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The NHL Got the World Cup of Hockey Wrong

You can’t fault the NHL for trying to market its product internationally. But you can question its gimmicky methods.
Photo by Chris Young-The Canadian Press

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey was unveiled Wednesday in Toronto to much fanfare, with the league trotting out some of its biggest stars to help sell the event. But more questions than answers emerged about the NHL's blatant attempt to hold an international event without proper international participation.

If you're a die-hard NHL fan in North America, this tournament is a two-foot putt in terms of how successful it'll be. It's the casual fans that the NHL seems to be going after with this tournament and the league is banking on its stars to pull them in. How its going about it, however, is a bit backwards. And the take-it-or-leave-it attitude amongst those very stars was almost palpable Wednesday.


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Most notable and curious in this whole money grab is Team Europe, which was formally announced as one of eight teams that will participate in the September 2016 World Cup of Hockey at the Air Canada Centre. Here's the catch: it will be a team made up of all Europeans with the exception of players from Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic—the traditional hockey powerhouses.

Take one part Slovakia, one part Slovenia, a pinch of everyone else and voila: you have a nameless, anthem-less team.

Slovakian defenseman Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Anze Kopitar, the Los Angeles' Kings Slovenian forward, represented Team Europe at the unveiling of hockey's reborn international tournament. Both played in the 2014 Winter Olympics for their respective nations, with Slovenia reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in dramatic fashion after being one of the final teams to qualify for hockey's marquee international event.

Now the two are being lumped together, along with a long list of other star players who won't get to represent their country at the first World Cup of Hockey tournament in over 10 years. But players from the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic will, while a team consisting only of North American players aged 23 years old and younger will round out the field.


Not surprisingly, it was the European squad and the under-23 team that garnered most of the questions Wednesday and will continue to do so until the tournament starts in September ahead of the 2016–17 NHL season. What is this renegade European team going to look like?

"We are not representing Europe. We are representing the rest of Europe," said German Ice Hockey Federation president Franz Reindl, who was named president of Team Europe.

"It might be just a little bit weird in the sense of coming together," said Kopitar.

Yes, weird. That's the word. If the NHL is interested in growing the game, not allowing rising European nations to compete as, well, nations is a backwards notion.

Chara, all 6'9" of him and a menacing stare to boot, shrugged when asked how he would make Slovakian the dominant language Team Europe would speak in the locker room.

"I'm not. It's going to be English," he said.

Who knows what jersey Chara will wear with Team Europe. It won't be this Slovakian jersey he wore during the 2010 Olympics, though. —Photo via Flickr user S.Yume

While the Europeans could go deep in the tournament, as there will be a large pool of players to chose from, the team's inclusion is still a confusing entry.

"We feel the responsibility to help to grow our game in Europe," said Reindl. "This team can do a lot to grow our game." Reindl thinks there could be at least ten countries represented on the European team.

The impact of this team, from players like Kopitar, Norway's Mats Zuccarello and Denmark's Frans Nielsen, will be felt across the continent in some non-traditional hockey markets. With nearly an entire continent rooting for this team, the NHL and the NHLPA stand to benefit financially. But players not in the NHL, say from Norway or Slovenia, will likely have little chance of playing on the biggest stage. Same goes for non-NHL players from Latvia, despite the fact that they gave Canada the best run for its money at the Olympics. That's a disservice to the growth that domestic leagues in Europe have sustained organically.


Reindl admitted that European coach Ralph Kruger will take the best players available, and that those players are already playing in the NHL. He did, however, say "the door is not shut" to players not in the NHL, but given that this is an NHL-sanctioned event that will be played under its rules and not one put on by the International Ice Hockey Federation, you have to imagine NHL players will get preference regardless of their capabilities.

How will this team create an identity? What will be the team logo? As many considered these things, Steven Stamkos—a surefire bet to make the Canadian team—wondered aloud onstage during the television unveiling what anthem the European team would sing if it won? Anyone's guess.

Besides the European team, another curious decision was the league's attempt to make sure it has a bona fide opportunity to show off young stars such as Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. It might be a fun prospect, but it also feels gimmicky. If Anaheim's John Gibson is the consensus goalie, with 16 career NHL wins and a meager 2.45 goals against average to his name, what can we really expect of this team? Why not give Eichel and others a shot to represent their country?

The World Cup of Hockey hasn't been played since 2004, when eight nations, including Germany and Slovakia, played for the title. Now, after fans have since been treated to three Olympics with professional hockey players, this World Cup doesn't possess the same lustre, just like the IIHF world championship, which is a bit of a sidebar in North America. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman dodged questions about NHL players at the 2018 Winter Olympics on Wednesday as Bettman does so poetically, but if Chara—one of the faces of the tournament—doesn't believe this tournament ranks as high as the Olympics, it's hard to imagine fans will.


This event was never going to replace the Olympics, but the made up European team and the under-23 squad distance it even further from legitimacy. Expect changes in the next tournament, if and when the league decides it's time to cash in on the game again.

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Bettman and co. are hoping the World Cup is a main event-type draw.

At every main event, you need an outcast, and that's exactly what the under-23 team and European squad provide. The European Team is one that curious, part-time fans can get behind. And it is these curious fans that the game is trying to solidify as dedicated ones. On the same day the World Cup was announced, Apple's new TV operating system was also announced and it includes NHL Game Center starting in 2016. The league is banking on its stars to sell the game, but is short-changing the countries that gave birth to those very stars.

It's early yet, with the tournament not set to begin for a year, but Wednesday's announcement led to plenty of more questions from the hockey world. If those involved in the tournament don't have the answers right now, what will this thing really look like by the time the puck drops in September 2016?

It's been 12 years since the last World Cup and the NHL, never one to shy away from a gimmick to sell the game, is working to operate a profitable international tournament free of a proper international presence. It's a league that's rich with popularity and income right now and the upcoming World Cup is an attempt to capitalize on that popularity. Nothing more. It will certainly grab more eyeballs, even if many are watching through a curious and skeptical lens.