In his annual State of the League address to the media ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Gary Bettman talked a little bit about the possibility of the League bringing back the World Cup, which it hasn't done in a decade.
This is something that a lot of people — mostly, “people who like hockey” — have been pushing for, for a little while; there have only been two ever (or seven if you count the Canada Cup, which is kind of its predecessor in spirt), and all of them have been intermittently played. The first was in 1996, the second in 2004, and even when it was the Canada Cup, there were gaps of five years, three, three, three, and four between the competitions.
Not having all the details yet (as they're still being hammered out between the league and the NHLPA), it seems that the three things everyone agrees on is that the tournament will definitely take place, it will take place in 2016, and it will take place in Toronto.
The latter two, in particular, are interesting.
The alleged September start date would be the same as the 2004 iteration of the Cup, and the tournament would, by that standard, probably wrap up right before the start of training camp, not that the guys participating would need the time because they're the best in the world, they don't need to play in exhibition games, and also training camp is useless at this point to all but the guys who are stuck between being AHLers and NHLers.
Toronto hosting every game in the tournament, which wasn't the case last time around (because there were SEVEN sites, all over the world), seems like a very nice present to drop on the Maple Leafs' owners, who really don't need the help making money. That would, however, minimize costs for the league will still pretty much guaranteeing a sellout every night. The speculation is this tournament alone would be worth something like $100 million to be split evenly between league and PA.
And that last detail, the large amount of money for relatively little work, is probably what's most important here. Neither league nor union wouldn't be amenable to holding this tournament if it wasn't basically guaranteed to make a ton of money, but they're both going to cash in here.
Which is what sets the World Cup apart from the far more controversial international best-on-best tournament held every few years: The Olympics.
It's easy to forget once the tournament starts just how much hell the league and players seemingly have to go through every time the Olympics come around, and they have to shut everything down for a month, worry about who's going to pay for insurance on all these players — remember the ball-hockey Team Canada camp last summer? — and the brutal, dragged-out negotiations with the IIHF during which time the league acts like, well, this whole Olympics thing might not happen.
That’s something one has to think becomes more likely once the World Cup is put into place. Players value the Olympics dearly as a chance to represent their countries, but this is something that's really only been done since 1998, meaning that not even 20 years ago there was no “Olympic Dream” for the NHL, and you have to imagine that the league's plans for the World Cup are at least a little bit tilted toward making the Olympics less important in players' eyes.
The argument that the World Cup should take place every four years as well isn't a bad one, because one thing the Olympics definitively do not do is make money for the NHL or its players; while it's noble that high-profile NHLers are more than willing to go to Sochi or Pyongchang for free, you know what might be even better? Splitting $100 million. Boy that will make you forget about the Olympics in a hurry, and since it's in Toronto — and probably other major cities around the hockey world in future iterations — there's no need to worry about anyone getting stuck in a bathroom.
There's also the fact that an injury suffered in September by a player participating during the World Cup in September wouldn't be as damaging to a team as one suffered during the Olympics in April. John Tavares, for instance, probably would have been back for the stretch run of the season at the very least, as opposed to missing March and April straightaway. NHL teams will definitely like that.
All of which gets the NHL closer to what is probably its ultimate goal: No Olympics at all. With a World Cup of Hockey in place, it can say to the players, “Well jeez, you can have the Olympics all you want but then that kind of defeats the purpose of the World Cup doesn't it? Guess we won't have the World Cup any more.” While the league would certainly like half of $100 million, or whatever it is, that's a drop in the bucket compared to half of 82-game revenues of $4-plus billion (though the World Cup's wouldn't count against hockey-related revenues, which would be nice for the owners).
Not to be too cynical here, because the World Cup of Hockey is a great idea that the League should have been doing all along, but this definitely feels like a bit of sleight of hand to slowly make the Olympics look less attractive.
Maybe they go in 2018, but one imagines it wouldn't last far beyond that.
Unless, of course, there's a compromise, as FIFA has with its players' union, FIFPro. In soccer, the World Cup is obviously the biggest and most important sporting event in the world, generating ridiculous sums of money. But world-class players also play in the summer Olympics as well, because it's an under-23 tournament with a few roster exceptions for older players. Well-known world-class players like Neymar and Daniel Sturridge participated in the 2012 games in London, and Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Giuseppe Rossi and more were in Beijing in 2008. Cristiano Ronaldo represented Portugal in the 2004 games, and so on.
If the NHL were to go to U-23 rosters in the Olympics for 2018, players like Nathan MacKinnon, Valeri Nichushkin, Aleksander Barkov, and all others in the NHL born after Feb. 1995 would all be eligible plus, again, a few others who might be excepted into the tournament. That would still be a hell of a tournament, even if teams would be reticent to release their best players for a month of the season.
That's a far better alternative to no Olympics at all, especially because just saying “no” to the NHLPA might still lead to other players jumping over with little anyone can do. Remember, even in the uncertainty leading up to Sochi, the Capitals said they were going to let Alex Ovechkin go regardless of league approval, because he was never staying home from it. You might get that again. Why run the risk?
The World Cup is coming, but the Olympics shouldn't have to leave. Letting sanity prevail here is the best course of action for both sides, but this being the NHL, we all know it's never that easy.