World Cup changes just part of hockey history

Damien Cox reacts to the announcement of the World Cup of Hockey, and how the NHL still hasn't made it clear if there's a return to the Olympics on the horizon.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There really never has been a perfect format for international hockey.

Some were better than others. Some produced historic or memorable results.

But when you scan the history of the international game, you observe decades of tinkering, of trying new things, of looking for better ways to marry the best players in the world with the best time on the hockey calender and within the ideal format.

So while many may look at the intriguing new look for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey announced Saturday and suggest these changes are an example of Gary Bettman painting too far outside the lines and taking international hockey to gimmicky new places, it’s actually very much within the tradition of the global game to try something new.

And boy, are they trying something new.

Specifically, rather than fill up the tournament brackets with weaker hockey nations featuring non-NHL players, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are clearly focussed on making this a distinctly NHL competition, all but cutting the International Ice Hockey Federation out of the picture entirely.

Instead of Slovakia, Germany or Switzerland, the traditional powers – Canada, the U.S., Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland – will be joined by a pair of all-star teams; one made up of players from other European nations and one made up of Canadian and American players 23 years old or younger, the ‘North American Youngstars.’

Team Euro will mean players such as Anze Kopitar (Slovenia) and Frans Nielsen (Denmark) can participate. A 23-and-under team that could feature Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones, Morgan Rielly, Alex Galchenyuk and Johnny Gaudreau might not win the whole thing, but would almost certainly be worth watching.

More World Cup: Elliotte Friedman on format changes

Not everyone will love it, which will add to the conversation. Take Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Mark Streit, a Swiss national, as one naysayer.

“I don’t like it at all. Not one thing about it,” he said. “It’s a nations tournament. You love playing for your country.”

The entire competition will take place in Toronto, and the plan is to try and create more of a tournament and festival feel (think Grey Cup, Super Bowl or even Spengler Cup) than there was when it was last held 11 years ago. Then, games were spread around, played in Toronto, Montreal, Helskinki, Stockholm, Cologne, St. Paul and Prague.

The likelihood is that the ’16 format, particularly the “young guns” element, will be a one-time experiment. By 2020, the NHL hopes to establish a European qualifying tournament as a means of bringing the strongest European teams into the competition and establishing a taste for this event outside of North America.

But for now, it’ll be the Big 6 joined by the Euro all-stars and the youngsters, a format that will clearly differentiate it from previous World Cups and the Olympics.

Which is undoubtedly part of the idea.

The Olympics, of course, are held up by many as the ideal hockey competition, and there’s a great deal of history behind that competition that helps it stand apart.

That said, for decades, it didn’t feature the best players in the world because they were playing in the NHL. When the Soviets began to dominate Olympic hockey after 1954, it was largely because they were able to exploit giant loopholes in the world of “amateurism” and thus were able to gain a massive competitive advantage.

Canada, the world’s top hockey nation, pulled out of the Olympics in 1970 for a time, essentially to protest the tilted nature of the competition. The 1972 Summit Series, meanwhile, might have been the best international hockey joust ever, but it included only Canada and the U.S.S.R. and it was played in late August and early September.

The inaugural Canada Cup, the first real “best-on-best” tourney, was played in 1976, but gave Canada home ice advantage, different than the Olympics. That morphed into the World Cup, which was played in 1996 and 2004, but hasn’t been played since.

NHLers were welcomed into the Olympics in 1998, but that has forced the NHL to shut its doors for a period of time and squeeze its schedule, less than ideal for NHL owners. Playing games multiple time zones away from North America has made it more difficult for the NHL to realize gains from the Olympics.

The 2014 tournament in Sochi, a 12-team event, featured a dominant performance by Team Canada but it wasn’t a memorable competition by most other measurements.

So given all of these various competitions, with their unique characteristics and limitations, who’s to say exactly what an international tournament must look like these days?

The plan is World Cup camps will open in early September, 2016, with European teams training and playing exhibition games oversees before coming to North America for final tuneup games, and then to begin the tournament Sept. 17. Interestingly, the plan is to have only four of eight teams advance, making the round robin that much more meaningful, and then to have the final be a two-of-three affair.

The combination of a Toronto-based event with two all-star teams may spur interest, and it may not. We’ll see. But you can’t dismiss it out of hand when you look back to Sochi and see countries like Austria and Norway were barely competitive.

Clearly, John Collins and other NHL execs are looking for something better, and probably something that lines the league’s coffers in a way the Olympics did not, at least not in a direct way. Unsaid in all of this is the sense the NHL and NHLPA, which can’t be thrilled about being in South Korea in 2018, or in either Beijing or Kazakhstan four years after that, are seriously looking at moving out of the Olympic orbit.

A consistent World Cup commitment every four years is the starting point for moving away from the Olympics, and there’s talk of another type of international competition in 2018, something like a Ryder Cup-style event that could take place in Europe.

There will be outdoor games in Boston, Minnesota and Denver next year as Collins et al continue to search for the correct mix of large venue and international elements that will help turn the NHL into more of a world-wide brand.

Creativity is the key, even if it clashes with hockey tradition, and there seems to be no lack of imagination at NHL headquarters these days.

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