The Air Canada Centre was sold out for game one of the World Cup of Hockey final, but the empty seats were evidence that not everyone actually attended. On the television side, the ratings on Sportsnet were only slightly higher than the Toronto Blue Jays game, which was running simultaneously (and in the same city). On social media, the buzz seemed centered around Canada’s baseball team, rather than the tight, low-scoring hockey game between Canada and the two weeks old Team Europe. The question is, do hockey fans, in Canada or elsewhere, really care about this World Cup?
Canada is Expected to Win
Is hockey success taken for granted in Canada? Considering the domination that the senior men’s team has had on the International stage, it’s entirely possible that fans expect victory, and thus the excitement level isn’t as high as it should be. If that’s true, it’s a real shame. There is no guarantee that Canada will win every tournament. In fact, judging by their lack of success at the World Junior’s in recent years, winning may no longer be a foregone conclusion. The rest of the world has caught up in terms of talent, especially under the age of 23.
I’d hate to think Canada is taking winning for granted because that’s a sure-fire way to start to losing. Every victory means something, at least it does to me. And judging by TV ratings, it obviously means something to many fans in this country, but that overall excitement simply isn’t there. Is it Canada’s style of play, that is beginning to resemble the 90’s New Jersey Devils? I can’t speak for other countries, but hockey fans in the US aren’t paying much attention to the World Cup final, which is understandable.
Per @SportsTVRatings: The Canada-Team Europe World Cup of Hockey final Game 1 drew 494,000 viewers on ESPN.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) September 28, 2016
The NHL tried their hardest to try and convince us that the World Cup would determine “who owns hockey,” but no one has given Canada much of a run for their money. (Europe still has a shot, though, so we’ll see). All the advertising in the world can’t manufacture pretend excitement, and in that department, the NHL failed. The biggest talking point was North America, a made-up team that may not even be part of the tournament next time around.
Now that could be exactly what they wanted, to generate buzz with the mash-up squads. But if you want this to be a “replacement” for the Olympics, that might not be the best way to go about it. This week news came down that it appears less likely NHLers will play in 2018 games, which means the World Cup will, in fact, take the place of the Olympics. But all the forced hype in the world can’t make fans get behind a tournament if they don’t truly care about it.
The World Cup Doesn’t Have Enough Cache
This isn’t the Olympics. The players have said it. The coaches have said it. They aren’t playing like it because the intensity has been there at times, but its become very clear that the World Cup takes a backseat to the Olympics in terms of importance. The time of year probably doesn’t help either, as many fans whose favorite players (and/or countries) aren’t in the tournament are focusing more on the NHL preseason.
Evgeny Kuznetsov on 2018 Olympics: “Next Olympic game gonna be huge for us. We’re all gonna go and I don’t think about it.”
— Katie Brown (@katiebhockey) September 28, 2016
The World Cup isn’t a new concept, but it is in terms of this format, and for younger hockey fans who don’t exactly remember the 2004 tournament, it feels brand new. If the NHL is intent on keeping this going, there will be growing pains. They’re going to figure out what works best, and we don’t know if that will spell the end of the mash-up teams. And that’s part of the problem. Team Europe has been extremely competitive. Team North America won everyone’s hearts. But because of those two teams, the World Cup wasn’t entirely country vs. country, which took away from the patriotism that you get during the Olympics.
Having said that, North America may have been the best part of this tournament, and the air certainly came out of the balloon when they got eliminated. If they were facing Canada in the Final, I think there would be a lot more buzz surrounding the games. (So it’s interesting that best part of the World Cup may have also been a reason for the lack of International pride). But the fact that the tournament lost its luster when the North Americans were ousted shows that the purpose of this World Cup wasn’t achieved. (Unless the purpose was making money in which case it was extremely successful).
Will There Ever be Another World Cup of Hockey?
The NHL has a lot to consider. Ratings, ticket sales, merchandise sales, and general fan interest will all be considered. The risk of injury to players is a huge factor, especially considering that there were some significant ones that resulted. (Matt Murray, Marian Gaborik, and Aaron Ekblad to name a few). If GM’s feel it’s simply not worth it, will they sign off on having another one in four years time?
I’ve heard the phrase “meaningless tournament” being uttered regarding the World Cup of Hockey, which isn’t what the NHL was hoping for. They invested a lot into this, as did the players, and for it to come across as pointless is hardly a good thing. Now you’re often dealing with cynical and sarcastic fans on social media, and they don’t speak for everyone. I’m sure there is a large segment of fans who are really enjoying these games. (I myself love watching Canada play no matter the circumstances). But the NHL wants to create its own mini-Olympics, and the World Cup featured the absolute best players in the world, which should make it even more appealing.
If Team Europe manages to beat Canada in game two, forcing a winner-take-all match on Saturday, I suspect it will garner a lot of eyeballs. But if the Canadians defend their way to a World Cup on Thursday, and the tournament ends with little fireworks, you have to wonder if the NHL will consider doing it all over again. I’ll say this much. If they made the money they were hoping for, there’s a good chance we’ll see another World Cup in four years. The question is, will it really be worth it?