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The threat of another lockout could get in the way of 2020 World Cup of Hockey

The NHL wants “labor certainty” if they are to go forward with plans for another World Cup of Hockey ahead of the 2020-21 season. And if the tournament does come to pass, changes to the format — and the participating teams — could be coming.

It was little more than two years ago, across the final two weeks of September 2016, that the NHL sanctioned the first World Cup of Hockey in more than a decade, an eight-team tournament that preceded the regular season and featured the only best-on-best international play hockey fans have witnessed since the 2014 Sochi Olympics. And after the NHL held players out of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and with continued uncertainty about participation at the 2022 Games in Beijing, the 2020 World Cup could very well present the next and only opportunity for fans to see best-on-best competition once again.

The 2020 tournament may be in jeopardy, though, if the NHL and NHL Players’ Association can’t agree to waive the right to reopen collective bargaining agreement negotiations in September 2019.

While the current CBA between the NHL and NHLPA isn’t set to expire until after the 2021-22 season, which wouldn’t at all interfere with a potential World Cup, both parties have the right to trigger negotiations next September. If either side does so, the current CBA could then expire following the 2019-20 campaign if no agreement is reached. And, according to NHL.com, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league isn’t bullish on the idea of holding the tournament if there’s potential for it to be followed by a lockout.

“Our position is we don't want to hold it if there is labor uncertainty,” Daly said. “We really need labor certainty to play it. It didn't work so well in 2004 when we tried that.”

What Daly is referring to, of course, is World Cup that immediately preceded the NHL’s lost 2004-05 campaign. The tournament took place across the first two weeks of September 2004, but labor unrest overshadowed the competition in many ways and it was just two days after the final, which saw a star-studded Canadian roster narrowly defeat Finland, that the NHL announced the start of the upcoming season was to be postponed as a result of an expired collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players. In mid-February 2005, the season was cancelled.

Though this all seems a long way off, the reality is that a decision needs to be reached by both sides in the not-too-distant future when it comes to reopening CBA negotiations. Said Daly, the end of January is a potential and possibly realistic drop-dead date for the NHL and NHLPA to agree to waive the right to begin CBA talks in September 2019 or, at the very least, push talks back. He added that it would be “very difficult to plan and execute” the tournament if the potential for CBA negotiations to begin in September 2019 was still present beyond January.

According to NHL.com, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr didn’t entirely agree that the NHL would need such labor assurances in order for the tournament to be played, but added that he understands the “timing from their standpoint” and said the NHLPA would attempt to ensure the tournament can be played.

Also worth noting when it comes to the World Cup, however, is that there exists potential for a change in format. Of note, and quite possibly one of the NHL’s main reasonings for wanting labor certainty before working out the logistical elements of staging the tournament, is that the 2020 World Cup could be a multi-city tournament, according to NHL.com, instead of taking place in one city, as it did in Toronto in 2016. And while the eight-team format seems to be a winning formula, and one that the league would apparently hope to repeat if the 2020 competition takes place, the NHL may alter the field of competitors.

The mainstays of international competition would remain, which is to say one would be able to expect a club from Canada, the defending champions, as well as USA, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Czech Republic. However, much to the chagrin of those who supported the two squads thrown together for the sole purpose of the tournament, the league is leaning towards replacing Team Europe and the 23-and-under Team North America with a pair of traditional national teams.

“I'd say our preliminary discussions would be leaning toward eight national teams as opposed to those two teams, but we had a lot of success with those two teams," Daly said, according to NHL.com. "So, I wouldn't rule it out, I just would say it's probably not the favorite right now.”

At the 2016 tournament, Team Europe, which included players from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland, stunned the field by winning its way into the best-of-three final against Canada. They were swept in two games. No team rallied the support of onlookers quite like the North American group, however. The team of young guns, which featured the likes of Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon, narrowly finished third in its group, coming one goal short — they needed a plus-four goal differential as a tie-breaker over Russia, but ended with a plus-three differential — of advancing to the knockout stage.

Daly did not say which countries could potentially replace the amalgamated European and North American teams at a potential 2020 World Cup. The top-seeded international clubs, per IIHF world rankings, that didn’t participate in the 2016 tournament are Switzerland, Germany, Norway and Slovakia. In order of NHL participation, the most well-represented nations not included in the tournament are Switzerland (13 players), Slovakia (11) and Germany (eight). Other nations represented include Australia (one), Austria (three), Denmark (six), France (two), Latvia (one), Netherlands (one), Norway (two) and Slovenia (one).

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