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Like many, I met the announcement that the NHLPA was reviving the World Cup of Hockey with some initial skepticism. The World Cup has always been the odd man out when it comes to international hockey tournaments, taking over from the eminently worthy Canada Cup only to sputter out into irregularity.
Considering all the back-channel talk about whether the NHL would allow its players to participate in any Olympic games post-Sochi, a lot of talking heads–myself included–saw the tournament as a precursor to the NHL withdrawing their players from Olympic competition. I can’t say “nobody wants that” because clearly some people do, so let’s settle for “very few people think this would be good.”
Alongside the inevitable Olympic comparisons, there’s plenty more legitimate criticism being lobbed at the 2016 edition of the World Cup: it’s a corrupt money grab, it was scheduled during a horrendous time in Toronto, many overseas fans have a countrywide blackout on streaming, the schedule frustrates a lot of people, the ad campaigns were terrible, plus since it’s organized by the NHL you can also apply your regular everyday NHL criticisms to the event as well.
But you know what? Now that I’m here, I’m having a great time. And it isn’t just because I enjoy watching hockey full stop.
The World Cup is accessible in a way that the Olympics are not. I lived just outside Salt Lake City during the 2002 games, and unless you were lucky enough to live near a practice venue, possess a lot of money, or know a guy who knew a guy, getting tickets to hockey events was a tall order. The E Center, where the majority of hockey events were held, sat around 8,600 people.
By comparison, the Air Canada Centre hosts 19,800. While ambling aimlessly around Maple Leaf Square, I spoke to several Toronto locals who were thrilled to grab a ticket here and there for a few games, excited to see their national team as well as other players. The number of locals I knew who attended the Salt Lake games who weren’t cardiac surgeons or a friend’s wealthy parents could tally on one hand.
Apart from the local participation, the World Cup of Hockey has a genuinely international atmosphere. I picked a seat at random and attended the opening game between Team Europe and Team USA as a fan. To my left was a group of Russian fans and their fathers. To my right was a local from Toronto who came on a lark. A few rows behind us, a massive section of Team Europe supporters had all bought a block of tickets together and spent the entire game chanting in Slovak.
After the game, I got stopped by a pair of Australians who have thrown their support behind Team Europe because they played hockey in France. I saw fans in various countries’ traditional dress; I spoke to fans who traveled thousands of miles; I spoke to fans who lived just down the road who were thrilled to be able to attend an affordable game at the ACC.
Is most of that possible with the Olympics as well? Sure. But in my experience, not to nearly the same degree.
The existence of Team Europe and Team North America has drawn some ridicule, but I think the team setup for the World Cup is brilliant. From my time calling games for the IIHF, I’ve come to expect international tournaments that try their best with divisions but ultimately end up lopsided. There’s almost always a few blowouts, hence the promotion and relegation system the IIHF uses. By creating teams that aren’t strictly nationality-based, the World Cup is attempting to even the playing field in a way I appreciate. It may work, it may not, but I approve of the effort.
Likewise, the existence of Team Europe means fans get to watch players like Mats Zuccarello (Norway), Frans Nielsen (Denmark), and the surprisingly entertaining Pierre-Édouard Bellemare (France), whose countries aren’t necessarily shoo-ins for Olympic qualification. Nobody in the stands seemed to care that Team Europe As A Thing defies the traditional hypernationalism of international sporting competition.
And in regards to Team North America, the idea of pitting the USA and Canada’s rising stars against their veteran counterparts is brilliant. Again, they don’t fit into the neatly-labeled nationalistic box of competing based on the geographic borders of one’s birth, but I am unsure how much that actually matters.
That’s another thing: frankly, a lot of the World Cup of Hockey doesn’t matter that much. So rather than side-eyeing the NHL regarding potential Olympic participation or expressing my concerns that the NHL might just be doing this for the money, gasp, I’m embracing this new-albeit-meaningless tournament with an open mind.
Plenty of writers more articulate than myself have written good pieces about the concerning aspects of the World Cup of Hockey. A lot of that criticism is valid. But down here on the ground, fans I speak to are thrilled with a lot of the tournament’s decision-making. In my experience working with tiny-market teams in the bottom-rung IIHF divisions, I understand that on an intimate level. If you’re a hockey fan from Denmark or France or in my case New Zealand, it can be rough feeling like the big tournaments often don’t pay much mind to teams who aren’t in the running for a podium finish at the Olympics.
I don’t begrudge those organizers their decisions. They make complete sense. I wouldn’t rewrite the rules to insist that the IIHF’s Division II’s B-pool gets equal airtime to Team Canada and Team Russia. But by that same reasoning, I’m excited the World Cup is trying something new.
I wasn’t sure how well it would play out, but if Team Europe’s opening win yesterday and the widely-varied crowd of “European” supporters is anything to go by, it was an attempt worth making.
In the end, the World Cup of Hockey feels meaningless. It feels like “let’s throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.” It lacks the history and gravitas of the Olympics and it lacks the truly world-encompassing nature of the IIHF Worlds. The ad campaigns are ridiculous. But it’s trying something new. And I’m okay with that.