For years now, many who follow the NHL have expected the league to announce the return of the World Cup of Hockey. That's on the verge of being made official, but what nobody was quite prepared for was the stunning Sportsnet report concerning "dramatic changes" made to the structure of the off-season, league-controlled tournament.
According to the report, the NHL is considering a format that would see the six top hockey nations (Canada, the United States, Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic) take part – but in a new twist, two "all-star" teams would join the competition: one squad would be comprised of the best players from countries other than the aforementioned six nations: Slovakia (who could offer Zdeno Chara), Slovenia (Anze Kopitar), Switzerland (Nino Niederreiter), and Germany (Christian Ehrhoff, Dennis Seidenberg), among others. The composition of the second team has yet to be determined, but one of the concepts being bandied about is taking all of the game's best young players and giving them the same jersey to create a "Generation: Next"-type lineup.
As soon as the news broke, the reaction was less than universallypositive. But you know what? I think the new format would be a terrific breath of fresh air – that is, so long as the return of the World Cup doesn't mean the end of NHL participation in the Olympics.
I've long argued the league benefits in more ways than one by taking part in the Winter Games every four years and my position hasn't changed. If the league was truly dead set against going back to the Olympics, it's inappropriate to dilute the spirit of international competition by inserting two groups of players with no natural connection to one another.
However, if the league, NHL Players' Association and International Ice Hockey Federation can work out a deal that sees the World Cup played two years after every Winter Olympics and balance both tournaments, a creative tweaking of people's expectations for the event is exactly what can set it apart in a crowded sports marketplace, and I think the NHL is well within its rights to try something out of the ordinary to try something new. For one thing, a team featuring players from smaller hockey countries would guarantee all of the NHL's top talents get to play in a marquee tournament. That's important to a league that still needs to be better at marketing its players. And let's say they follow through with the notion of making a team out of the best young players – can you imagine the stories and interest that would arise if it were able to upset the rest of the field and win it all? It would be phenomenal for the game.
The last time the World Cup was held in 2004, eight teams played – the Big Six mentioned above, as well as Slovakia and Germany. Neither the Germans nor the Slovaks won any of their three group round games and were outscored by a combined total of 28-8. Would watching those nations get shellacked again be a better idea than a team of more skilled players would be in the revamped format? You know the answer as well as I do. What the new plan lacks in ideological pureness and familiarity in the way international tournaments have been staged, it more than makes up for in competitiveness and thrills. And let's never lose sight of the fact the World Cup doesn't have a hallowed tradition that requires preserving at all costs; there have only been two, and they existed as an entertainment entity to line the coffers of NHL team owners and players. There aren't any sacred cows here.
Again, it's not worth adopting this new concept if it means the death of Olympic participation. However, if the NHL can play nice with the International Olympic Committee and strike the right balance between what's good for the league and good for the sport, a radically different World Cup of Hockey wouldn't be a bad thing at all. To the contrary.
Adam Proteau is a columnist at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @Proteautype