When the World Cup of Hockey was announced in 2015, it was met with general disinterest.
An Olympic-style, best-on-best tournament before the start of the season with some teams being an amalgamation of countries (Team North America or Team Europe for example) was viewed most optimistically as a poorly done Olympic knockoff (without any of the prestige that comes with the Games), and most cynically as a feeble attempt at a cash grab.
But after a few heated Canada vs. USA pre-tournament games, and the overall skill and talent displayed by both Team North America and Team Russia, the tournament has smashed through all expectations of excitement and quality.
The U.S. and Canada played pre-tournament contests on back to back nights, games that neatly packaged Stanley Cup Finals-level intensity with All-Star Game skill, jolting fans out of the indifference and apathy they felt towards the tournament before it had begun. The failure of Team USA to win a single game combined with Team Europe’s surprising competence has only further stoked the fire of enthusiasm for this tournament.
All of this is great news for the National Hockey League, which has a lot riding on the success of the World Cup of Hockey. The league and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are constantly butting heads over the NHL’s participation in the Olympics, with sticking points (for both sides) including insurance and travel costs.
A successful World Cup of Hockey can be sold as replacement for the Olympics to fans, or can be used as bargaining chip on the negotiating table with the IOC over NHL participation in the Winter Olympics, which is currently up in the air for Pyeongchang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022. The World Cup allows the NHL full control over revenue, TV and advertising rights, which it doesn’t currently get with the Olympics and the IOC.
The success of the tournament also means that the NHL doesn’t have to shut down for three weeks mid-season. The loss of three weeks of the season means each team has fewer days to play its 82 games, which means higher rates of injury because players have less rest, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the league’s brightest stars are the ones that have to travel and play the extra games, meaning that they’re the ones suffering the highest risk of injury.
Additionally, the World Cup of Hockey allows the league to showcase its best players in games played on North American soil, instead of the Olympics, which are usually played multiple time zones away. While the Olympics provide the game with much more global exposure, it’s understandable that the NHL would much prefer their audience to be from the same markets as their teams, in hopes that they will be paying customers in the future.
The loss of NHL All-Star Game — an immensely popular weekend for the NHL’s corporate sponsors and young fans — was one of the casualties of the Olympics, as the Olympics ran during the same time as the league’s annual showcase usually would.
The NHL replacing its participation at the Olympics with the World Cup of Hockey means that it gets the best of both worlds — showcasing the League’s top players in a best-on-best tournament while also keeping its All-Star Game, a combination that will surely satisfy the League, its fans, and its sponsors if the World Cup of Hockey continues to be as exciting as it has been so far this year.