The NHL should bring back the World Cup of Hockey

It’s a perfect time to bring back best-on-best international competition outside of the Olympics.

It’s a perfect time to bring back best-on-best international competition outside of the Olympics.
Illustration: Getty Images

Now that it’s official and the NHL players won’t be going to the Olympics, some disappointment is understandable. The idea that Connor McDavid won’t play for Canada in a best-on-best tournament until his 30s is pretty ridiculous. Or that we may never get that line with him and Sidney Crosby. This tournament very likely may have been the U.S.’s best chance at gold, given that most of its players are in their prime. There are some players who won’t be around for 2026. Sucks.

But hockey can have all that, and it can have it soon, and it can have it in a way where both the players and owners actually make some money off of it.

Bring bac the World Cup!

It was last held in 2016 in Toronto, and yes that thing was a mess, but the league and players can do better this time around.

The NHL has borked the World Cup for a couple decades now. They had some momentum with the one in 1996 after they rebranded the Canada Cup, when the U.S. won two games in Montreal to take it from the Canadians, with all three games in the final series a classic. It should have been a regular thing then. However, with NHL players being introduced into the Olympics just two years later, there seemed to be an agreement on both sides that the Games would stand in for the prime international tournament in hockey.

The league brought it back in 2004, right at the dawn of The Great Bettman Lockout II that would clip an entire season, simply to get some money into owners’ pockets before the whole league was shuttered for a year. That tournament was garbage, mostly because the U.S. team was garbage. Again, the league waited another 12 years before bringing it back in 2016, which it completely mangled by having a Young Stars team and a Team Europe instead of just traditional country-by-country set up, gave the whole thing an exhibition, preseason feel. Which is what you want to avoid, even if it is in the preseason.

Again, the league was happy to let the Olympics step in as the international standard, but it’s not like there’s a long tradition of pros in the Olympic hockey tournament. It’s only been slightly over 20 years, and it’s only been five Olympics.

The big problem for the last World Cup was that after the 2010 and 2014 Games, there wasn’t a huge appetite for more international hockey. It also didn’t help U.S. fans that Canada had won the previous two gold medals and didn’t look like they were going to drop off that level anytime soon. It lacked intrigue. There was still the hope or feeling that players would go to South Korea in 2018.

But now that’s reversed. After players didn’t go to Pyeongchang, and this Olympics have been scrapped for NHL players, it’s been over five years since we’ve seen a best-on-best tourney. Hockey fans do want this. There is a hunger to see McDavid and Matthews and Panarin suit up for their countries.

Unlike donating everything to the IOC, a World Cup sees the league keep the money, though to get the players to go along with it they’ll have to get their cut, too. But they don’t for the Olympics, either, so that should carry some attraction for them.

And frankly, the World Cup should be a better tournament. The Olympics sees the players fly over from their NHL duties, maybe get a practice or two as a team, and then start the tournament. It’s disjointed. It’s choppy. And when it’s held on an Olympic ice surface, 15 feet wider than an NHL one, it’s slow. It’s boring. Teams crumple to their slot defensively and dare teams to try to get shots through from 75 feet.

A World Cup will see teams get together weeks ahead of time. Play warm-up games. Figure out their lineups. And it’ll be on an NHL surface. Players are fresh after a summer break, instead of carrying the wear-and-tear of just over half an NHL season.

And it can be held in one place fans can get to (assuming we’re allowed to travel anytime this decade again). Toronto, Montreal, Vegas, Chicago, New York, Boston, wherever. It won’t have to share focus with the rest of The Games.

Part of the reason the league has shied from a World Cup is that having a tournament in late August or September butts up against football and baseball. First off, no one should be afraid of baseball’s drawing power anymore, especially so after this lockout. Don’t play on Sundays to avoid the NFL, pretty simple.

ESPN is even getting out of the mid-week national baseball broadcasts, and they just happen to be the NHL’s new TV partner. Seems like that’s a fit.

Instead of making it seem like something they just pulled out of the closet like they did last time in 2016, solid marketing and selling from both the league and any TV partner would make it work.

It’s sitting right there, and wouldn’t take much to work. It’s one of those cases where the NHL has to do so little to come out good on this. But it’ll still fuck it up. 

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