Pros, Cons of NHL Players Trading the Olympics for the World Cup of Hockey

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistNovember 27, 2014

Pros, Cons of NHL Players Trading the Olympics for the World Cup of Hockey

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    The buzz is heating up around the possibility that the NHL will reboot its World Cup of Hockey tournament in 2016.

    Though no official announcements have been made, multiple outlets including the Toronto Star have reported that plans are in the works for an eight-team tournament to run in Toronto before the beginning of the 2016-17 NHL season. The league has previously staged two other World Cup events: The U.S. won the title in 1996, while Canada took home the trophy in 2004.

    The tournament could be an addition to hockey's international schedule, or it could replace the National Hockey League's ongoing involvement with the Olympic Games. The league took its time in agreeing to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, announcing its commitment in July of 2013, just seven months before the Games (per NHL.com).

    If the World Cup goes ahead—and goes well—it could provide the leverage for the NHL to say "No, thank you," to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

    There are pros and cons to going that route. Here's a look at the key issues in play.

Pro: Tournament Will Come Two Years Sooner

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    It's always exciting to see the best hockey players in the world suit up for their respective countries. Four years is a long time between Olympic tournaments.

    If the World Cup of Hockey goes ahead as suggested in September 2016, the wait just got a lot shorter.

    That's good news—for the fans, for players like Steven Stamkos who missed Sochi due to injury and for teams like Russia and the U.S. that were disappointed by their results last February.

    I'm pretty sure Team Canada would be more than happy to defend its gold medal, too.

    A successful 2016 World Cup could mean that fans would get to enjoy top-caliber international competition twice as often as they do under the current schedule.

Con: Disrupting the Continuity of Olympic Records

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    In the nearly 17 years that NHL players have been participating in the Olympics, a generation has come to expect to see the best of the best play for gold every four years.

    The Olympic record book has been filled by the NHL players who have skated in multiple tournaments, led by Teemu Selanne's amazing 24 goals and 43 points in 37 games with Finland over six Games, dating all the way back to 1992 (before he was an NHL player).

    Twentysomethings like Canada's Sidney Crosby and Carey Price, Russia's Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin and Jakub Voracek of the Czech Republic have just begun to build their own Olympic legacies. Players and fans alike will want to see how each generation of hockey greats stacks up against the others on a level playing field in the record books.

Pro: Better Broadcast and Promotional Opportunities

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    When its players participate in the Olympics, the NHL receives an opportunity to promote its league and its game on the global stage. That, and goodwill, are the only real benefits for the league. As for the players, they love the opportunity to play for their countries.

    For NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and company, rebooting the World Cup gives the NHL a chance not just to dictate the schedule and the tournament structure, but also to control the sponsorship opportunities and advertising revenue.

    Executive Editor Abraham Madkour of Sports Business Journal describes why the NHL is so tempted by this possibility:

    Unlike the Olympics, this would be an NHL/NHLPA-organized event, with the rare opportunity to remake a global tournament. The ability to sell all the assets — media, digital, sponsorship, tickets, etc. — and present the event during the time they see fit is exciting for any property, even with all the risk.

    Rick Westhead of TSN reports that the league's preliminary estimates suggest that the bounty from a 2016 World Cup tournament in Toronto could be as much as $75 to $100 million. The profits would be split between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association.

    The league has had great success in recent years organizing and promoting marquee events like its outdoor games—and reaping the financial rewards. It's no wonder that it would like to add the spoils from a new international tournament to its portfolio.

Con: Participation from Non-NHL Players Remains Questionable

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The World Cup of Hockey can't truly claim to showcase the best players in the world if it only draws from NHL rosters.

    At the moment, it's unclear whether Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) will allow its players to participate in the tournament.

    As Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo's Puck Daddy blog wrote back in September:

    While a vast majority of Russia's best players are in the NHL, there are enough in the KHL where it'll feel incomplete without their participation—let alone without the KHL's promotion and endorsement of the event. 

    Wyshynski reported that talks between KHL and NHL officials were ongoing, but neither side has made any indication yet that it's agreed to terms that will satisfy both sides.

    Bettman and company might have to cut the KHL in on the action if they hope to hold a present a global event where it's not a foregone conclusion that Canada or the U.S. will emerge victorious.

Pro: No Regular-Season Break Required

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    USA TODAY Sports

    As well as keeping its hands on the cash flow and controlling the promotional opportunities surrounding the World Cup of Hockey, the NHL is targeting early September as its desired tournament window—immediately before the 2016-17 season gets underway.

    In 2004, the World Cup didn't generate any carryover excitement for hockey during sports' most competitive season. The owners locked out their players two days after the tournament's conclusion.

    This time around, the league has a chance to present a high-profile event that will go head-to-head with the beginning of the NFL season and Major League Baseball's pennant race. The September dates are also just a couple of weeks after the conclusion of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and would allow the NHL to play a regular 82-game schedule without having to compress the schedule to allow for the usual break in February.

    "If it primes the season, that's an added bonus," writes NHL expert James Conley at About.com. "For the most part, NHL owners don't want to see their buildings empty for two weeks at the peak part of the year."

    Another concern about the 2018 Games is the actual tournament schedule. PyeongChang is 14 hours ahead of North America's Eastern time zone, which means daytime games in South Korea would be broadcast live in the middle of the night in the NHL's primary market.

    By holding the World Cup in Toronto, the NHL will be able to build a game schedule that will sell tickets in the local market and maximize viewership through both streaming and traditional media.

Con: Roster Structure Might Not Follow National Lines

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The NHL would like to ice eight teams for its 17-day tournament, but the hockey world doesn't really have eight countries that could legitimately compete for the championship.

    In 2004, the eight-team tournament consisted of separate European and North American pools for the round-robin games, with Russia and Slovakia joining Canada and the U.S. on the North American side. Each pool stayed on its own continent through the quarterfinal, then the two top European teams, Finland and the Czech Republic, traveled to North America to compete in the championship.

    Since the plan is apparently to hold the entire tournament in Toronto this time around, Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun (via the Edmonton Sun) reports that one idea being bandied about is to feature the big six hockey nations, then add a team of All Stars made up of the best players from the second-tier countries like Slovakia, Germany, Slovenia and Switzerland.

    The final team could be made up of "young guns"—players from the big six who are under 25 and haven't yet built enough of a reputation to crack their country's main lineup.

    Both these ideas could lead to some intriguing rosters, but they'd be sorely lacking in the kind of nationalism that makes international hockey so much fun to watch.

    It could be fun to see Zdeno Chara (Slovakia) playing with Christian Ehrhoff (Germany), with NHL linemates Anze Kopitar (Slovenia) and Marian Gaborik (Slovakia) leading the charge with Thomas Vanek (Austria) up front, but the idea of these hodgepodge rosters feels like the league is trying to force square pegs into its tournament's round holes.