This is a debate that will creep up on us every four years, and fade into oblivion in non-Olympic years. This is the debate on the future of International hockey competition, and whether the National Hockey League needs to commit to Olympic participation, or sneak away from the midseason–usually overseas–schedule and produce their own world tournament, the World Cup?
Well, why not both?
There are two major issues with Olympic competition, the first being that Winter Olympics are held in an area outside of a favourable viewing zone for North American fans. While waking up early to watch your team, whether it is Canada or the United States, skate in Sochi, Turin, Nagano or Lillehammer is a ritual for dedicated fans, only the most hardcore will do so.
Second, the mid-February break is inconvenient. That is because of injured or tired players, but it’s also because it’s generally a bad idea for a sport to stage its biggest event in the middle of the season. The Daytona 500, Hall of Fame Game and Community Shield start the NASCAR, National Football League and English Premiership seasons off annually. The NHL’s equivalent is a series of games in Europe.
We’ll keep the Olympics. They are a special event. But the World Cup, and in its previous incarnation, the Canada Cup, offered very special moments in hockey history. What is Canadian hockey without Wayne Gretzky’s pass to Mario Lemieux in 1987? What is American hockey without Mike Richter’s special performance in 1996?
The Olympics is the premier world hockey event, but the World Cup can be something just as good, contested between National Hockey League players at the start to middle of September in an NHL city. The Olympics allow us to familiarize ourselves with players we would not have heard of before–the immortal Tore Vikingstad–and watch the development of national programs, like Switzerland.
But the Canada Cup was always only contested between the ‘Big’ countries of Canada, Soviet Union (later Russia), Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Finland, later the United States. I propose thusly a return to this format, with the Czechs and Slovaks invited, of course.
A round-robin tournament, a play-in game and a three-game finals series at the beginning of every four NHL seasons to promote the International stars to the North American market, not to be confused with the world appeal of Olympic competition.