Twenty years ago, the first World Cup of Hockey was introduced to fans all over the world. It was a rousing success. Eight countries participated in two different groups. There were three round robin games to determine who would advance to a playoff format that featured two quarterfinals with the winner taking on the first place team from each group who got an automatic bye into the semifinals.
It worked out well in 1996 with both Canada and the United States advancing to meet in a memorable best-of-three final. The road team prevailed in all three games. After Canada won Game 1 in Philadelphia 4-3 in overtime, the United States rallied back to take Games 2 and 3 in Montreal by identical 5-2 scores to stun the hockey world and win the tournament. Tony Amonte, Brett Hull, John LeClair, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight were all key factors in the Americans’ biggest win since the Miracle on Ice in 1980. However, they wouldn’t have prevailed without Tournament MVP Mike Richter, whose performance in net was heroic.
With the NHL agreeing to participate in the Winter Olympics starting in 1998, the World Cup became less important. The last time they had one was in 2004 right before Gary Bettman locked out the players leading to the regrettable cancellation of the entire ’04-05 season. All eight participants automatically qualified for the quarterfinals. Team USA wasn’t as successful going 1-2-0 in group play before upsetting Russia 5-3 to reach the semifinals. Finland eliminated them 2-1. Canada beat Finland for the championship 3-2. Vincent Lecavalier led them in scoring with seven points to win Tournament MVP. Martin Brodeur posted a 1.00 goals-against-average and .961 save percentage to make the All-Star team. Adam Foote also made it. Joe Sakic also had six points.
Twelve years have passed since. During that span, Canada has won back-to-back gold medals at the last two Winter Olympics, highlighted by Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in overtime to defeat Team USA in Vancouver of 2010. They repeated in Sochi, Russia by shutting out Sweden. Teemu Selanne won the Tournament MVP despite Finland winning bronze over USA. He had six points adding to an all-time leading total of 43 (24 goals, 19 assists) in Olympic play. Since Canada won gold at Salt Lake in ’02, only Sweden has won gold outside of the Canadians, doing so in ’06 at Turin, Italy thanks to the heroic play of Henrik Lundqvist. His last second save on Olli Jokinen preserved a one-goal win over rival Finland. It’s amazing to think that back then, he was just a rookie leading the Rangers back to the postseason for the first time since ’97.
International competition also takes place during the NHL playoffs. Players from teams who don’t qualify or eventually get eliminated participate in the World Championships. Russia usually saves their best for those tournaments. It’s a wonder why a country with as much talent as Russia doesn’t fare well in the Olympics or the World Cup. Even with the departure of star Pavel Datsyuk from the Red Wings returning home to play for St. Petersburg SKA with Ilya Kovalchuk and be closer to home with his family, Datsyuk is expected to participate in the World Cup with Artem Anisimov, Nikita Kucherov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin and Vladimir Tarasenko.
The great thing about these tournaments is it gives fans another chance to see some of the best players in the world. Unlike a few stars pulling out from Canada and USA, most Europeans are committed. The same can be echoed for a talented crop of young stars 23 and younger that comprise Team North America. When you can put Jonathan Drouin, Jack Eichel, Aaron Ekblad, Johnny Gaudreau, Shayne Gostisbehere, Seth Jones, Dylan Larkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Brandon Saad all on the same roster that also features J.T. Miller and future Vezina contenders John Gibson and Matt Murray, there’s a lot to like. Having a young roster of North Americans separate from established stars on Canada and USA makes it more exciting.
The tournament will also feature Team Europe combining stars of other countries who aren’t involved. That features Zdeno Chara (Slovakia), Leon Draisaitl (Germany), Marian Gaborik (Slovakia) Marian Hossa (Slovakia), Roman Josi (Switzerland), Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), Frans Nielsen (Denmark), Tomas Tatar (Slovakia), Thomas Vanek (Austria) and Mats Zuccarello (Norway). Frederik Andersen (Denmark) should be the top goalie over Islander tandem Thomas Greiss (Germany) and Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia).
If there is a concern, it’s why they decided to push the start back. Unlike the first two World Cups, it doesn’t officially start until Sept. 17. The preliminary round runs from 9/17-22. Group A comprises Canada, Czech Republic, Team Europe and USA. Group B features Finland, Team North America, Russia and Sweden. Having the playoffs while NHL training camp is going on could hurt some teams. The format is similar with the top two finishers in each group automatically advancing to the semifinals where they’ll play a team from the other group. The winner of each makes the best-of-three final which takes place on 9/27, 9/29 and 10/1 if necessary all in Toronto. ESPN will be broadcasting games on both its stations. That includes a pre-tournament USA/Finland game on 9/13 in the nation’s capital.
The first two tournaments started at the end of August and wrapped up in mid-September in time for training camp. So, I can see why there’s some concern. Fans are more worried with key players from their teams getting injured. Lundqvist took a puck to the rib cage during a team practice for Sweden, which was falsely reported as him getting hurt playing golf. But he didn’t pull a Yoenis Cespedes. However, he informed reporters that he was okay and good to go for the tournament.
One thing that should be noted is that injuries can occur just as much in either team practice or preseason. Or did the cynics just choose to ignore that part. How many times have we seen players get nicked up in meaningless exhibition games? There still are too many to count. Like the NFL, the NHL schedules too many preseason games. But you won’t see the same complaints.
Of course, whenever a tournament of this magnitude is played, there’s always a risk. That is known going in. Nobody is forcing each player selected to participate. Duncan Keith pulled out due to recovering from off-season surgery. Jay Bouwmeester replaced him. Jamie Benn also pulled out and was replaced by Logan Couture. Canada has so much depth that it doesn’t matter who they lose. Devils forward Kyle Palmieri was added to USA to replace injured Ryan Callahan. If you’re curious to see what the names and numbers are on each roster, check out this link.
While injuries can always happen, there also is a positive that can come out of this. Many players who take part will be game ready by the start of the season. Playing in these games is different from preseason. They’ll be played at a different speed.
If there’s one thing we don’t like, it’s the four-on-four format. I don’t see why they had to change it from five-on-five to straight four-on-four. That does create more risk. It definitely will be played at a high tempo. Hopefully, there won’t be too much three-on-three like we saw last year during ’15-16. That was hectic, hair raising and exciting. I’m still not a proponent of it because there is even more risk deciding extra points that way.
Will injuries occur in the 2016 World Cup? It’s likely. These are some of the best players the sport has to offer. But with one less skater out from each side, you probably won’t see as many players sacrificing body and bones to block shots. It’ll be harder. The goalies will have more pressure on them, which should be fun.
Too many NHL games have become dull and predictable. As much as I admire players I cheer for blocking shots, it takes away from the game. There isn’t as much creativity. Offense is harder to come by. Passes and shots don’t get through as frequently. If you compared today’s games to ones played two decades ago, they’re not as fun. That explains why three-on-three overtime and shootouts are here to stay. The NHL needs it to justify the prices and keep it exciting. The season is too long. I would drop down from 82 to 72 just to keep players fresh.
No one wants to admit that. They’d rather argue with you for days on social media, parroting Bettman that the game has never been better. Faster. Yes. Better. Hardly. The World Cup will be a chance to give hockey fans more excitement. It may not be fully supported by all due to the silly schedule and the fact the NHL competes in the Olympics every four years. But it still can be fun.
Put me in the corner who can’t wait to see these games. Unlike the crummy preseason wastes which really is all about which young players can make the cut while hoping none of the regulars get hurt, there will be pride on the line. Even if it is a money grab for whoever wins it, it will be much better hockey.