Down Goes Brown: What went right and wrong at World Cup

Members of Team Canada and Team Europe talk about the World Cup of Hockey overall and how it felt to get the result they ended up with.

It was a tougher series than most had expected, but in the end we got the result we were all waiting for.

Team Canada claims the World Cup once again, winning yet another best-on-best tournament by sweeping a surprisingly feisty Team Europe in two straight games.

Last night’s 2-1 comeback caps off a tournament that packed a decent number of twists and turns into its two-week schedule. We saw a new format with two new teams, a nice underdog story, and one so-called contender that turned out to be anything but.

It wasn’t perfect, or even especially close. But the World Cup certainly had its moments.

The 2016 edition marked the event’s first appearance in 12 long years. Now that the tournament is done, let’s take a look back at what worked and what didn’t, and how we’d fix the problems that stood out.

What worked: The end result
Let’s start with the obvious: The best team won. Canada’s march through the tournament was yet another dominating performance by a nation that’s getting used to them. The country now owns an international best-on-best win streak of 16 games and counting, dating back to the 2010 Olympics. And they’ve won three straight tournaments and five of the last six.

It wasn’t always like this. Canadian fans of a certain age will remember the mounting panic around the turn of the century as the national program was going on a decade between major titles, including disappointing losses at the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Winter Olympics. But since then, a focus on skilled players and defined roles has restored Canada to its place at the top of the hockey world. They came into the tournament with the best roster on paper, and it wasn’t especially close.

Of course, the games aren’t played on paper, and by its nature, hockey is a game where anything can happen in a short tournament. A sudden slump or a hot goaltender can be all it takes to create an upset, and the Russians briefly had Canada on the ropes in last Saturday’s semi-final.

But there would have been something unsatisfying about seeing a team as stacked as Canada lose on a fluke. Instead, they bulldozed everyone on their way to the final, just like we all expected them to. And while Team Europe proved a far tougher opponent than anyone expected, the best team still won.

If that’s the whole point of a tournament like the World Cup, then the last two weeks were mission accomplished.

What didn’t: The suspense factor
So yes, the best team won, and the tournament got the result it deserved. But from an entertainment perspective, Canada’s continued dominance is starting to wear on these events.

It’s all well and good to get to the happy ending, but a little suspense along the way would be nice.

These days, best-on-best hockey tournaments aren’t about figuring out who the best team is. We already know that going in. Instead, they’re largely about seeing whether anyone can play David to Team Canada’s Goliath.

That can be fun in its own right — everyone loves an underdog story – and you can bet that when the day comes when someone finally pulls it off, hockey fans outside of Canada will be cheering them on. But over the last decade or so, it’s just not happening.

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And that might be an issue going forward, both at the World Cup and at any future Olympics. This is the entertainment business, and audiences don’t typically want to sit through a long story if they already know how it’s going to end.

In the same way that watching basketball’s Team USA “Dream Team” was cool at first but has lost its luster over the years, seeing Team Canada roll through each and every major hockey tournament will eventually get old.

Maybe it already has.

How to fix it: The NHL could get creative with the format, either at the World Cup or elsewhere.

One suggestion that comes up often is a second Team Canada entry, either by splitting the program regionally or by creating a “B team” of players who didn’t make the main squad.

There’s also reportedly been talk of a Ryder Cup-style series that would pit a North American team against the best of Europe, or even Canada against the world.

But a more realistic fix might involve simply being patient. National programs tend to go through cycles, and right now it feels like Canada is at its peak while most of the other countries are struggling.

It’s unlikely to stay that way. Countries like Finland and the USA have good young talent on the way, and Russia and Sweden will regroup. That doesn’t mean that anyone will push past Canada as hockey’s top nation, but we don’t need them to — we just want somebody to narrow the gap enough that there’s some uncertainty around the results.

What worked: Team Europe
When the tournament format was first confirmed, not everyone was on board with Team Europe. It didn’t feel quite as gimmicky as Team North America’s “Young Guns” concept, but it still seemed like a debatable choice for what’s supposed to be an international tournament pitting country against country.

There were also questions about whether a roster made up of so many different nationalities would be able to come together and bond the way teams need to in a short tournament like this.

Needless to say, that wasn’t an issue, and a lot of the credit for that goes to head coach Ralph Krueger. He got everyone on the same page quickly, and after a pair of losses to Team North America in the exhibition round, Team Europe found its groove.

They became the tournament’s best underdog story by making it all the way to the final, and in doing so gave their players their first (and maybe only) shot to play for an international title. The tournament desperately needed somebody to at least make Canada sweat a little, and Team Europe stepped up and did just that.

What didn’t: The playoff format
Hindsight can be cruel, but you have to wonder if the NHL is kicking themselves for going with a four-team playoff.

There’s no right answer here, with previous World Cup and Canada Cup tournaments using everything from a two-team playoff to literally letting every team through.

But if the league had gone with a six-team format, we would have seen Team North America in the playoff round. And we may have also seen Team USA, who would have actually had something to play for in their round robin finale against Czechs.

How to fix it: The six-team playoff format strikes a better balance. It gives more teams a shot at the playoffs, while also making the round robin games even more important because teams will want the first-round bye that comes with winning a group. Sure, it makes the tournament slightly longer, but that’s a price worth paying for a more entertaining show.

What worked: The Ref Cam
The NHL has a spotty history when it comes to getting innovative with its broadcasts. (We all remember that awful laser puck.) But the Ref Cam was a fantastic addition — one that provided some of the best shots of the tournament.

After a game or two, you found yourself watching a big play and then thinking “Man, I bet that will look great on the Ref Cam.”

Next up, make it a standard part of regular season broadcasts. And after that, once the technology gets just a little smaller, let’s get them on the player’s helmets too.

What didn’t: The injuries
We knew they were coming. Any major tournament is going to result in injuries, including at least a few serious ones.

There’s not much that can be done to avoid that reality. It’s just the nature of the sport. But none of that makes it any easier to see players go down. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost Matt Murray to a broken hand. Aaron Ekblad and Mikael Backlund suffered concussions. Tyler Seguin suffered a hairline fracture in his heel. Marian Gaborik hurt his foot. The list goes on.

In some cases, we’re not sure if those injuries will drag into the regular season, or for how long. But at the very least, they’ll disrupt players’ preparation and training camps. That’s a tough pill for their NHL teams to swallow, given that that the players were hurt in what ultimately amounts to an exhibition.

How to fix it: You can’t. When hockey is played with any sort of intensity, players will get hurt. You can hope that nothing will be too serious, but that really comes down to luck. It’s frustrating for fans, and infuriating for GMs, but there’s really nothing that can be done — just like there’s no way to avoid the occasional injury at practice, during off-season training, or in pre-season games.

If you don’t want players to get hurt at the World Cup, your only solution is to stop holding the World Cup.

What worked: Team North America
We had our doubts. When the NHL announced last year that one of the teams in the tournament would be a collection of 23-and-under players, more than a few observers thought the idea was ridiculous.

It felt like a marketing gimmick. They weren’t even a real country. And besides, we weren’t sure they’d even have a decent goaltender. What if the NHL’s next wave of future stars went out there and got embarrassed?

Having seen the finished product, it’s fair to say that the “Young Guns” concept worked. They were the tournament’s most exciting team, and quite possibly its fastest. And they held their own, winning twice and nearly making the playoff round.

And if it was all about marketing, then that part worked too – we were left buzzing about Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau, and wondering if the “Connor McDavid is the best player in hockey” era has already arrived.

It was great fun. And the players seemed to be enjoying it every bit as much as we did. Today’s version of hockey is so tactical and over-coached that it sometimes feels almost clinical, and there’s something refreshing about seeing a bunch of kids just go crazy.

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Give them credit. The NHL took a chance here, and it paid off.

What didn’t: The future of Team North America
OK, so Team North America was a hit. Now, the question is whether we ever see them again. Before the tournament, it seemed like a one-off — and that still seems to be where the league is leaning.

But after watching the team get a mostly positive response, you wonder if the NHL switches gears and makes a youth team a permanent part of the event.

One thing seems clear: If we do see Team North America again in four years, it won’t be under the same set of rules. There’s just no way that the league allows guys like McDavid and Matthews to linger on a hybrid team if and when they’re good enough to play for Team Canada and Team USA, respectively.

Heck, in four years McDavid is going to have already won three Art Ross Trophies and two Harts – he’s not getting relegated to the tournament’s quirky undercard.

How to fix it: You could always keep the team, but adjust the rules. It could be as simple as slipping in a “no repeats” rule, which would take care of the McDavid problem.

Or you could let Canada and Team USA have first pick of any young talent, perhaps with a limit of one or two players per team.

What worked: Player enthusiasm
One of the most interesting unknowns heading into the tournament was how players would respond. It had been 12 years since the last World Cup, and we’re now firmly into the NHL’s Olympic era.

It’s not 1991 anymore, when the Canada Cup was the only best-on-best tournament in the world. So how would the players view this thing? Would this matter on anything close to the same sort of scale as the Olympics, or would it end up being something less?

After all, if the players don’t care, the action on the ice reflects that, and the end result is rarely worth watching (as any fan who’s tried to sit through an NHL All-Star Game could tell you).

But for the most part, those fears turned out to be unfounded. Once the puck was dropped, the intensity was there. No, maybe not quite at an Olympic level, but not all that far off.

That was made clear by everyone involved, both through their words before and after the games and by their reactions during them.

Even Team USA – as disastrous as their tournament was – clearly cared. The players appeared devastated following their loss to Team Canada, form Patrick Kane‘s near-tears on the bench to the pained reactions from various veterans speaking to media afterwards.

Players don’t react like that to a tournament that doesn’t matter.

What didn’t: Fan enthusiasm
This one’s a mild minus. The overall fan response to the tournament was fine, with a decent if not overwhelming buzz throughout the two weeks.

TV ratings were strong in Canada, but less so south of the border.

The live crowds in Toronto were about what you’d have expected, with strong support for Team Canada, a decent response for the other North American teams, and some sparse crowds for the other games.

The tournament could hardly be called a runaway hit with fans, and the final matchup between Canada and Team Europe was a tough sell. But the overall response from fans was reasonably good.

And yet, there’s undeniably a portion of hockey fans who just can’t get on board with the tournament. I’d hear from them whenever I’d mention the event, with somebody inevitably rushing in to remind me that the whole thing was some sort of glorified exhibition or cash grab.

For whatever reason, there’s a small but spirited segment of hockey fandom that’s predisposed to push back on the modern day World Cup.

Maybe that’s their loss – if those fans kept their word about not watching, then they missed out on a good show. But they’re out there, and if the NHL wants this tournament to someday rival the Olympics, they’ll have to find a way to win them over.

How to fix it: Give it time. You can’t force a fan to embrace something, and at some point you have to let the product speak for itself.

The World Cup has some serious ground to make up before it can rival the Olympics in the minds of most fans. The first step is holding the tournament regularly, instead of letting it lapse (or using it only when you need a transparent PR boost right before a lockout).

From there, the league can avoid the temptation to get too caught up in gimmicks, work to ensure that the event is the best it can be – no letting NHL teams discourage their players from attending – and then hope that the on-ice results live up to the potential.

If all that happens, then the World Cup will get there… someday. In the meantime, well, you can’t please everybody.

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