of contradiction. This is not, repeat, not, a vehicle whose primary intention is to grow the game, either in North America or globally. The World Cup is not about raising hockey’s profile any more than Winter Classics are about returning the game to its outdoor roots. These things are first and foremost about money. Generating revenues is the No. 1 objective. And that’s fine. The league belongs to the NHL and its players and they have every right to conduct business the way they see fit. I just wish they’d be transparent about it. I wish they’d be like John Collins, the chief operating officer of the NHL, who said of the World Cup of Hockey back in January, “We’ve grown into a $4 billion business. The question is, where does the next billion come from?” Any criticism or mocking of this event will be duly revoked the moment the NHL and NHLPA announce they will continue to play in the Olympics. If that happens, they can hold a World Cup every six months and fill it with niche teams like red-haired guys from Saskatchewan if it wants. Because the World Cup is basically a meaningless exhibition event that will have no lasting impact. It will be a nice summer diversion and the moment it ends, we’ll all begin preparing for the NHL season. If your country wins, hey, great. If not, it will be how long before the Penguins and Flyers play? There will be no lasting residue, likely a limited legacy and no more interest in the game than there was prior to the event. The only World/Canada Cup that has had any type of legacy was 1987 and that’s because the level of hockey was as high as it’s ever been and Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were at the apex of their talents. Even then, that legacy only exists in the country that won the tournament, a place that hardly needs bolstering when it comes to hockey interest. No, if the NHL were truly interested in growing the game outside Canada, it would stay on board with playing in the Olympics every four years. But there are no real low-hanging dollars for the NHL in the Olympics, only the possibility of growth that can’t be easily measured. The Olympics, more importantly, draw enormous amounts of interest from around the world, including peripheral hockey countries. Those places won’t be the least bit interested in a World Cup. How many Americans will be interested? Well, NBC Sports was not interested enough in securing the rights because there were too many “conflicts with existing programming.” Perhaps the hype machine surrounding ESPN will help, but there’s no way any World Cup game, even with the U.S. in the final, would approach the 27.6 million Americans who watched the 2010 gold-medal game between Canada and Team USA in Vancouver. Just so you know, that game drew better ratings than the Masters, Daytona 500, NBA final, NCAA basketball final, World Series and Rose Bowl. In Canada, 16.6 million, or about half the entire country, watched the game. In 1980, 34.2 million Americans tuned in to USA’s Miracle on Ice game against the Soviet Union and another 32.8 million watched as the Americans secured the gold against Finland. It’s clear the Olympics grow the game. A World Cup will grow only one thing, and that’s profits.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.