Last week, the NHL and its players’ association had discussions about the future of international competitions, involving both club and national sides. As per TSN’s Darren Dreger, the two sides will continue their meetings this week to iron out some final details. Of note, it appears that the World Cup of Hockey will return, and will take place in August 2015. The timing of this event might seem peculiar and somewhat asymmetrical, since it will be held only 18 months after the Sochi Olympic Games, but 30 months before the 2018 Olympic Games, in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Apparently, the NHL does not want to hold its competition in 2016, given that the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will take place between 5-21 August, and would completely overshadow a World Cup event, even in North America.
Since 1998, the NHL participation at the Winter Olympic has been a great showcase of the best attributes of the sport. However, the NHL’s somewhat arrogant attitude and inconsistent interest towards the Olympics, depending on where they are held, is infuriating to fans who are keen to support a legitimate best on best international hockey tournament. Though NHL players by and large support going to the Olympics, their team owners, for the most part, fail to see the financial benefit of shutting down the league for two to three weeks, and having potential injury befall their star players. To them, the costs of attending the Olympics far outweigh the benefits. The NHL does not receive financial compensation from the participation of their athletes despite the IOC generating millions of dollars, and arguably, the Olympics have done little to increase interest in the game in the North American market (I disagree with this point, but it has been one of the arguments presented by league owners as a reason for pulling out of the Olympics).
As a result, the NHL is looking to re-create their own competition, where they can generate revenue exclusively for themselves, broadcast the games and their highlights on their own websites and digital platforms, and receive direct income from the sale of their merchandise. Upon reviewing the structure of the last two World Cups (held in 1996 and 2004) organized by the NHL, it appears as though the league did whatever they could to maximize revenues, even to the extent of giving the North American teams a competitive advantage. Subsequently, many European hockey fans do not view the World Cup with the same respect that they have for IIHF events. Here are some of the facets of the World Cup that will be important to discuss, and I will include what I think the NHL will do (in its “maximizing profit” motive), and what I believe they should do (as part of a “what is good for the game” motive).
1. Timing and future Olympic participation
- What I think will happen: The NHL will want the World Cup in 2015, and will likely not attend the Olympics in 2018, given that they are in South Korea. Despite the emerging financial markets in Asia, the NHL will not send its players because Korea is too far, the time zones are inconvenient for North American audiences (the only fans that matter to the league), and there will not be as strong of a lobby from the players to attend, as there was for Sochi (particularly from Russian players).I think the NHL will want to hold regular World Cups every 4 years, and will ultimately aim to make this the preeminent best-on-best international tournament of the sport. However, I do believe that the NHL will continue to “cherry-pick” the Olympics it wishes to participate in, depending on location. The location for the 2022 Winter Olympics will not be confirmed until 2015, but thus far, it appears that the games will likely return to Europe (the games will be in Asia in 2018, and at the moment, the only serious bids appear to be European). Quebec City has expressed interest to host the 2026 Olympics, and should they win a bid, the NHL would likely be tempted to attend that. So in essence, they could sit out 2018 and 2022, and return in 2026. How is that for consistency?
- What I would like: Having a World Cup in 2015 is fine by me. Except, I want future World Cups to be set in stone, and be a regular occurrence every 4 years. The gap between the 1996 and 2004 World Cups was too long, and made some people wonder why this tournament was of any importance, when the NHL themselves did not seem so interested by it. By having a regular schedule for years down the road, it becomes an event in the hockey calendar to look forward to and plan around. Additionally to this regular World Cup, I would like the NHL to continue to go to the Winter Olympics. Cherry-picking which Olympics to attend based on location completely devalues the nature of the competition, and weakens the meaning of an Olympic gold medal. Suppose no NHL players play in 2018 or 2022, would medalists of those competitions have asterisks beside their name, since they did not play against the best? They may not have an asterisks in the record book, but certainly would in the minds of those that judge them. That would be a major injustice not just to those athletes, but to the sport itself.
- What I think will happen: In the two previous World Cup, the NHL essentially invited the top eight teams in the world (Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany), without any qualification process. Eight was a convenient number, and allowed for two groups. In each group, each team played three round robin games, and every team qualified for a playoff round. It was easy to select those countries, since at the time, they were the eight biggest contributors of players to the NHL. But since 2004, times have changed. Over the last season, Denmark and Switzerland each contributed more players to the NHL than Germany (Denmark 6, Switzerland 5, Germany 4). More importantly, Switzerland has truly become part of the elite eight with impressive performances at the last two Olympic games, the last World Championships (silver medalists) and at recent World Junior tournaments. Meanwhile, the status of German hockey continues to fall, as the team has failed to qualify for the Sochi Olympic tournament. I think for this World Cup in 2015, the NHL will invite 10 teams, and will have two pools. Each team will play four games, and the fifth place team will be eliminated.
- What I would like: Ideally, for a true World Cup (as is the case for World Cups in other sports), a qualifying tournament should be in place. Realistically, this would never happen, given the long duration of the NHL season, and the meaningless games that would ensue if every team had to qualify (eg: a Canada v. Italy or Sweden v. Japan game would be a waste of time for everyone). However, if the tournament is a 10 team tournament, perhaps the top eight countries based on IIHF rankings can automatically qualify, with the remaining two spots being claimed by teams that qualify through a small tournament in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. This would give the tournament a more true feel of a World Cup, and gives smaller hockey nations something to aspire to, should they qualify.
- What I think will happen: In the two previous World Cups, the eight teams were divided into two groups, with one group playing in North America and the other in Europe. Canada played all of its games at home, as did the Americans (except for its game against Canada, which was contested in Montreal). In 2004, Russia and Slovakia played in the North America group. In the European group, all four teams (Germany, Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden) played at least one game at home. At the end of the quarterfinals, the European semi-finalists traveled the Atlantic for their semi-final game. The organization seems unjust to teams like Russia and Slovakia, who did not have any home games while every other team did. It also posed a major advantage for Canada and the United States, who did not have to travel at all. Even worse, the two best teams in the European group had to make cross-Atlantic flights to play in a playoff game against a well rested North American team! This deranged format makes it appear that the NHL would forgo the integrity of competition in order to maximize revenues. Profits were maximized, as having a home team in every venue ensured a sellout crowd. Additionally, giving an advantage to Canada and the United States is to the NHL’s benefit, in terms of growing the game in North America, and generating interest for hockey in the league’s local markets. The financial motive is there for the NHL to duplicate this exact format.
- What I would like: The above system is blatantly unfair, and completely slanted towards the North American teams. It does not help grow the game worldwide, and is a major reason why many Europeans reject the World Cup as a legitimate tournament. What the NHL should do is declare a country (or, in the case of North America, a region) that has the right to host the World Cup. For instance, in 2015, the tournament can be held in Eastern Canada, meaning that every game will be played in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. The tournament can be moved around every four years, to different regions and ideally once in a while to a single European country (though, because the NHL is creating this, I doubt very much that they would host the tournament in Europe, given the inconvenience of time zones for the more-deserving, superior North American audience). Additionally, the NHL should create a schedule where no two games are scheduled at the same time, so that every game can be watched with ease.
Perhaps in no other aspect of the sport is the NHL’s intention to make the most money possible, at the expense of the sport’s competitive integrity, more evident than in the organization of the last two World Cup tournaments. They have previously been unfair, and heavily tilted for the benefit of Canada and the United States. The possibility exists for the NHL to truly make the World Cup a more legitimate tournament, and help increase interest for the game worldwide by considering some of the above tweaks. If the World Cup becomes a legitimate on and off the ice, I can live with the NHL deciding not to go to future Olympic Games. However, should they not go to the Olympics in 2018, I would not want them to continue to pick future Olympics to attend, simply based on convenient locations for their almighty North American television audience. It does the game a great disservice, and makes the NHL look like another evil corporation, looking out for itself and not the sport at large.
- Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada