by Scott Saffran
Professional hockey in the United States often falls behind the likes of football, baseball, and basketball to the average sports fan, a defeating fact I (and many other fans alike) have had to endure throughout my life. While the NHL gets minimal attention, Olympic play during the Winter Games always seems to drum up substantial interest. As one of only three of the major American team sports contested on an Olympic level (at this time) and the only one contested during the Winter Games, the immediate draw is there for the casual sports fan often befuddled by curling and the biathlon. Ice hockey is also one of the few Olympic sports in which Americans do not dominate. Each game is a true test and every moment is one of terrible suspense. Olympic hockey is so attractive because it’s the gold medal least guaranteed. We know we’re not going to win the Nordic combined, and anything involving a halfpipe is pretty much a lock, but hockey has that thrill of the unpredictable. The World Cup of Hockey is the gift of additional international play, a supplementary opportunity to cheer on our national hockey heroes through a tournament of the world’s best.
2016’s World Cup of Hockey (WCH) is the third of its kind, coming after iterations in 1996 and 2004. The 1996 edition replaced the historic Canada Cup, which was essentially just a name and trophy change. The Canada Cup and WCH have always been professional showcases, allowing each nation to build a roster of their best players – which more often than not was a roster full of the best NHL talent available. This tradition continues on as the 2016 WCH is an official NHL event with the full backing of the league and the Player’s Association. The games have featured a rotating roster of nations usually centering around “the Big Six”, or Russia, Sweden, Canada, the United States, Czech Republic, and Finland. In 2016, the Big Six return, but with the added twist of two new teams. Team Europe joins the fracas, an All-Star team of European NHL talent from any nation not represented by an individual team. Most interesting and entertaining of all is the North American Under 23 team. This squadron is comprised solely of American and Canadian stars aged 23 and under competing in the NHL. Though playing alongside some of the league’s best armed with years of experience together, both these teams burst with talent and ability. Thus far in the opening rounds, Europe is locked to qualify for the semi-final and North America may very well see their way in too.
With the somewhat dramatic return of the WCH comes the promise of another change in international ice hockey. Since 1998, the International Olympic Committee has allowed professional hockey players to participate in the Winter Games for their respective nations. Up until then, exclusively amateurs (usually college athletes) participated in the Olympic hockey tournament. While this made the team considerably less recognizable than would their professional counterparts, it contributed to a better Olympic experience. Anyone who has sat through “Miracle” once (or, you know, twenty times) can attest to the rigorous training these young hockey players endured for over a year. Every nation that participated sent forth a true team of hockey players that had practiced and played together and could perform at an extraordinary level. One of the more poignant moments in “Miracle” is the news report that the NHL All-Stars had been thrashed by the Soviets and Herb Brooks’ response that ‘All-Stars fail because they rely solely on talent’. Olympic hockey since 1998 and the advent of international all-star teams has not been disappointing; rather, it has often been thrilling and a great source of pride for hockey fans worldwide. However, I still yearn for the return of amateurs and the restoration of true international competition that does not rest its head on professional talent. As the WHC looks to solidify its place in the realm of international ice hockey competition, the IOC may finally revert back to an amateur-only event for the Winter Games.
For a hockey fan, one of the best aspects of living in a major media market like the Tri-State area is the region-exclusive sports network. Any time I want to watch the New York Rangers play, I’m afforded the luxury of tuning to the MSG network and having a near-guarantee of a live broadcast of the evening’s contest. As hockey flounders in fourth place in pretty much every measure of professional sports, it is oftentimes forgotten in television programming. Until the advent of Versus TV, now the NBC Sports Network, there was almost no way of watching out-of-market hockey for anyone. Most notoriously of all, ESPN, the home of sports broadcasting on television, reports so little on hockey that it has become a running gag amongst hockey enthusiasts whenever they do decide to mention the National Hockey League. Thankfully, this has taken a tremendous change with the revitalizing of the WCH. Announced simultaneously with the tournament itself was the contract with ESPN to broadcast the games. This is the first time in over a decade that ESPN has broadcasted live professional hockey. What is essentially the mecca of sports journalism has finally reintroduced one of the major professional team sports back into its fold. While NBCSN has done more than a serviceable job broadcasting and promoting the NHL, it simply does not have the reach and resources possessed by ESPN to promote and push sports into the heart of the public conscious. Rebuilding a relationship with the number one sports broadcaster in the nation is essential to furthering the growth of ice hockey. This is a tremendous opportunity for the NHL to offer serious competition to the other major sports leagues and build on its fanbase.
The World Cup of Hockey is not going to be an international sensation like soccer’s quadrennial World Cup. It’s not going to shake the world, or revolutionize the sport. The WCH is about exposing the talents of the NHL to a wider audience than often experiences the sport and providing some enticing international competition usually set aside for the Olympics. Whether the NHL decides to continue the WCH on past 2016 (which I fully believe it ought to), it has already succeeded in promoting hockey’s inherent international cooperation and the promising stars of the NHL’s future. Team USA has been defeated and dragged through the mud, but there’s still countless reasons to give it a watch. Semifinal games are played on the 24th and 25th and the best-of-three Finals start the 27th.