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What the NHL can learn from the success of the World Baseball Classic

Here are a couple of ways the World Cup of Hockey could be changed to make it more of a legitimate event, like it's baseball counterpart.

The relative success of the World Baseball Classic, which wrapped up Wednesday night when the United States won its first championship with an 8-0 victory of Puerto Rico, got me wondering how the World Cash Grab of Hockey™ could make some improvements, provided it has a long-term future.

Both events are held essentially in the midst of training camps, which isn’t ideal for either hockey or baseball operations people and both tournaments. But it also provides an opportunity for those players to springboard their seasons by playing meaningful games right off the hop, and a chance for them to perform with and against the best players in the world. This is even more so the case in hockey, whose tournament was not diminished nearly as much by the decisions of some of the biggest stars in the game to sit the event out. Hockey players generally just wait for the All-Star Game to do that.

By most accounts, though, the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic was a compelling and successful event this time around. The 39 games drew a total of about 1.1 million fans, which means each game averaged a healthy 28,000 spectators. The ratings broke records and likely so did the profits. In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest the success of the event in 2017 might have saved the tournament from extinction.

There is no such existential crisis with the World Cup of Hockey, since both the NHL and NHL Players’ Association really like the cash that comes along with it. Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk might have come out with the most twisted sense of logic in the history of the game when he recently suggested he was against loaning Erik Karlsson to the Swedish Olympic team and risk having him injured, but might be inclined to offer a star to the Canadian team for the Olympics. Because he’s Canadian. Yeah, that’s how some of these guys actually think.

So what it comes down to is that the owners are reticent about exposing their players to injuries in international competition if they don’t get a cut of the profits, but have no problem doing it if there’s something in it for them. All right, then. Based on that thinking, here are a couple of ways the World Cup of Hockey could be changed to make it more of a legitimate event:

1. If it’s a World Cup of Hockey, let the rest of the world experience it.

Not only was the World Cup in one country, heck it was in one city, in one arena. The World Baseball Classic, on the other hand, was played in four countries – South Korea, Japan, Mexico and USA, with three different American cities hosting games. If you want to capitalize on the unique passion that many European fans have for the game, you have to bring it to them and make them feel a part of the experience. It would also help remove an enormous competitive advantage that Canada doesn’t even need.

2. Establish ice time maximums for players.

In order to minimize the risk of injuries to pitchers, the WBC has established pitch counts. The World Cup of Hockey could do the same thing with ice time for players. Not only would that avoid coaches from overusing players, it would also add an interesting tactical wrinkle to the games. Let’s say coaches wouldn’t be able to use forwards for more than 18 minutes and defensemen more than 20 in the preliminary round, totals that would go up to 20 and 23 minutes for the playoff round, with unlimited use during overtimes. It would add another level of intrigue to see how coaches deployed their star players.

3. Have a strong U.S. entry

Much of the success of this year’s World Baseball Classic was due to the fact that it was finally won by the USA entry, a team that had not finished higher than fourth in the previous three tournaments. This year’s American entry in the World Cup was a disaster from start to finish. It was a team that could not have been more ill-suited from a player personnel standpoint for this tournament and one that finished 0-3. That’s not the kind of showing that is going to have ESPN eager to jump at the opportunity to televise another one.

4. Scrap the Frankenstein monster teams

How much more exciting and successful would the American team have been had it had access to the likes of Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews and J.T. Miller? Well, we’ll never know, but we can venture a guess that it wouldn’t have done any worse. The problem here is that Team North America was a tournament darling and Team Europe turned out to be far better than anyone imagined. But exposing the smaller European countries to this level of competition is going to help the game grow there. Including the lesser powers from Europe would allow the tournament to expand its field and provide the opportunity for an upset or two along the way.

5. And finally, pull out of the Olympics for good

This would be a horrible, horrible idea, but if the NHL and NHLPA truly want the World Cup of Hockey to be the apex of international play, it has to crush the competition. And it could only do that by not participating in the Olympics. The World Cup will never, ever be considered top tier unless and until NHL players stop playing in the Olympics. This correspondent would much rather see full Olympic participation and no World Cup because it’s better for the long-term growth of the game to have the best players in the world competing on the world’s biggest stage every four years, but if both sides are intent on making this work, there is no other alternative.




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