It’s probably enough to require a guy turn in his Canadian passport, but here goes: Mark me down as someone who would be pleased if NHL players no longer went to the Olympics, and instead played in a proper World Cup of Hockey.
It’s no surprise that the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association would be moving toward a World Cup in 2016, as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported earlier this summer and NHLPA head Donald Fehr reportedly confirmed at the IIHF Congress in Tenerife, Spain. No other sport has yielded control of its international jewel event the way the NHL has done in allowing the IOC to reap the benefits of the Olympic hockey competition. This is an idea whose time has come, both economically and strategically – and, don’t look now, it might actually contribute to a healing of labour relations, as has been baseball’s experience with the World Baseball Classic.
Soccer has its World Cup under the auspices of FIFA, basketball has its World Cup run by FIBA and Major League Baseball’s WBC is run as a formal business partnership between its players’ association and owners. The World Hockey Championships have been relegated to a rump sports event, held during the Stanley Cup playoffs and dominated largely by players whose teams have been eliminated. It is an afterthought on the North American sports scene — almost a niche event.
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The Olympic hockey competition galvanizes hockey fans, particularly in Canada and the U.S., but its economic kick for the NHL is not measurable. For a couple of weeks during the Winter Olympics, NHL teams shutter their arenas and let their players assume all manner of risk representing their country in an event that generates revenue for the IOC. The sides try their best to portray it as a symbiotic event, but the truth is that when the Olympics are held in a country such as, say, South Korea (in 2018) or possibly Beijing (a candidate for 2018, along with Almaty, Kazakhstan,) the marketing benefits are limited. Hockey’s footprint will be no more expanded in South Korea than Nagano churned out a generation of hockey players from Japan. At best, taking part in the hockey competition is a goodwill gesture aimed at broadcast partners.
Johnston reported that the inaugural event is expected to be held in Toronto and Montreal in September-October 2015, during which time teams would normally be in training camp. The NHL estimates the event would generate $100 million in revenue – a dollar figure that ought to gradually eliminate the lure of a gold medal once the NHLPA has had a chance to educate its players.
The economics aren’t the only reason a World Cup of Hockey is something to be desired. Baseball hasn’t had a labour stoppage since the 1994 players’ strike, and by the time the current collective bargaining agreement expires it will be almost a quarter of a century of uninterrupted labour peace. That is not all due to the WBC, but both the owners and players’ association will tell you that the formal business partnership struck to operate the WBC has increased channels of communication, both official and unofficial. Coupled with the appearances of baseball commissioner Bud Selig and representatives of the players’ association in front of Congress during the game’s steroid scandal, it led to a gradual sense of shared responsibility and shared opportunity that helped alleviate some of the stresses of past labour wars. Anybody familiar with the history of hockey labour relations might be moved to think: ‘Can’t hurt our sport, can it?’
As for the Olympics? Soccer has found a degree of success by turning the Olympic soccer competition into what amounts to an under-23 competition, with allowances for three “over-age” players. Initial pushback gave way to a grudging acceptance, and now the event is a staple of the Olympics; the integrity of FIFA’s junior and senior World Cups remains intact – a happy medium has been reached.
There is no reason that hockey can’t maintain a presence in the Olympics even without teams being fully stocked with NHL players. None, whatsoever. This is, in fact, a huge opportunity to grow the sport that the NHL’s power brokers ought not overlook: In Donald Fehr, the president of the NHLPA, they have someone who understands the value and shortcomings of international exposure, someone with experience and contacts as a board member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and who was also present at the formation of the WBC and who can sell his players on the concept.
The lure of Olympic gold is not easily dismissed in this country, it’s true. Those of us of a certain age who can remember former IOC president Avery Brundage not allowing our “professionals” to play in the Olympics while letting the Eastern Bloc “amateurs” have free reign understand that a considerable amount of emotional capital was spent in opening the Olympics to our best players. And, of course, we remember all the heartbreak and joy of recent Games; the transcendent moment of Sidney Crosby’s gold-plated goal in Vancouver. But it’s time to make new memories. We’ll always have Vancouver, right? Time for a legitimate World Cup.