The Sports Examiner: Olympic hockey on the knife’s edge in Canada

PALM DESERT, Sep. 16, 2016 – There will be a lot of interest in the two week-long World Cup of Hockey tournament that will take place in Toronto beginning on Saturday.

Fans, yes, both in person and on ESPN and other networks worldwide. But executives at the National Hockey League, NHL Players Association, International Ice Hockey Association and even the International Olympic Committee will be taking a close look at the impact of this tournament.

As we noted in a previous issue, there are strong similarities between this World Cup of Hockey – jointly presented by the NHL and the NHL Players Association – and the World Baseball Classic, organized by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.

One of the concepts for the World Baseball Classic was to provide an international baseball showcase apart from the Olympic Games, where’s baseball’s participation was ended in 2005 for the 2012 Games. The first World Baseball Classic was held in 2006 and had participation of Major League players who could not be part of the Olympics because the Games are held in the middle of the U.S. baseball season.

The new World Cup of Hockey – a revival of a tournament last held in 2004 – will be played with teams composed almost exclusively (about 95%) of NHL players due the pre-season period … just like the World Baseball Classic is held during Spring Training.

Baseball will return for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, along with women’s softball, but there has been no agreement to allow Major League players to participate in the Olympic tournament. Hockey faces a similar situation, but created an in-season “time-out” period to allow players to compete on national teams, beginning with the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan and for each Games since: 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014.

Whether there will be NHL players in 2018 is an open issue. There has been no agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation on including such players and there are plenty of NHL folks who question whether disrupting its season now generates enough promotional value to continue the practice. And, of course, there are financial issues, especially the expensive insurance – reportedly $8 million worth – which must be purchased against player injuries during the Olympic tournament to compensate the NHL clubs should something go wrong.

Enter the World Cup of Hockey.

Plans are already being made for the 2020 World Cup tournament and even a “Ryder Cup-style” all-star series in 2018 (an Olympic year) to keep the interest going in NHL players and NHL-branded hockey. While NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that “One has nothing to do with the other,” in fact, there will be a close connection between the success of the World Cup and whether the NHL owners and NHLPA will view the 2018 Olympic tournament favorably.

If the World Cup is a big success, and portends even bigger audiences in the future, why mess up the NHL season with a time-out for the Olympic Games? Or the NHL and NHLPA could mimic what FIFA does to protect its own World Cup and change the Olympic men’s tournament to an age-limited tournament with a very limited number of older players. Or a rule similar to what is being considered for the World Baseball Classic could be used, allowing a specific number of players to come onto a national team between rounds, such as after the pool stage to help a team during the knockout phase.

(As an aside, FIFA limits the Olympic men’s tournament to under-23 players with a limit of three older players on a roster; the World Cup of Hockey will feature an under-23 Team North America squad … a coincidence, perhaps? Neither FIFA or the IIHF have under-23 competitions elsewhere.)

All of this makes the upcoming World Cup of Hockey critical to the future of not only the NHL, but to the Olympic ice hockey tournament as well. FIFA has a lot of problems, but judging by the success of the 2016 Olympic tournament in Brazil, the future of its oddball men’s football tournament in the Olympic Games is not one of them.

That will make the ticket sales and television audience statistics for the World Cup of Hockey as compelling as goals scored, assists and plus/minus ratios for the players on the ice. And a big win at the box office and on TV could freeze NHL players out of the 2018 Olympic Games and beyond.

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Rich Perelman has served and supported organizing committees of 20 multi-day, multi-venue events, including five Olympic Games, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In addition to nearly 100 books and pamphlets, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, Track & Field News, Universal Sports and many other publications.

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