World Cup to return in 2016, now to ensure it endures

Due in part to this year’s NHL lockout, the decision to send NHL players to the 2014 games has been delayed much longer than some may have expected.

A big part of the issue is the significant time difference between North America and Sochi which will drastically decrease the impact that having the NHL’s best on the Olympic stage will provide. Unlike the 2010 games in which nearly every game was broadcast in primetime and the impressive run by the US turned the eyes of the nation to the sport of hockey, Sochi is eight hours ahead of the East coast and that will cause major issues for televising games in North America.

The eight hour difference isn’t nearly as big of an issue as the potential locations for the next two Winter Olympic sites. Pyeongchang, South Korea will host in 2018 and there are no North American bids for the 2022 games either. That means that another European or Asian country will serve as host thus putting the next two Olympic games on a significant time difference from North America. With that in mind, I wonder if the 2014 games will be the last time the NHL provides the athletes for hockey at the Olympics – that is until another North American city hosts.

With that in mind, I have a strong feeling that the 2016 reiteration of the World Cup of Hockey will be more significant that a one-off of the event that was so well received (in hockey circles)in 1996 and 2004.

While the 2016 event will be the first reincarnation of this tournament, I’m curious to see how it progresses in the future. One thing to keep in mind is the number of parties who need to collaborate on such an event. The NHL will obviously have a major say in the tournament – as they will all but be a silent partner in the venture – along with the IIHF and other international bodies. The actual logistics of planning and carrying out the tournament will be rather complicated.

There should be no debate that the tournament should take place in late summer just as NHL training camps are set to begin. By staging the tournament in August or September, the NHL stars that are participating would get a nice warm up for the season while the tournament itself would serve as a primer for the next year that was set to begin.

The NHL has the opportunity to run this event on a four or two-year cycle as a way to showcase the league’s elite players on an international stage. If this is to truly serve as a replacement to NHL participation at the Olympics, the organizers will have a few options. What the NHL and the actual organizing body of the World Cup need to determine is how badly they want to piss off the IOC.

If the league and organizers are really looking to burn some bridges this could be run on a two-year cycle which would have the potential to run in direct competition with the Olympic games – unless it was run on odd years which would keep both events separated.  I personally love the idea of a two-year cycle running on odd or even years. This is the type of tournament which can be kept fresh and will always be relevant due to the international flavor associated with it.

Just imagine having the opportunity to watch the likes of Crosby, Stamkos, Kane and Quick rolled out every other year in their countries colors. It would be an event hockey fans starve for (if it isn’t already) and it could certainly grow with each passing year. The real key would be the ability to recycle major NHL talent more often than you get with a four-year cycle. While most players would get a maximum of three kicks at a four-year tournament, your main stars would be fixtures in at least five tournaments under this format.

Practicing a four-year cycle (opposite the Olympics) might make the most sense, however. Starting in 2016 you could run the tournament in 2020, 2024 etc. on a two-year cycle with the Olympic games. Not only would this appease the IOC, it would leave the door open for Olympic participation if the games are in a television friendly location. Of course, the IOC isn’t a group to be held hostage by such a situation.

The crux of the four-year plan is less about the Olympics and more about the prestige of the tournament for me. By spacing this out over a longer period of time could help to increase the prestige of the tournament itself. If there’s anything I’d like to see come away from the World Cup of Hockey it is to be a widely respected international event that people actually care about. By making the tournament itself prestigious, you gain additional notoriety.

That final part of the plan is probably a little harder to execute than anything else. You can’t just will people to like a certain sport or event. Lacrosse is an incredibly popular sport in various pockets of the nation but the professional game – both indoor and outdoor – has yet to take off. Much in the same respect, this tournament will be a difficult sell to the casual fans to begin with. One thing that could accelerate the interest in the tournament would be hosting exclusively in North America.

This isn’t some anti-euro, jingoistic desire either. A standalone hockey tournament would not carry the same clout of the tournament when associated with a worldwide event like the Olympics. Ensuring prime viewing hours would be vital to ensuring maximum fan interest; and when you consider the demographic that would be interested by a tournament such as this – hint: it is nearly the same group captivated by the 2010 Olympics – the importance of making it readily available to them is vital.

The 1996 and 2004 World Cup played games in the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany and Sweden thus increasing exposure on a world stage. Ultimately this is an international tournament and does deserve to be made available to those fans overseas, but from a logistic and marketing stand point, North America just makes the most sense. After all, this is nothing more than a made-for-TV international tournament for the NHL and the NHLPA.

I’d assume that NBC would be the first network to get a crack at this particular event although teaming up with ESPN wouldn’t be a bad idea. While the NHL could support the event itself, there would be nothing wrong with that actual World Cup organizing body deciding to have ESPN as the television rights provider. Whether or not NBC or ESPN is the better choice would be hard to determine but the fact that ESPN is in more homes, bars and hotels than NBCSN would point towards the “Worldwide Leader” as a decent host for the World Cup.

The goal for the World Cup of Hockey isn’t to surpass what the Olympics or the actual World Cup have become. Those are true international events that are unlike anything else. However, the World Cup of Hockey can serve as an unparalleled tool for the promotion of the sport if it is executed properly. It all starts with establishing a regular schedule for the tournament to occur and ensuring that schedule remains unfettered as the tournament continues to grow.

The 2016 tournament will probably be small potatoes. The same goes for 2018 (if they use a two-year cycle). This will never surpass the World Cup or Olympics. But it can develop a firm foothold as a tournament and for the sport moving forward. The key is ensuring this tournament runs more often than every 12 years.

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