During All-Star weekend, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr formally announced that the World Cup of Hockey will return in 2016. Previous tournaments held in 1996 and 2004 captured the excitement and intensity of Olympic hockey.
Who could forget Mike Richter, Brett Hull and Tony Amonte leading the United States to consecutive 5-2 victories over Canada at Bell Centre to win the best-of-three championship final in 1996? Same goes for the one-game 2004 final between Canada and Finland. The much-anticipated showdown of Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff at their peak saw Canada edge Finland 3-2.
This time around in 2016, the format will feature some bizarre changes. There will not be a pre-qualification tournament. Only six nations — the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, and Sweden will be represented at the 2016 tournament, which will be played entirely at Air Canada Center in Toronto. The remaining two teams will be a North American Under-23 team and a Pan-European All-Star roster.
The tournament will pull NHL players away from training camp and be held between Sept. 17 and Oct. 1, 2016.
“We decided that bringing back the World Cup, as Don and I both said, was vitally important,” Bettman said. “We think the sports world was missing something really great by not having our players play this type of best-on-best competition. We wanted to keep the first one exciting, entertaining, competitive and get it right, so we didn’t, with timing, have the luxury of a pre-qualification tournament, so we’re going to let this evolve. We believe after giving the event such a good start that we’re going to build off of it and cause it to evolve, so you may see more teams, you may see a pre-qualification tournament, we may come up with other events, but this is the starting point, this is the foundation of what we wanted to do together.”
Bettman believes that the addition of a Pan-European team will make the tournament highly competitive and will help create exciting story lines.
“I think everybody understood,” Bettman said. “If you look at the other teams, no other country could be as well equipped with NHL players as ‘The Big Four’ from Europe, and so the notion was to get a really competitive tournament going without the benefit of pre-qualification, but the fact that we’re going to have a great Pan-European team is going to make the tournament all that more exciting, all that more competitive. There are going to be great story lines, and the view was everybody understands that this is the starting point and we’re going to evolve.”
The new format comes off as contrived and gimmicky, going against the spirit of international tournaments. International tournaments are supposed to be about national pride, pageantry, and rooting for a single nation. Are Slovenian, Swiss, Norwegian, and Danish fans going to get behind a Ryder Cup-style Pan-European team? How will Americans and Canadians react when their country faces the Under-23 North American “Young Guns” team?
Slovenian center Anze Kopitar will have the opportunity to be a key member of the Pan-European team. Kopitar admitted that although it will be “weird” to join up with European rivals, all the players are professionals and will compete hard at the tournament.
“I think we have a lot of good players from Switzerland, Slovakia, Denmark, Norway, you name it,” Kopitar said. “I think it’s going to be competitive. I think to start it might feel a little bit weird just because you’re bringing everybody together, but I guess one similar thing would be in golf when they bring together the Ryder Cup team, Team Europe. I think we can kind of draw on that maybe, and like I said before, the guys are always professional, and we’re competitors, and it will be a hard tournament.”
American winger Patrick Kane believes that fans will enjoy watching the under-23 North American team competing against Canada and the United States.
“No, I think it’s exciting,” Kane said. “I played with Canadian kids growing up my whole life, and those are some of my best friends and teammates as a kid playing hockey, so I think you can kind of be a little bit similar to that. If they beat you, they beat you. I think you look at hockey these days, it’s a young man’s game, more than ever now, teenagers are coming into the league and playing right away, and you can see the talent and the skill level getting better and better. I think we all like watching young players play the game. I know myself, I like watching the world juniors just to see who’s the next up and coming guys. I think the fans will enjoy that, too.”
That’s easy for the 26-year-old Kane to say, given that he will be representing Team USA and won’t be placed in the awkward position of a young American kid attempting to defeat his homeland as a member of an under-23 North American All-Star team. It’s definitely going to be awkward for the American and Canadian youngsters representing the Under-23 team. How would it feel to eliminate your own countrymen?
The worst part about all this is that it’s designed to kill the desire of NHL players to return to Olympic hockey. Bettman and Fehr might get their wish. It’s unclear whether the NHL players will compete at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeong Chang. If the World Cup of Hockey becomes a success, NHL stars might not have the desire to travel to potentially unfriendly Olympic host countries.
Bettman and Daly have described the World Cup of Hockey as a “best-on-best” tournament. They’re wrong. Nothing is better than the world’s greatest hockey players representing their countries on the Olympic stage. It’s the purest of competition. Nothing beats capturing Olympic gold.