As we sit today on the cusp of the third installment of the World Cup of Hockey, I find myself wondering why? Why all the fuss? Being the kind of fan I am, I'm not prone to turn down hockey at any level, and I'll certainly enjoy the tournament before us, but is there really anything at stake?
It's hard to find the value in it. The tournament is essentially an extension of the NHL. The NHL and NHLPA are actually organizers of the event. I thought we already had a big tournament organized by the league, the sole purpose of which is to tell us who the best is. So why do they need another? To tell us who the best is by country? Or is it strictly to line the pockets of the NHL brass?
Information on the tournament isn't exactly easy to find. We know the rules, we know the teams, but how did we decide on those teams? Where is all the money generated from the event land? Do those dollars count in the salary cap calculations or do they go straight into the NHL coffers?
Like a lot of hockey fans, I'll enjoy hockey at any level. This tournament is not exception. But it doesn't feel like the games really serve a purpose. Is it even really a "World Cup"? It features just 8 teams, 6 of those are individual countries, and 2 are the best kids under 23 in North America, and the leftovers in Europe who's country doesn't have a team in the tournament.
In the last 20 years, we've had 3 of these events. 1996, 2004 and the soon to start 2016 edition. Up to now, there has been no regularity behind it. Going forward now we'll see one of these every 4 years. The tournament grew out of the Canada Cup which played 5 times from 1976 to 1991. The event has changed hands, changed names, and has very little history to stand on.
Here's the thing, we already have a tournament like this. The IIHF holds the Ice Hockey World Championships which is an annual event that has featured 52 countries in it's history. The tournament is huge, and goes much deeper than the 16 teams you see in the Championship group.
There are 3 other divisions under the Championship group who play in their own tournaments within the division. If your world ranking goes up, you can push into a higher tier. Conversely, you can be relegated to a lower division if your world ranking takes a dive. The US team has even seen their world ranking dip deep enough to relegate them out of the Championship Group 5 times in the tournament’s history. The US team, by the IIHF's measurements, are the 5th ranked team in the world. Any guesses who's number 1?
The IIHF event also ties in with the Olympics every four years. With nearly 100 years under their belt, the IIHF's Ice Hockey World Championship feels a lot more like a tournament that means something. Changing its name and who runs it isn't going to make Canada any less dominant. The only downside to their event is it’s usually held during the NHL playoffs, which leaves a lot of very talented hockey players out of the mix.
But don't tell the players the World Cup of Hockey doesn't matter. Of course they will be competing hard for their teams. A high compete level is in these guys blood. They get competitive over who gets the window seat on an airplane.
The timing of it all is curious too. We're essentially getting an extended preseason with better competition, only to come back to Earth for the actual preseason later this month leading into the regular season. This leaves a lot of the players in a bind, winding up their game clocks a little earlier in the summer, they really haven't had much of a summer break. Jumping right into games that "matter" can result in sloppy and dangerous play.
We've seen this already with the intensity of just the pre-tournament games. Ryan Suter and Tyler Seguin got tangled up going after a loose puck which sent Seguin into the boards awkwardly and caused an audible gasp from Texas. Marian Hossa suffered a bruised foot in a pre-tournament game which warranted x-rays and kept him out of the remainder of the game. Another Blackhawk in Marcus Kruger suffered an upper-body injury and has been held out of games because of it.
In a competitive contact sport, injuries are bound to happen. That doesn't mean we shouldn't play the games though. Yet I still find myself searching for a reason behind this latest attempt at a world hockey tournament. The way the teams are structured lend itself better towards video gaming than any real world hockey. The North American U-23 squad was invented to not hurt any feelings of the veterans for the US and Canadian teams who might lose their roster spot to a talented young kid. Team Europe is basically the table scraps of Europe. A piecemeal team assembled because the NHL wanted to keep the team count low enough yet still be considered "inclusive" to everyone with the ultimate goal of cramming this thing in before the real season kicks off.
I guess in the end, it doesn't really matter. We get to watch some high-energy hockey, the players get to kick off their preseason a little earlier, and the NHL gets to rake in barrels of cold hard cash. What's not to love, right?