August 19, 2010
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has an op-ed piece in the National Post on Thursday about the future of the NHL and international play that's worth your time, if only to boil it down to its essential theme: Money.
It's an argument that the NHL and its players should be financially compensated in a significant way for participation in the Winter Olympics or world championships. That the honor of representing your country isn't enough when there are risks to players and the league, and "when the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee receive multiple millions of dollars from these tournaments."
At first, I thought this stance was at loggerheads with what Burke said after the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, praising the tournament for increasing interest in hockey (if not in the NHL) around the U.S. following that silver-medal run by a team Burke helped build. But it's not that black-and-white.
He doesn't say the NHL needs to end its participation in the Olympics, but rather that the tournament has to "work for all the parties." Burke's long been a proponent of moving ice hockey to the Summer Games, which is practical for the NHL but nonsensical thematically for the Olympics. The bottom line in making it work for all parties: "The NHL and its players need to be compensated."
Burke's big solution to the NHL's high risks and low rewards in international tournaments? Restart the World Cup. And he makes a lot of sense.
Last year, it was reported that the World Cup of Hockey was scheduled to return in 2011 as the NHLPA and the NHL had an agreement on how to divvy up revenues. That former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly was the one that confirmed that report to Sportsnet should tell you that conditions have changed for the Players Association since then.
With nothing concrete about the return of the World Cup, Burke makes an argument for its necessity: That a late-summer tournament would keep hockey on the minds of fans in "the 24/7, 365-day era of competing entertainment options." From the National Post:
NHL owners will not shut down their businesses mid-season; teams, fans and players do not have to shoulder in-season injury risks and post-tournament slumps; and players can earn some additional income and use the tournament to prepare for the upcoming season.
As a kickoff to NHL and European league schedules, a World Cup allows a host of good results -- all of which allow for growth beyond the current schedule and fan base.
Teams condition, train and practise in home nations, giving them the chance to showcase local talent that may play in a distant NHL city. Players avoid extra travel and are highlighted in their home nations, offering them new chances to capitalize on local commercial opportunities, particularly important for those where language may inhibit endorsement opportunities in their own NHL cities. Most importantly, fans get extra exposure to the game and their national team.
Burke sees a World Cup that alternates years with the IIHF world championships, and that doesn't need to exist in lieu of the Olympics (provided the NHL and its players are better compensated for that every four years).
I like the idea of a World Cup of Hockey existing here in doldrums of August, leading right into training camp and the exhibition season. (Which is reminiscent of the argument that the NHL All-Star game should be moved to season's start as a kickoff rather than a mid-season interruption.) Hell, think of the buzz the NHL has gotten amongst fans for trying out goofy rules this month; imagine if there were a series of All-Star games with patriotic fervor being played instead.
But we come back to these issues: Risk and compensation.
World Cup revenues will be higher for the NHL and the NHLPA than they are for current international tournaments, and the television rights could sweeten the pot for the NHL's next television contract, as Sean Leahy pointed out in this post about the World Cup of Hockey and ESPN.
Still, there are risks. An injury in August won't be as impactful as an injury during the Winter Games in February, but it would still impact the regular season -- considering these are star and above-average players we're talking about there.
Would the tournament be worth the trouble if it doesn't grow behind hockey's niche? Will the players be excited or apathetic for an August tournament whose preparation will cut into family and vacation time?
But those are the details. Burke's Big Idea is a fair one: That international play is essential for growing the game, but that it shouldn't necessarily be charity work by the NHL and its players, considering the risks and inconveniences.