The NHL is hoping the revived World Cup of Hockey will replace the Olympics as a showcase tournament for its top talent. Will it be worth the hype? Or will be become a world class waste of time?
In the 1970s and 1980s, staging international tournaments like the Canada Cup was the only way to see hockey’s best players against each other. Back then, NHL professionals didn’t participate in the Olympics. European stars, especially those from then-communist countries, were largely unknown entities for North American fans.
Even the first World Cup of Hockey, in 1996, still had some merit. While the NHL was by then a truly international league, its best players still didn’t participate in the Olympics. The World Cup of Hockey (which replaced the old Canada Cup tournaments) was the only way for the very best players to square off against each other.
Since the NHL began participating in the Winter Olympics in 1998, the World Cup of Hockey became irrelevant. It took eight years for the NHL to stage another. Coming on the eve of a season-killing lockout in September 2004, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
At least the 1996 World Cup was memorable as the United States’ coming-out party as a hockey power by upsetting Canada in the tournament final. The only real memory of the 2004 World Cup was the gawd-awful trophy awarded to the tournament-winning Canadian team. It looked like the base of a lamp someone bought at a yard sale.
The Winter Olympics has supplanted the old NHL-staged tournaments as the pinnacle of international competition among players and fans. For the league, however, it didn’t become the cash cow it was expected it to become.
The NHL makes very little revenue from Olympic participation, which also hasn’t done to increase the league’s popularity in the all-important American sports market. When the Winter Games are staged outside North America, they’re often not televised during American prime time. NHL general managers grumble over shutting down the regular season for two weeks, fearing their best players could be injured in Olympic competition.
By resurrecting the World Cup of Hockey, the NHL brain trust hopes its fans – especially those in North America — will flock to a September hockey tournament as they once did to the Canada Cup and the original World Cup of Hockey. If they do, there won’t be a need to participate in future Olympic tournaments, even though the players overwhelmingly prefer to continue Olympic participation.
Despite the recent hype over the World Cup selections, this tournament could turn into a big yawn for NHL fans. Cynics believe this is simply a cash grab for the league and doubt it’ll capture the imagination of hockey fans the way soccer’s World Cup has for “footie” fans.
The revenue from this year’s World Cup of Hockey should determine if the NHL stages more international tournaments. It could also decide if the NHL continues it’s Olympic participation. If the 2016 World Cup of Hockey fails to capture the imagination of the fans, the NHL will have a difficult time justifying future tournaments.
Of course, the NHL can just stubbornly press ahead and keep staging the World Cup of Hockey every four years to ensure it becomes the only tournament in which to watch hockey’s best face off in international competition. That’s probably what it’ll take, but only if the money’s worthwhile.