SBJ/June 25-July 1, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Could World Cup of Hockey make a return?

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The evolution of the NHL’s big-event strategy could include the return of a fan favorite: the World Cup of Hockey.
“It’s fair to say both the league and the [NHL] Players’ Association believe doing World Cups on a regular basis is both important and a great opportunity for the continued growth of the game,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “Our players grow up loving the opportunity to represent their country, and the hockey in the World Cup is particularly compelling.”

Team Russia and Team Canada compete in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The World Cup, played in August in 1996 and 2004, is sanctioned by the NHL and the NHLPA and would fit into the league’s platform of major events driving national scale. League partners would be able to utilize the event for late-summer activation and could do so more directly than they can in the restricted setting of the Olympics.

Unlike the Olympics, for the World Cup, the NHL would not have to shut down for three weeks in the middle of its season. And unlike the IIHF World Championships, which are played in April and May at the same time as the Stanley Cup playoffs, all of the best players in the world would be available for the World Cup.

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins confirmed last week that World Cup discussion has been put on the front burner with the league’s board of governors, including at its most recent meeting last Tuesday in Las Vegas.

“For years now, we have been essentially licensing our players to the Olympics and to the World Championships,” Collins said. “Why not continue to build up an event like the World Cup, where the NHL and union can be partners, our sponsors can activate, and [that] our fans will embrace?”

The NHL failed to capitalize on the momentum of the last World Cup eight years ago. The 2004-05 season was canceled when a new collective-bargaining agreement could not be reached. The league’s commitment to having its players in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics made scheduling a future World Cup difficult, as did upheaval at the union, with changes at the executive director level from Bob Goodenow to Ted Saskin to Paul Kelly to current leader Don Fehr between 2005 and 2010.

The NHL’s participation in the Olympics has brought mixed results. When the Games have been in North America (Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010), the media and fan focus has been high. When the Games have been overseas (Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006 — and as they will be in Sochi for 2014), the time difference has negatively affected TV ratings and press coverage.

In addition, in the Winter Olympics, ice hockey can be outshined by other events, such as figure skating and skiing. As a result, there has been much debate over the benefits of the NHL closing its business midseason to be involved in the Games. Team owners much prefer the World Cup because the August-September schedule serves as a kick-start to the regular season.

While some players would be disappointed about not playing in the Olympics — amateur athletes from the college and junior ranks would make up most of the rosters for the U.S. and Canadian Olympic squads instead — the World Cup could satisfy players’ desire to play for their country.

Said Collins, “The big questions with the World Cup are, how often do you do it? How does it fit in with the Olympics? Do the Olympics fit at all? There is a lot to discuss.”

Participation in the Olympics in Sochi in 2014 — and, it appears likely, the creation of a regular schedule of World Cup events — will be part of collective-bargaining talks this summer between the league and union.

“I don’t view it as a bargaining chip but more as problem-solving we have to do with the players,” Bettman said of the Olympics. “It’s a complicated issue. There’s no clear right or wrong answer. It’s something we’ll have to wrestle with in the context of everything we’re doing internationally — whether it’s the [season-opening] Premiere Games or the World Cup or anything else.”

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