By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – With the return this week of the World Cup of Hockey, the National Hockey League could be set to wave goodbye to the Winter Olympics and end a tumultuous relationship that for a decade seemed on the brink of divorce.
After a 12-year hiatus, the NHL and NHL Players Association have rebooted the World Cup along with plans to make the showcase an every-four-year event, positioning it to become the league’s prime global property while lessening the need for the spotlight the Olympics can provide.
The eight-team tournament, which will be staged in Toronto and begins on Saturday, has both excited and annoyed hockey purists with a quirky format that includes a Team North America, of under 23-year-old players from Canada and the United States and Team Europe, comprising skaters from outside the four hockey powers of Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland.
Gimmicks aside, the World Cup has hockey fans giddy with anticipation with the best-of-the-best set to face off against each other for the first time outside the Olympics since 2004.
The World Cup and the Canada Cup from which it morphed have had a rich but sporadic history with ice hockey greats Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and the former Soviet Union’s ‘Big Red Machine’ all adding to their illustrious resumes.
Long before NHL players were allowed to participate in the Olympics, the Canada Cup, staged irregularly five times between 1976 and 1991, represented the only opportunity for fans to watch the sport’s elite go up against each other.
In an effort to add some global cachet, the Canada Cup was rebranded the World Cup and staged twice – in 1996 and 2004.
Whether the latest incarnation of the World Cup can build on tradition and generate Olympic-type interest will factor into the NHL’s future relationship with the Winter Games.
“With respect to 2018 (the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang), we’ll see how this event goes and make those decisions at the appropriate time,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daley said during a television interview.
A successful World Cup will certainly give the NHL leverage with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has indicated it is no longer willing to make concessions to the league in order to have the best players in Pyeongchang.
With the NHL increasingly unhappy at shutting down operations mid-season to allow players to participate in the Olympics, the IOC further antagonized owners by announcing this year that it would no longer cover travel insurance costs.
While the NHL believes it is putting more into its Olympic investment than it is getting in return, the World Cup is a money maker for both the league and NHLPA.
With the next two Winter Games to be held in South Korea and China, the lure of tapping into the Asian market will hang over future negotiations with the IOC but for this year’s World Cup the NHL is catering to its established fan base.
Hosts Canada, captained by Sidney Crosby and coached by Mike Babcock who led the hockey-mad country to gold at the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics, will once again be positioned as the hot favorites.
Russia, captained by Alex Ovechkin, have dipped slightly when it comes to international play but they possess some of the best offensive weapons in the tournament while the United States will rely on goaltending where they have three of the world’s best in Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop.
Sweden, silver medalists in Sochi, will lean heavily on the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist but will also have one of the best defenses of any team playing in front of him.
Finland, runners-up at the world championships earlier this year, have a solid mix of experience and youth that should put them in the title hunt.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)