World Cup domination: NHL, NHLPA shooting for hockey supremacy on a global scale

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and NHL Player's Association Executive Director Donald Fehr take part in announcing the return of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 in Toronto, during a news conference at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, before the NHL All-Star hockey skills competition, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

COLUMBUS — This is just the beginning. When the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association stage the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto – featuring the Big Six nations, plus a team of other Europeans and one of 23-and-under North Americans, unfortunately – it will be the first step in what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called their “joint vision for international hockey.”

“The aspiration,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, “is to build a global brand and a global business.”

The NHL and the NHLPA announced the World Cup on Saturday at the All-Star Game. But they are working on a Ryder Cup concept – say, a best-of-5 series between North American and European NHL stars in a city like London or Berlin in 2018. They’re researching expanding eligibility requirements so NHL players who can’t make their national teams can represent other nations where they have roots – say, England or Italy. They hope to hold a qualifying tournament in 2019 to fill out the 2020 World Cup, so they don’t need teams of other Europeans and 23-and-under North Americans and the World Cup can become a pure nation-on-nation tournament.

Canada won the last World Cup of Hockey in 2004, defeating Finland at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. (AFP)
Canada won the last World Cup of Hockey in 2004, defeating Finland at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. (AFP)

They see potential for growth.

“I don’t think we can quantify it,” said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, “but I think it could be very significant.”

Though Bettman said this had “no bearing” on Olympic participation, this could lead to the end of the NHL in the Olympics. The NHL’s owners didn’t want to go to Sochi in 2014, and they don’t want to go to Pyeongchang in 2018 or (likely) Beijing in 2022. The problem for them is, the players do. Their private hope is that these events will be so successful that the Olympics will become less important to the players.

“I don’t know if you can necessarily replace the Olympics,” said Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who has won two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada.

We’ll see.

When the NHL first sent its players to the Olympics in 1998, it hoped the exposure would boost the business. But the league found that the Olympics had little to no impact – and even had a negative impact in some cases, especially when the Olympics were outside North America – and the owners grew tired of shutting down their season and risking their assets for someone else’s tournament.

At the same time, the NHL did not market itself well in established European markets, let alone nascent ones. Teams would cross the pond for exhibitions and regular-season games in September and October. Bettman would stay home to raise a Stanley Cup banner. The media would stay home to cover the start of the season. Sponsors would stay home, too.

“We kind of sneak in and sneak out,” Collins said. “It’s real quiet. Nobody knows about it.”

Enter Collins, the marketer who blew up the Winter Classic, Heritage Classic and Stadium Series. He talks often about “scale” – big events that bring big attention and big dollars – and the league now has more experience in running big events, about which they control everything, unlike the Olympics.

The NHL and the NHLPA were well aware of the negative media reaction to this World Cup format. My opinion: They should have included the seventh and eighth teams in the IIHF rankings, even if that meant leaving out a nation like Switzerland or an individual like Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar. The teams of other Europeans and 23-and-under North Americans feel contrived, awkward. This won’t be a true best-on-best, country-on-country tournament.

What does the revival of the World Cup mean for the NHL and Olympics? (USA Today)
What does the revival of the World Cup mean for the NHL and Olympics? (USA Today)

How will those other Europeans come together? How will young Canadians and Americans feel about competing against their home countries? If Connor McDavid is good enough to play for the real Team Canada, why should he be stuck on the JV – and why should fans see Team Canada at less than its best? What about Team USA, which can’t include Alex Galchenyuk or Josh Gibson or Seth Jones or Brandon Saad? The Americans, whose talent pool isn’t as deep as the Canadians’, are at a disadvantage.

But the NHL and the NHLPA debated internally, discussed it with national federations and ran it past fans in market research. They wanted more NHL players to participate, and this way they expect about 90 percent of the players to be from the NHL. They didn’t want the Big Six, then a big gap to the seventh and eighth nations. We tend to remember the rare upsets at the Olympics and forget the many blowouts. These underdogs might have more teeth.

“We have concluded that this will provide the most compelling format and the most competitive and entertaining hockey with great storylines,” Bettman said.

And they know that by putting the whole tournament in Toronto, where the demand for hockey is so strong, they have a great chance to create a carnival atmosphere. Bettman said they expect to sell out every game. They expect to sell TV rights and sponsorships and merchandise, generating more than $100 million in revenue. The NHL and the NHLPA will share the costs and split the profit.

This could turn out to be like the outdoor games. People criticize them for being gimmicky. People say they have lost their novelty. Yet they are huge events wherever they are, and they generate millions of dollars.

“We’re going to Toronto for a specific reason that we’ve all kind of bought into, and that was because we want to make this first event as big as we can possibly make it, create the scale that we’re always talking about,” Collins said.

Imagine if this World Cup does well. The NHL will be able to bid out the event in the future, both in North America and Europe. Imagine if the Ryder Cup comes to fruition and you have 50 of the best NHL players showcasing their product for a week or so in a city where hockey normally is not on center stage.

“You want to start to change people’s perceptions about the business and the brand,” Collins said. “That might be the opportunity to go into these markets where we’ve never really been able to make the noise that we want to make. That’s a big enough tournament to command everyone’s attention in Europe.”

Imagine if the NHL starts playing regular-season games in Europe again, not hidden at the start of the schedule, but highlighted at some point. Imagine if there is a regular rotation of events – regular-season games, World Cups, Ryder Cups. And yes, like it or not, imagine if the NHL convinces the players the Olympics don’t matter as much anymore.

“We don’t want to pursue the strategy for how to build the business in Europe the way we’ve done it in the past,” Collins said.