World Cup of Hockey returns

Source:Reuters Published: 2016/9/17 23:53:39 Last Updated: 2016/9/17 23:53:40

NHL’s Winter Olympic future uncertain

Oliver Ekman-Larsson of Sweden skates on Wednesday during an exhibition game before the World Cup. Photo: IC

With the return this week of the World Cup of Hockey, the National Hockey League (NHL) could be set to wave goodbye to the Winter Olympic Games and end a tumultuous relationship that for a decade seemed on the brink of divorce.

After a 12-year hiatus, the NHL and NHL Players Association have rebooted the World Cup along with plans to make the showcase an every-four-year event, positioning it to become the league's prime global property while lessening the need for the spotlight the Olympic Games can provide.

The eight-team tournament, which was set to be staged in Toronto and begin on Saturday, has both ­excited and ­annoyed hockey purists with a quirky ­format.

It includes a Team North ­America, of ­under 23-year-old players from Canada, the US and Team Europe, ­comprising skaters from outside the four ­hockey powers of ­Russia, Czech ­Republic, Sweden and Finland.

Gimmicks aside, the World Cup has hockey fans giddy with anticipation with the best-of-the-best set to face off against each other for the first time outside the Games since 2004.

The World Cup and the Canada Cup from which it morphed have had a rich but ­sporadic history, with ice hockey greats Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and the former Soviet Union's "Big Red Machine" all adding to their illustrious resumes.

Long before NHL players were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games, the Canada Cup, staged irregularly five times between 1976 and 1991, represented the only opportunity for fans to watch the sport's elite go up against each other.

In an effort to add some global ­cachet, the Canada Cup was rebranded the World Cup and staged twice - in 1996 and 2004.

Tough negotiations

A successful World Cup may not be the deciding factor in continuing participation in the Winter Games, but it would give the NHL a safety net if it decides to pull the plug on Olympic involvement.

But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the success or failure of the World Cup will not determine whether the league continues its Olympic participation.

He said it was well-known, thorny issues with the ­International Olympic Committee (IOC) and ­International Ice Hockey Federation that could ­scupper the league's Winter Olympic Games future.

With the NHL increasingly ­unhappy at shutting down ­operations mid-­season to allow players to ­participate in the Olympic Games, the IOC further antagonized owners by announcing this year that it would no longer cover travel insurance costs.

"The fact we are doing a World Cup and we believe it is going to be huge success, and that we are going to continue to do it on a regular basis does not mean we can't also do the Olympic Games," stressed Bettman.

With the NHL believing it is putting more into its Olympic investment than it is getting in return, and the IOC offering little sympathy or concessions, tough negotiations lie ahead.

While the IOC has had problems convincing NHL owners that Olympic ideals are noble and worth pursuing, players have bought in.

Russian captain Alex Ovechkin says he plans to compete in the 2018 ­Pyeongchang Winter Games no ­matter what the league decides.

Donald Fehr, head of the ­powerful NHLPA, acknowledged that the ­Olympic Games is something the ­players want and sees no reason there cannot be room for both.

Bettman said the World Cup is the foundation for a new commitment to growing the game globally and that the NHL was pushing ahead with discussions about a North American vs Europe Ryder Cup style competition along with other tournaments and events in Europe.

With the next two Winter Games to be held in South Korea and China, the lure of tapping into the Asian market will hang over future negotiations with the IOC, but for this year's World Cup the NHL is catering to its established fan base.

Posted in: Winter Sport

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