There is something fascinating about watching the best in the world compete for their country. It does not matter the sport. Hockey. Baseball. Soccer. As long as national pride is on the line, any event will generate interest.
So it seems obvious that most everyone — players, teams and fans — endorse NHL participation at the Winter Olympics. The issue is trying to figure out what happens during the other three years.
Do you change the format of the annual world championship, so that it does not occur every year or
conflict with the NHL playoff schedule? Do you rely on the World Cup of Hockey, an event that was last hosted
during the 2004-05 lockout, to fill the void?
Or do you keep the current four-year formula — bringing together the world’s best only at the Olympics — knowing it leaves fans hungry for more?
These questions will be asked at the world hockey summit in Toronto, but chances are the parties will leave the week-long event no closer to a one-size-fits-all solution that pleases everyone.
“There’s an adage that I subscribe to,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean says, “which is a good deal is one where everyone is a little unhappy. That’s kind of what we have.”
Canada is a country that pays attention to the Olympics, the World Cup of Hockey, and the annual IIHF world junior tournament. But we largely ignore the world championship because it occurs at the same time as the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In Europe, it is a different story. The world tournament, which occurs after the various European leagues end, is essentially the continent’s Stanley Cup. Arenas are sold out. Television numbers are big. And unless a player is legitimately injured, participation is mandatory.
“The world championships are show-stopping,” Ogrean said. “The fact of the matter is, in order to drive the revenue engine for the International Ice Hockey Federation and all of its members who benefit from those resources, they need to have a world championship every year. Of the events that they own, it is the event that is far and away the most marketable, the most visible and the most successful.
“It’s difficult to do without it because that would mean a complete overhaul of the economic model, and it would mean a lot of federations would have to take less money. So I don’t think there’s a likelihood that that’s ever going to get any serious traction, in my mind.”
Some have suggested moving the tournament to the summer when the Stanley Cup playoffs are completed. Others wonder if hockey should adopt an age limit, much like soccer, and turn the world championship into an under-21 tournament.
Canada’s roster last year included 18-year-olds Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, and Luke Schenn. This year’s team featured Jordan Eberle, a junior-aged player who has yet to appear in the NHL.
“I don’t know if there’s been enough thought about identifying a specific age limit,” Hockey Canada executive director Scott Smith says. “But definitely for us, that opportunity at a young age to give players the chance to experience the international game and the chance to play abroad, helps us be successful down the road. And it’s a key part to our planning.
“In preparing that team, we recognized that while the 2010 world championship is a key event for us, the overall process of evaluating key personnel leading up to the 2014 Olympics was important. If you look back at 2006 in Latvia, our team in the world championship that year was quite young. We had Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards. So a number of guys that got that taste at the world championship eventually ended up playing in the Olympic Games.”
But that does not address the problem of having the best in the world play against each other more frequently. For that, you need an event that occurs when the NHL — or Russia’s Continental Hockey League — are not in progress.And you make it sufficiently worthwhile that the players actually want to play.
The World Cup of Hockey was this tournament. But it has no regularity. It began in 1976 as the Canada Cup and has been held in 1981, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1996 and most recently in 2004. The next World Cup is slated for 2011. But most would like to see it occur the same year as the Summer Olympics, two years before and two years after the Winter Games.
“It has been a little inconsistent,” Ogrean says. “I’m a big fan of having the world’s best players playing in world’s best tournaments. And I very much hope the NHL is back with us for Sochi and beyond. But in a perfect world, you have an Olympics every four years and you have a World Cup every four years in that middle cycle.
“Because everyone in the world is on hiatus, including the NHL, the Olympics and the World Cup are the only tournaments that give you true, complete access of all your nation’s best hockey players. Because even in the world championship, as big of an event as that is, we all know that the NHL is still operating.”
In the end, it all comes down to what works best for the NHL.
It might sound like a North American point of view. But even with the KHL competing for talent, the best players are still playing in Canada and the U.S. And if Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin had made it further into the Stanley Cup playoffs, then Russia would have been without two of its top stars.
If the NHL wants the best in the world to compete against the best, it will halt its season and head to Sochi for the 2014 Olympics. If they want to further satiate fans, appetites, then it will implement a World Cup schedule that does coincide with the NHL schedule.
But the only way the NHL will fully endorse the world championship is by shortening its schedule. And that is never going to happen.
“A lot of people would say that about virtually every sport,” Ogrean says. “Everything gets elongated, which is driven by revenue. It’s the same reason why the IIHF has its world championship every year and not every other year.>
“So it creates those challenges, because everyone is trying to tap the same pool of players. You’re stretching the envelope.”