I fully admit that up until a few days ago I had little to no interest whatsoever in the revamped World Cup of Hockey which gets underway today. Like many others, I found the idea of a U-23 multinational team (North America) and a conglomerate of European nations that were fighting each other on the actual battlefield not so long ago quite ridiculous. For a tournament that wants us all to ponder “who owns this game” it really makes no sense. Add in the “once and for all” part to the start of that catchphrase and it makes even less sense (what, no more international tournaments after this one? Come on NHL/Rogers). Then there’s the idea that such high-tempo competitive hockey in September can be extremely dangerous to all 30 NHL rosters with serious potential for injury. Afterall we have seen the body count continue to rise, now including the likes of Tyler Seguin out with a hairline fracture in his heel. Marc Bergevin may not be getting much sleep lately with the long-awaited return of Carey Price coming in a team Canada sweater and not that of the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. So yes, there are a lot of negatives that we could all focus on, and I was mostly focusing on those until today’s start date drew a bit closer.
I was thinking about how this tournament couldn’t possibly match up to the Olympics or the glory of Canada Cups gone by. And it probably won’t. But then I realized that it really doesn’t have to.
The NHL takes a hefty amount of criticism for a wide range of issues and much of it is deserved. But one thing the league can’t be faulted for is thinking outside the box. Will expansion to Las Vegas work? Maybe, who knows. But it is probably worth the shot, the first major pro sports league to enter Sin City. Similarly, the idea of Team North America is quite different but who can deny that it is the one team we are talking about more than any other? The speed and skill exhibited by the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Aaron Ekblad. This truly is the future face, if not the current new face, of the NHL. If the pre-tournament schedule has proven anything it’s that NA will perhaps be the most exciting team to watch and in large part because of their brazen, offensively dominant ways. So many fans yearn for the barn burner days of the 1980’s. Well team NA may bring some of that back at least temporarily.
The NHL appears to be attempting to manufacture patriotism through this event. I still don’t think that will work fully, but I now believe it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is for people to watch, and they most certainly will. It looks more and more like the days of the NHL endorsing participation in the Winter Olympics are over. And again, it all comes down to viewership. Prime time in PyeongChang and Beijing (hosts of the 2018 and 2022 Winter Olympics respectively) doesn’t exactly jive with that in Toronto or New York. To be fair, the same can be said for Sochi, but with a hockey power hosting in 2014 it sort of made up for it. Korea and China don’t even register on the international scene. So if NHL’ers are done competing in the Olympics, there is a demand for a replacement for international competition and this tournament is the successor. I do think that come the tournament’s end it will have solidified itself as a more than capable one as well.
A bit of a footnote here, and while some teams will suffer as a result of the tourny (Dallas already has, Montreal is on pins and needles, and there will likely be other injuries to come), there is one in my opinion that will benefit hugely and that’s the Edmonton Oilers. The injury concerns of many teams largely pertain to veteran players who already have far more mileage on their bodies. The young stars like McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Leon Draisaitl can recover faster and may even benefit from early autumn high level competition. Plus having McDavid and RNH on the same North America team coached by their club bench boss in Todd McLellan is a major plus for the Oilers. Anointing McDavid as team Captain is also a good dry run for the Oilers who are looking more and more likely to do the same with him shortly after the tournament is over.