It’s possible the Sochi Winter Olympics could be the NHL’s last. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently said the league would decide within the next six months if it will take part in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
Assuming this is either the NHL’s permanent Olympic swan song or a temporary absence, will the league stage its own international tournament?
The reason why the league – more specifically, the team owners – are griping over Olympic participation is it didn’t turn into the revenue-booster they assumed it would be back in the 1990s when they agreed to send players to the Games. They’ve discovered shuttering the league for three weeks in mid-season affects their local revenue and ratings.
The players, on the other hand, apparently still enjoy Olympic participation. Those fortunate enough to participate in the Games get the honor of playing for their country, sometimes in exotic locals like Nagano Japan, Turin Italy or a balmy Russian resort town on the Black Sea. The remainder enjoy a welcome ten-day break from the long NHL schedule, usually relaxing with family and/or friends in a tropical resort followed by returning home for mini-training camps before the regular season resumes.
Hockey fans who aren’t comfortable with professional athletes taking part in what’s supposed to be an amateur tournament won’t shed tears if the NHL pulls out of the Winter Olympics. Still, there’s no denying the quality of Olympic play – involving the very best players in the world – is far superior than most NHL regular season games.
It’s been rumored the NHL could resurrect the World Cup of Hockey, which was the successor of the Canada Cup tournaments of the 1970s and ’80s. The World Cup was staged only twice, during pre-season in 1996 and prior to the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Holding an international tournament involving the world’s best players (in most cases, NHL players) during pre-season wouldn’t interfere with the NHL regular season schedule. Sure, there’s the risk of injury but you’re going to get that even in pre-season competition.
Bringing the World Cup back to life seems a viable option. The problem, however, is making it meaningful enough for the players and fans to give a damn about it.
Canadian and American fans will probably enjoy it, especially if it is staged in North America as per the previous World and Canada Cup tournaments. Still, it would be competing against Major League Baseball pennant races as well as football season in North America.
The NHL would also have to convince European hockey fans that the World Cup is a superior product to the annual IIHF World Championship tournament. The Worlds have existed for decades, are usually held during the opening round of the NHL playoffs and is almost sacred to European hockey fans. To excite those fans, the World Cup should be staged regularly in a European or Russian venue. Doing so, however, could make it a tougher sell for North American fans.
The backdrop of the Cold War made the Canada Cup tournaments more meaningful than the World Cup of Hockey. Not many Europeans played in the NHL back then, especially those from Communist countries. Those players – particularly the Russians and Czechoslovakians – were mysteries to North American fans. Those series represented clashes of ideology as much as of hockey styles. Only the Olympics, with its pomp and long history, can generate comparable excitement.
The other option is the NHL only takes part in the World Championships. Due to NHL playoff scheduling, the Worlds currently don’t involve all the game’s best players, as most are still participating in the NHL playoffs.
The NHL could postpone the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs to allow a two-week window for the World Championships, but that stands about as much chance as Satan skating to work. Forget about staging the Worlds following the NHL playoffs. Most hockey fans have little interest in following a hockey tournament in the middle of summer. Good luck generating interest in a World Championship held in July, let alone convincing the exhausted and battered stars from the Stanley Cup Finalists to participate.
What will likely to happen is the NHL skips the 2018 Winter Olympics, using the next eight years to stage two World Cup of Hockey tournaments. If the World Cup generates enough excitement from players and fans worldwide, they’ll permanently forsake the Winter Olympics. If the World Cup turns into a dud and the players clamor for Olympic participation, this could become a significant issue during the next round of collective bargaining in 2022.