COLUMBUS, Ohio — This is going to be big. To borrow Ilya Bryzgalov’s line: “Humongous big.”
The NHL is pushing boundaries and thinking globally and dreaming in a way that it has never quite dreamt before.
You want a World Cup back in the rotation? Done. How about a newly created Ryder Cup event to guarantee a big international event on the calendar every two years? It’s yours.
Couple that with plans to resume playing regular-season games in Europe and the distinct possibility of holding training camps overseas and what you have is an aggressive strategy intended to take the NHL to a whole other level.
“We’ve grown from a $2.2-billion to a $4-billion business and now we talk about where’s the next billion coming from,” John Collins, the league’s chief operating officer, said Saturday.
“This is all part of the growth initiative. Fulfilling the NHL’s destiny to be a global business, a global brand, is critical.
“It’s really important for the growth of the league and that’s what we’re focused on now.”
The absolutely vital part of the equation is the players are fully on board with the plan. Donald Fehr has routinely discussed the importance of reviving the World Cup since becoming NHLPA executive director more than four years ago and sat on stage with commissioner Gary Bettman at Nationwide Arena as the 2016 event was officially announced.
Just as we first reported in November (//www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/world-cup-of-hockey-to-make-dramatic-changes/), the World Cup will be staged entirely at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre and feature the six strongest hockey powers (Canada, U.S., Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic), plus a 23-and-under North American squad and European all-star team.
It represents outside-the-box thinking and ensures that all of the league’s top stars will be involved. The tournament is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 17-Oct. 1 and includes a round robin, semifinals and best-of-three championship final.
As a result, the start of the season will be pushed back to mid-October and the participating players will only be subjected to the final week of their NHL training camps.
“A lot of us probably wish it was this year coming up and we didn’t have to wait until 2016,” said American star Patrick Kane.
While the format change has drawn consternation in some corners, it makes a whole lot of sense. There isn’t time to pull together a qualifying tournament in Europe — something the NHL plans to do before the 2020 World Cup — and the Young Guns team allows the league to promote its next generation of stars.
That squad will be jointly assembled by Hockey Canada and USA Hockey and could be surprisingly competitive.
“My guess is they’re going to want to win the tournament,” said Hockey Canada president Tom Renney. “My guess is also that none of those other teams are going to want to lose to that group. To me I think it’s an X-factor that really adds something very special to the event.”
The real X-factor in the NHL’s global push is the Ryder Cup-themed event, which will pit the top-25 North Americans against the top-25 Europeans in a best-of-five series. It is slated to be held every four years starting in September 2018 and will likely debut at The O2 Arena in London, England.
The possibilities for that competition seem endless.
For starters, the idea of mixing countries together is a foreign one for hockey events of this nature. And given the wild success of golf’s Ryder Cup, especially in Europe, it’s fairly easy to understand why they’re giving this a shot.
“As we want to build a global brand and a global business, how many things can we do in a non-traditional big European commercial market that is really going to make us look big?” said Collins. “You want to go to London, you want to go to Berlin, and you start to change people’s perceptions about the business and the brand.
“Put the 50 best players in there for a three out of five competition … and see what that does.”
The important thing to note about this strategy is that the league and players’ association are willing to be flexible. The 2016 World Cup is merely a starting point and all of the key figures seem to be approaching these international events with an open mind.
For example, there is talk of loosening the eligibility rules to allow players from a mixed background to compete for other countries in the World Cup. Down the line, that means a player like Canadian-born Ryan O’Reilly might play for Ireland if he wished.
That opens up all kinds of possibilities for the European qualification tournament which will be held ahead of the 2020 World Cup. However, exactly how that is run will depend heavily on the experience internationally in the coming years.
Fehr called it a “learning process.”
“You have to make sure the players are comfortable, you have to make sure the owners and general managers are comfortable (and) you’re not overtaxing the players,” he said. “But if we maintain a joint commitment to find a way to (serve) the greater good of the game overall and those that work in it and those particularly from my standpoint who play it, I think we can get it done.”
Of course, the main motivation to do so is the all-mighty dollar.
The NHL expects to see $100-million in profit from the 2016 World Cup, according to sources, and that money will be split evenly between owners and players. It’s pure bonus and it’s only just the beginning.
“There’s so much more we can do,” said Collins.
What remains to be seen is whether the NHL continues on with Olympic participation. There doesn’t appear to be much room for that event on this international calendar, but we know the players will certainly push to be in Pyeonchang, South Korea in 2018.
Talks with the International Olympic Committee, which is under new leadership, haven’t even begun.
In the meantime, the NHL will set about establishing a more significant international footprint on its own. Regular-season games in Europe could return as soon as next season and will be held in late October or early November to maximize their impact.
Then it will be on to the World Cup and Ryder Cup — both of which are now being looked at as regular fixtures on the calendar.
“Our goal … is to deliver the most competitive, entertaining, international competitions possible, and we are really excited about the prospects,” said Bettman. “We truly feel that the best is yet to come.”