Would a World Cup of Hockey reboot threaten the Olympics?

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association are moving “full steam ahead” with reviving the World Cup in 2024, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said yesterday. The plan, according to Daly, is for an eight-or-more-team tournament played over two weeks in February. Preliminary-round games would be held in North America and Europe (each hosting one group) before “a different city in North America likely” hosts the semifinals and final. It’s unclear whether Russia will be invited, Daly said, as the country remains banned from international events by hockey’s world governing body in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

The World Cup of Hockey last took place in September 2016, when it was played entirely in Toronto. The gimmicky eight-team setup included a Team North America made up of players age 23 and under, including Canadians Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon and Americans Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau. Canada and the United States were limited to players 24 and older for their teams. European players from countries other than Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, which each had their own squad, made up Team Europe. The exciting young North America team went 2-1 but didn’t advance out of the group stage. Canada won all six of its games, including a sweep of surprising Europe in the best-of-three final. Sidney Crosby led the tournament in scoring and won MVP. There were also World Cups in 1996 (won by the U.S.) and 2004 (Canada) — both held in late summer as well.

So, how should we feel about this proposed reboot? On one hand, it sounds pretty good. Best-on-best international hockey in February — when players are in mid-season form and we could use something to spice up the dog days of the NHL season — is a nice fit.

On the other hand, didn’t we already have this? The Winter Olympics were a hit with fans and players when the NHL agreed to participate from 1998 to 2014. That ended in 2018, after the league and the International Olympic Committee fought over who should pay for certain expenses and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made a big deal about the supposed hardship of putting his league on hold mid-season. It appeared NHL players would return to the Games this year in Beijing after negotiating it into their new collective bargaining agreement, but the Omicron variant spiked those plans.

It’s unclear whether a revival of the World Cup would bring an end to NHL players in the Olympics. The CBA calls for them to participate in the 2026 Games in Italy, and the two-year space between that event and the proposed 2024 World Cup seems like enough for both to feel fresh. But beyond 2026? It’s possible the NHL and the players’ association decide it’s better to make the World Cup — which they control and pocket the revenue from — the only best-on-best game in town.

That would be great for their bank accounts, but what about the fans? Will the World Cup, which still feels contrived after all the starts and stops and gimmick changes over the years, deliver the same prestige and drama that an Olympic tournament with NHL players did? Maybe one day. But, for now, it feels like we might be trading down.

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