We are all steven Stamkos. Well, no, we are not quite Steven Stamkos. His international hockey journey actually invites more sympathy than ours.
We at least got to enjoy best-on-best men’s hockey at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics. Stamkos didn’t land on the Canadian roster in 2010 because he was an NHL sophomore, fresh off a disappointing rookie year. He was one of the world’s elite players by 2013-14, scoring 14 goals in 17 games, but he gruesomely broke his leg and missed out on Sochi.
By 2018? No NHL Olympic participation. Finally, leading up to the 2022 Games at which NHLers were set to return, Stamkos was the healthiest he’d been in years and playing high-end hockey. He was finally going to realize his Olympic dream.
And…thanks a lot, COVID-19. The NHL justifiably withdrew for pandemic concerns. Stamkos was robbed again.
So were we, as fans of the game. No Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby on the same team. No Auston Matthews/Patrick Kane connection. No Laine-Barkov-Rantanen super line. Take whatever amazing best-on-best scenarios you dreamed up over the past eight years and incinerate ’em. How utterly crushing.
Well, it was for most of us. The NHL and its owners collect no revenue from the Olympics, pause their season partway through the schedule and send their assets overseas to risk injury. For them, it was welcome news when the NHL Players’ Association, given “the final say” in a stroke of gaslighting genius by commissioner Gary Bettman, pulled out of the 2022 Beijing Games. The NHL brass probably did cartwheels.
Not only do they no longer have to worry about making what they consider a pesky concession to the players, but the appetite should now rumble in fans’ stomachs for something that does make the NHL money: the World Cup. We last saw it in 2016, and it’s obviously back in play for a hockey fan base jonesin’ for men’s best-on-best.
The NHL and NHLPA are expected to meet over potential World Cup plans sometime in 2022. It remains to be seen how quickly an event could be planned. Surely not this summer. Perhaps 2024 makes sense, two years from an Olympic tourney on either side.
But what would the format look like? The 2016 World Cup was memorable, not so much for its result – Canada mostly sleepwalked its way to the title – but for its format.
The ragtag Team Europe went all the way to the final, and Team North America, the under-23 squad featuring McDavid, Matthews and MacKinnon, was the story of the tournament, fun as heck to watch.
The detractors felt the gimmick teams sucked the “best on best” out of the tournament, given some North America players would’ve made their national teams. And, as McDavid told reporters in December after the Olympic withdrawal, “We need to find a way to get a best-on-best tournament done at some point here.” So what tweaks to the World Cup format would quench the best-on-best thirst while maintaining a degree of creativity? Consider these suggestions.
1. Forget the under-23 team. Make North America the under-20 team. The odds of world-junior-aged players making Canada or the U.S. would be small anyway, so you wouldn’t be stealing many if any contributors from the national teams. Instead, you get, essentially, a mixed WJC squad that could still produce the heart-skips-a-beat excitement of the 2016 Team North America. Think Connor Bedard, Shane Wright and Logan Cooley on the same team.
2. No more Team Europe. The 2016 World Cup only let six actual nations enter, with the gimmick squads increasing the field to eight. This time, eight countries play. If the tournament used current IIHF rankings, Canada, Finland, Russia, the U.S., Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland would compete. Then I’d stretch the field to 10 for two circus-act teams. One is the world-junior hybrid squad. The other…
3. Add a men’s senior team. Yep. Think anyone not currently under contract in the NHL. And they can hail from any nation around the world. Maybe we’d get a grizzled team featuring the likes of Eric Staal, Jaromir Jagr, Vadim Shipachyov and Nikita Gusev, with Vasily Koshechkin in goal. Oh, you worry they’d get pummelled? The 2022 Beijing Games had McDavid and Matthews tabbed to share a group with China. Sit down. In a short tournament, would the international senior team be any worse than what Slovakia or Denmark might bring to the table?
Ideas like these might feel far-fetched, but so did Team North America and Team Europe in theory. With these tweaks, we wouldn’t lose the wacky unpredictability of 2016 but would gain a sense that we’re watching a real best-on-best tournament. Who’s with me?