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The World Cup: What’s In It For Me?

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In a month, one of the most anticipated events on the hockey calendar will be beginning. Despite the hype, I can’t get excited about it. I just can’t see anything good coming out of this.

NHL: World Cup of Hockey-Press Conference Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

For quite a while now, the hockey world has been anticipating the revival of the World Cup of Hockey. It’s not the first time a “World Cup” has been held, but there hasn’t been one for over a decade. Any time we get to see all of hockey’s best clustered together into dream teams, it’s cause for a lot of hype. In this particular case, I find myself unable to buy into said hype. I’m not going into the broadcast and coverage of the World Cup with anticipation, for me it’s more like trepidation - and I am surprised that more people don’t feel this way.

The Extra Teams

First thing’s first, I don’t like the idea of a Team North America-U23 and a European Best-of-the-rest squad. The whole point of international competition is to have players represent their own countries. I know the intention is to change the format once the World Cup becomes a more regularly occurring event and have more traditional country vs country competitions. I feel that the choice of teams they’re going with kind of taints the whole event. I can’t speak for what the NHL players are thinking, but wouldn’t a player want to win for their country’s team or beat another country’s team, rather than some Frankenstein creation made up so the NHL can have an excuse to put the players it wants in? Imagine what would happen if a bunch of smaller, less populated countries banded together to form a larger contingent for the Olympics. It defeats the purpose of international competition to do that. I think of those CBC commercials where a bunch of people wearing the World Cup jerseys are arguing over “who owns hockey” and imagine some guy from Switzerland or something saying “these countries who don’t have enough NHL players to ice a competitive national team own hockey.” That kind of summarizes how I feel. It’s hard for me to take this seriously as a legitimate competition.

What of the Olympics?

I love the Olympic hockey tournament. As a child, I didn’t have much of an attention span. I confess that the Stanley Cup Final was the most I could stay put for during most of the 2000s. The exception to that was the Olympics. I would watch Canada play against the other national teams in each of the Olympics dating back to 2002. It’s basically the only reason why I like the Winter Olympics more than the Summer Games, rather than seeing them with similar detachment. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says that the World Cup isn’t intended to replace Olympic participation, and that the NHL, NHLPA, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), and International Olympic Committee (IOC) will enter negotiations regarding NHL participation this winter. I just think that’s getting our hopes up. The four sides have a problem in that they can’t agree on who will be responsible for funding Olympic participation. I have this idea in my head that this World Cup could be great if the profits could be used to offset the costs of going to the Olympics. I don’t think the thought has even crossed the NHL’s collective mind. Based on what I’ve read of the NHL’s position, it’s not that they’re worried whether they can pay for it, it’s whether they want to. I can’t help but picture an announcement next year that the World Cup was such a success, that earned them a profit, that it’s replacing their involvement in the Olympics.

Now, every time the subject comes up in social media feeds, I skim through the comment sections and see a handful of people proclaiming how the NHL pulling out would improve things by allowing amateurs to participate. I have three problems with this argument. Firstly, the NHL has been trying for decades to compete with the other three “Big Four” pro leagues. A thing it has in common with the NBA, and a serious leg up over the NFL and, in recent years, MLB, is it’s placing itself front-and-centre on the international stage by playing in the Olympics. An advantage hockey has over basketball when the Olympics are considered is that basketball is part of the event-dense Summer Games, competing with the 100-metre dash that determines the title-holder for “fastest runner in the world” and the international sporting juggernaut that is soccer. Hockey has less to compete with in the Winter Olympics, both in terms of the number of events going on, but also in terms of their prestige. Hockey loses that advantage if they stop participating.

Secondly, if the NHL stops going to the Olympics, they have to compete with them for media attention. The thing with the Olympics is that the event’s prestige makes people interested in events they don’t normally care about. I may have cheered when Penny Oleksiak won Gold in the 100-metre freestyle swimming event, or when Andre De Grasse won bronze in the 100-metre dash, but I don’t watch aquatics or athletics outside of the Olympics. I know I’m not alone in that. The point is that by going to the Olympics, the NHL has brought exposure to its players from people who don’t normally watch hockey. If they stop going to the Olympics, they will also stop putting the season on hiatus during the Games. While it may not be a problem for Pyeongchang 2018 or Beijing 2022, the Olympics will eventually come back to Europe and North America, and the NHL will find itself a problem when it finds its more casual fans faced with the choice of watching an NHL game or an Olympic event, some choosing the Olympics. The NHL may currently have to shut down for two weeks when the Olys start, but they don’t lose that TV revenue so much as they have to wait a little longer to get it.

Thirdly, replacing the pros with amateurs will make the Olympics a second World Juniors. At least in my house, we all like the quality of the Olympics more than the quality of the Juniors. And that’s just assuming the Canadian Hockey League and it’s international counterparts agree to send players. What if they don’t and instead we get minor leaguers or collegiate players? Taking the NHL’s interests out of the equation for a moment, do we as hockey fans want a lesser product? Soccer leagues could theoretically stop sending top-level pros to the Olympics, because their most prestigious event is the FIFA World Cup. Unlike soccer, which has that alternative, hockey’s most important international event is the Olympic tournament. That’s the pinnacle for us. Do we want less than the absolute best for that competition?

All that aside, the Winter Olympics only occur every four years. Is it that much of a problem that the NHL can’t set aside two weeks every fourth year to do something besides what the greedy executives want?

Over-saturation

The NHL has plans for a sweeping international presence in the coming years. Once the World Cup gets settled in, the NHL wants to expand with a competition series every four years, staggered in two-year intervals with the World Cup, a North America vs the World arrangement like every All-Star Game held between 1998 and 2002. I actually like this idea, as it represents something unique and different, and doesn’t interfere with other aspects of the league calendar. And then, in the years where neither of those events occur, the NHL wants transatlantic matches against European club teams. I find this massive plan a little sketchy. Just like outdoor games, the Chicago Blackhawks, and low-scoring defensive hockey, the NHL will allow itself to become saturated with international competitions. I see a future where we become tired of all of the international play and want the NHL to tone things down a bit. Part of what makes the NHL players playing in the Winter Olympics, and the Olympics themselves, special is that they only happen once every four years. They allow excitement to build up over several years, and never outstay their welcome. On top of that, the NHL still has an 1230-game schedule, which I wouldn’t want to see the NHL shorten, plus anywhere between 60 and 105 playoff games to play. The NHL would be making a huge mistake overworking its players by adding so much international play every season. I think the NHL would be wise to simply have that North America vs the World thing, and use the profits to offset the costs two years later when they go to the Olympics.

Jersey Advertisements

By now, it’s common knowledge that the World Cup jerseys will have advertisements on them. Nothing like the NASCAR jumpsuit-esque wearable billboards worn by European pros, just a simple SAP shoulder patch. I am against this completely. If the World Cup is a success and people flock out to buy the jerseys, even if the ones for sale in stores don’t include the ads, then I bet the NHL’s higher-ups would be willing to explore this whole “ads on jerseys” thing further and let it creep into the NHL. Even as someone who has argued to rename the position of defenceman to blueliner and stated many times how the nets should be larger, I find that the tradition argument is the best I can come up with for why we shouldn’t have ads on jerseys, but I think it works here. Besides, ads look ugly. Most of all. We are already bombarded by advertisements in hockey. We see ads in the usual commercial breaks. We see them on the boards. We get little bumpers during games saying “this broadcast/game/segment brought to you by ‘X.’” We have the ad banners on the bottom of the TV screen. We have a company that could have given us real-time player tracking using their technology to simply superimpose more ads on the glass. They’re everywhere already. We don’t want ads and corporate logos on the jerseys, plain and simple. Perhaps I’d change my tune if I had an indication that the ads would be trading off for something appealing, but it’s not like the extra revenue from jersey ads would result in lower ticket prices. If the World Cup is successful, I have a feeling someone important will take it as a sign that the NHL can introduce corporate logos to its jerseys. And I don’t want a part of it.

I don’t like the idea of this World Cup of Hockey. I see a world where the international tournament we really care about will be cut from the NHL calendar in favour of the NHL’s attempt to squeeze more money out of us, creating an over-saturation that will tire out fans and players alike, and come to hurt the NHL before too long, all while we’re stuck watching the Wells Fargo Winnipeg Jets and the Montreal Coca-Cola Canadiens. And it’s a future I don’t want.