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Under Gary Bettman, NHL's approach to international hockey has been laughable

There will be no World Cup of Hockey played in 2021 and, with Olympic participation no sure thing, we might not see best-on-best international play until 2024.

You really can’t make this stuff up. But that doesn’t appear to be a problem, since the NHL often does such a good job of writing these ridiculous plotlines all on its own.

Need an example? Well, look no further than Tuesday afternoon when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league and the NHL Players’ Association had come to the conclusion that some version of the World Cup of Hockey, a.k.a. The World Cash Grab of Hockey™, would not be played in February 2021. Instead, hockey fans will be force-fed another iteration of the All-Star Game, that forgettable annual event where nobody hits, nobody cares and the results are wiped from everyone’s memory banks five minutes after it ends.

The league has also made it clear, in all its myopic glory, that it’s not terribly interested in returning to the Olympics, either. There is talk of another World Cup in 2024, which would make it eight years between events, which is actually an improvement, considering it was 12 years between the last World Cup and the one that preceded it.

So the next time anyone affiliated with the NHL tells you with a straight face that it is committed to growing the game globally, please feel free to do one of the following:

• Roll your eyes so far into the back of your head that you’ll actually be able to see the back of your head;

• Throw your television out the window, unless you live in a high-rise, in which case simply just throw it on the floor and repeatedly stomp on it;

• Do everything humanly possible to prevent your head from exploding.

As it stands at this moment, we have no appetite from the league for NHL players going to the Olympics and a World Cup schedule that has all the predictability of winter in Calgary. Does that sound to you like a league that is committed to growing the game globally?

It wasn’t always this way. The only thing the NHL has done with any regularity is to allow players whose teams are no longer in the playoffs to participate in the World Championship. That’s a positive step, but it doesn’t make the event a best-on-best tournament. Until 1998, that was actually covered by the Canada Cup/World Cup, which was played in 1976, 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991.

But then what happened? Gary B. Bettman became the commissioner of the NHL in 1993. Three years later, we had the inaugural World Cup of Hockey. Then it was eight years before we saw it again, then 12 years between tournaments again. The same man who presided over a strike and three lockouts also presided over a league that jerked international hockey around and used it only when it suited its own purposes. Since Bettman took over, we’ve had one World Cup as scheduled and two that appeared with no rhyme or reason, one of them featuring the ugliest championship trophy any sport has ever known. We had NHL participation in five consecutive Olympics before pulling out. And now Olympic participation has basically been reduced to a bargaining chip by a league that thinks it can leverage it to gain more concessions from the players, all of whom want to see NHL participation continue.

All of which it has the right to do. Their league, their rules. The NHL can do what it thinks for the best of the league and the owners who fund it. But please, don’t continue to feed people the line that you’re concerned with growing the game globally because you send a couple of teams over to Europe to start the season and have a World Cash Grab of Hockey™ whenever you feel like it.

Even when the NHL was in the Olympics, there was no evidence it ever did anything to leverage its participation into something more. It would just show up, put on a spectacular spectacle from an entertainment standpoint, and leave, expecting all those international revenues to follow it home. No attempt was made to market in Europe or set up an NHL office there. And then it pulls out of the Olympics after warring with the International Olympic Committee and saying that the returns from participating aren’t worth the risk of injury and the disruption to the schedule once every four years. Well, as the kids say, duh.

Hockey is the greatest game in the world. It’s also one of the world’s best-kept secrets. And as long as the league has its current international “strategy” there is nothing to worry about. Because it’s going to stay that way.

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