Hockey World Cup and National Pride – The Key to Success
After years of ongoing discourse, it sounds like the NHL and NHL Players Association are preparing to announce that they are organizing a “World Cup of Hockey” event to take place in September 2016, prior to the beginning of the NHL’s 2016/17 season. It is reported that the NHL hopes to make the announcement during this weekend’s All-Star event and is expected to have a total of eight teams competing for the prize. With the success of the professional’s involvement in recent Winter Olympics providing greater worldwide exposure to the sport, the NHL and it’s players are looking an opportunity to line their pockets with many international currencies, as well as promote their game to a wider captive audience.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that they may be starting this tournament off on completely the wrong foot by introducing unnecessary gimmicks to a formula that has been tried and tested in multiple other sports.
The main problem is the eight teams they plan to have enter the tournament. There are the six traditional hockey countries that have a solid history of competing at a high level: Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. The other two teams are going to be what is cast as a “Euro All-Star” team, made up of players who are from Europe, but who do not play for one of the other four Euro teams (Chara and Kopitar, for example) and a team of “Under 24’s” from the US and Canada.
I may not know a heck of a lot about Hockey, but as a fan who grew up in Europe and whose familiar with the Soccer and Rugby World Cup’s, I know a thing or two about the importance of international competition. It can galvanize a nation like little else. It brings together talents that you don’t normally see to compete on the world stage. It can highlight new and emerging stars, and often times can create legendary sporting moments unparalleled in regular domestic competition.
USA and Canada should be no stranger to these concepts either. Take the Winter Olympics of 2010 and 2014 for the Canadian Hockey Team, for example, or even Team USA in last summer’s soccer world cup. Both became the talking point in their respective countries for the duration of their involvement in the tournament, and with it raised the profiles of the likes of Tim Howard, TJ Oshie, Sydney Crosby, Carey Price amongst others.
The idea of adding a Euro All-Stars and Under 24 team is preposterous and completing devalues the very currency of nationalism that the World Cup of Hockey needs to trade on. The concept that Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid, top US and Canadian prospects, will have to play against the United States and Canada to win the World Cup makes absolutely no sense. Eichel and McDavid grew up representing their country’s at underage level and presumably watched their heroes in the last two Olympic games, one day thinking they too could represent their country on the biggest stage. Asking them to compete against their country for up to five years before they’re over 24 turns this in to a glorified exhibition game, and goes against the national pride you’re asking fans to try and invest in.
While the Euro All-Stars is not a completely alien prospect in sports (see golf’s Ryder Cup or rugby’s British & Irish Lions) the concept is still fundamentally flawed from a potential growth perspective. Case and point is Denmark, who have recently seen young players such as Anaheim’s Frederik Anderson, Montreal’s Lars Ellar and Vancouver’s Nicklas Jensen play in the NHL. While there’s no doubt Denmark has a long way to go before they can compete with some of the established nations, they may never get to that point if they don’t begin to build a culture of top-level, high-profile competition and the national exposure that goes with it. The fact of the matter is that a Danish fan will quicker get behind a team of Danes wearing the Danish crest on their sweater rather than a watered-down conglomerate of their European cohorts whose names, culture and values means almost nothing to them. The opportunity that a team like Denmark may get to test their skills against a team like Canada can provide a measuring stick for their current talent, and a marker for their progression as a hockey nation.
A recent example I can site in this theory is Italian rugby. Italy is traditionally a soccer super power, but with a growing population of players and interest in the game of Rugby. In 2000, they entered the famous European Competition “Five Nations” (obviously changed to Six Nations once they joined) and made an instant impact with a win in their first game against Scotland. However, it took them three years to win their next game in the tournament, displaying various levels of competition throughout. The road for Italy’s rugby team was not easy, but a generation later they have established themselves a legitimate rugby nation and a threat to any of the top teams in the world.
My point is that it took 15 years for them to get to the point now where they are consistently competitive. As the level of talent ebbs and flows, their fortunes will adjust with it, but the issue is now they have grown the game to a point that they get enough national attention to be considered a tier-one nation by the International Rugby Board. To deny the Czech Republic or Latvia or Denmark that opportunity to grow with a tournament will deny the opportunity for the World Cup of Hockey to get to the level that the Winter Olympics gets.
The argument against their involvement is the perceived notion that these teams cannot compete against the big-guns. To me, this is a short-sighted viewpoint and completely undermines what the goal of this competition should be: to grow the game. The idea of growing the game is not something that immediately turns itself in to hard cash, and the rich, old white guys who make these decisions are looking for instant gratification. While that’s not surprising, what they may eventually end up with is presenting the world with a watered-down, preseason exhibition tournament which the players don’t respect, and more importantly, the fans don’t get care about.
Messing up an opportunity like this will result in more money lost than earned, and will leave the IOC laughing all the way to the bank. Don’t make it complicated – Let the players represent their country, and let the fans get behind them like they would in any other world cup.