Column: The revived World Cup of Hockey could give the NHL leverage over the Olympics

Sweden practices for the World Cup of Hockey at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Thursday.
(Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

And now, the traditional Team Europe fight song ...

That’s one announcement we won’t be hearing during the World Cup of Hockey, which begins Saturday with Team Europe — an amalgam of standouts from countries that lack the depth to ice competitive squads — facing Team USA. Team Europe, led by Kings captain Anze Kopitar, is a new entry and has no tradition. Nor will it have an anthem played before its games because it would take too long to play the national hymn of the more than half-dozen nations represented on its roster.

But Team North America, an intriguing mix of Canadians and Americans 23 years old and under, will hear “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” before its games. Those might be the only occasions its speedsters will be seen standing still.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Assn., in a rare example of cooperation, revived the dormant World Cup but altered the format. Instead of following the models of 1996 and 2004 — when Slovakia and Germany competed against the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Russia — Team Europe and Team North America were created to encompass many skilled players, including those from Slovakia and Germany.

“We wanted to have the most competitive tournament of its type ever played. That was one of the goals here and I’m pretty sure that we’re going to hit that goal,” Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, said in a telephone interview.

With NHL players’ participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics uncertain, the World Cup can be a major international marketing venture and source of revenue for players and the league, who get nothing from the Olympics and face the prospect of paying for transportation and insurance at Pyeongchang, South Korea. The entire World Cup will be played at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.


The setup is somewhat contrived, and players have been hurt. Dallas got a scare when forward Tyler Seguin injured his foot in an exhibition game, but it’s not considered serious. A few players declined to take part, and Ducks center Rickard Rakell of Sweden was replaced after he fell ill. But it’s the kind of elite competition players crave, and the North American “young guns” will get attention and international experience at a precocious age.

“If you’re going to try and move ice hockey into sort of the international forefront of team sports, you have to do signature events. You’ve got to grab people’s attention,” Fehr said. “Put another way, you’ve got to have a showcase people will tune in so they can actually see what goes on, if they’re not now hockey fans.”

The teams were divided into two groups, and each will play three games within its group. The top two in each group will advance to the semifinals. The best-of-three final will be played on Sept. 27, Sept. 29 and, if necessary, Oct. 1. NHL rules will prevail. The Kings sent Kopitar and Marian Gaborik (Europe), Jonathan Quick (USA), Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin (Canada), Team USA General Manager Dean Lombardi and Team Canada executive Rob Blake. Ducks GM Bob Murray is in Canada’s management group; the Ducks also sent Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf (Canada), Ryan Kesler (USA), Sami Vatanen (Finland), John Gibson (North America), and Jakob Silfverberg and Hampus Lindholm (Sweden).

It’s a coup for the NHL that ESPN will televise the tournament. Its coverage of exhibitions featured strong analysis from Chris Chelios and Brett Hull and alarming cackling from Barry Melrose, a mixed blessing if ever there were one.

Fehr said there’s an oral understanding the World Cup will return in 2020 regardless of whether the NHL participates in the 2018 Olympics, and that the two events can coexist. A successful World Cup, though, would give the NHL “we-don’t-need-you” leverage in bargaining over Olympic costs. A decision is possible later this year. A representative for the International Olympic Committee said it is “confident that the International Ice Hockey Federation will find a solution guaranteeing that the best hockey players will participate in the Games in 2018.”

The timing, scope and location of future tournaments could change. “We’ll evaluate after the event itself and then focus on the things that can make a great event and big event even better,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said during a pre-tournament news conference.

Although Lombardi’s interests could conflict as boss of the Kings and of Team USA, he said he’s benefiting from his involvement and anticipates players will too. “It never hurts to be playing with the best against the best,” he said, citing Muzzin as an example. “That type of experience is invaluable for a player like that.”

The World Cup’s value as an event and a marketing tool will become apparent soon.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen