TORONTO — Henrik Lundqvist watched on as Sweden’s third goaltender at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, then won a gold medal as the starter at the 2006 Olympics.
Lundqvist’s personal experience difference aside, he doesn’t see any way the World Cup can compare to the Olympics.
"I think the Olympics is another level when it comes to just the emotions you have: all the other athletes, the size of the tournament," the New York Rangers’ starter said. "I think we always should be at the Olympics. I think it’s the biggest stage for any sport."
A year from now Lundqvist and the NHL’s stars will converge on Toronto for the return of the World Cup of Hockey. It’s being billed as a festival of the sport and will be another chance to see a best-on-best tournament.
It’ll be a big deal, but players don’t consider the World Cup as a replacement for the Winter Games.
"I think the Olympics are always going to be on top of the list of any athlete," Slovak defenceman Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins said. "It’s such a unique event. It’s the highest possible competition that you can have for any athlete to be competing and representing your country at the Olympics."
NHL players have competed in the past five Winter Olympics dating to 1998. There’s no agreement yet to ensure they’ll be in Pyeongchang in 2018.
The league is reluctant to continue committing to the Games because the timing forces it to pause the season and ferry players around the world without a tangible financial benefit. Having the next two Winter Olympics in South Korea and Beijing, China (in 2022) means going to countries without real hockey traditions.
In the World Cup of Hockey, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have an event that could generate in the neighbourhood of US$200 million, money that those sides get to split 50-50. It’ll likely include just NHL players, not those from European leagues, as the top six nations — Canada, the United States, Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic — are joined by a 23-and-under North American Young Stars team and one made up of European all-stars from Slovakia, Switzerland and elsewhere.
While that format may be a one-time thing, it also separates the World Cup from the Olympics.
"It’s only nations there," Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators said. "In the World Cup here they’re going to make two teams that are not going to be nation teams. Right there it’s going to be a different kind of tournament."
Players who have experienced the Olympics like the multi-sport feel.
"It’s just, I guess, the Olympic spirit that comes with and all the athletes coming together and staying in the village," Slovenian centre Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings said. "I think that’s what makes it special."
James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who played for the U.S. team in Sochi, pointed to soccer’s World Cup as evidence that a one-sport tournament could create significant interest.
"You can’t maybe expect it to be on that level, but it’s an exciting time," van Riemsdyk said. "It’s one of those things if you keep growing it, I think there’s no reason why it can’t be a pretty big event."
Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith, a two-time Olympic champion for Canada, remembers watching the 1996 World Cup. He didn’t love it that the U.S. won, but based on that and the 2004 event, knows it can be just as entertaining for fans.
"I think for hockey fans it can be just as big," Keith said. "Olympics is, to me, a worldwide event where it doesn’t involve just hockey. But as far as a hockey fan, I think for sure: All these different countries competing, and hockey’s hockey."
And it’ll be the cream of the crop for hockey without some of the blowout games that come with having smaller European countries involved.
But for Steven Stamkos, it’s not even a question. The Markham, Ont., native would love to suit up for Canada in Toronto next fall, but after not being picked for the 2010 team and missing out in 2014 because of a broken leg, he can’t wait for another crack at the Olympics.
"Your goal as a professional is to win the Stanley Cup and also represent your country at the highest level possible," Stamkos said. "At this time next year that’s going to be the highest level possible for a hockey player."
Having already scored the golden goal in Vancouver and winning in Sochi, Canadian forward Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins understands the logistical issues of the Olympics but would be in favour of going back.
"Having great experiences there, I’m probably a little bit more biased," Crosby said. "But it was definitely something that I enjoyed not only for the hockey but just the whole experience itself."