By James Mertle – The Globe and Mail
No one at the NHL’s head office seems to recall precisely where the idea came from or who first brought it up. But Bill Daly believes that its origins are more than a decade old.
Back then, the NHL was still debating what to do about Olympic participation, with the Games in Turin, Italy, and interrupting their season yet again. One concept that was kicked around briefly was sending only 23-and-under players – the way men’s soccer teams do for the Olympics – instead of shutting down the entire league.
That never ended up happening. But the idea lay dormant at the NHL front office until the summer of 2014, when commissioner Gary Bettman, his right-hand man, Daly, and NHL Players’ Association head Don Fehr began discussing the format for a revamped World Cup of Hockey.
They knew that six countries would be there – Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic – but the next two entries were up in the air. The goals they came up with for the event were to (a) include as many NHL players as possible, preferably drawing all 184 from within the league, and (b) to avoid the ugly blowouts that have plagued almost every recent international hockey tournament.
With those guidelines, it was thrown to Kris King, NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations, and NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider to lead the way with some concept teams. Dozens of options were pondered, including having A and B teams for both Canada and the United States.
Ultimately, however, a team of “young guns” – the way the NHL had attempted at various All-Star Games from 2002 to 2009 with YoungStars teams – had staying power.
Thus, Team North America was born.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, by any means,” said Schneider, who had the job of explaining the idea to concerned young players like Aaron Ekblad at the 2015 All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio. “We waffled back and forth several times. In the end, we decided we wanted to have the best players in the world on the ice. This is our tournament. We have a chance to do that.
“We knew we had the six core teams. We even discussed going with six, but we didn’t really like the idea that so many great players wouldn’t get the opportunity to play. So we started to really analyze it as a best-on-best tournament and putting together eight teams.
“We looked at what soccer does in the Olympics [with 23-and-under players] and that was kind of the idea that spurred that. When we saw the roster, that’s when we were like ‘Holy cow – these guys have a really good team.’ But, to be honest, the first couple guys we talked to, until we showed them what the roster might look like, they said, ‘We don’t want to show up and be embarrassed at the thing.’”
From the beginning, the notion of resurrecting the World Cup of Hockey has had its critics and skeptics. This is an event that has been held only once in the past 20 years: A 2004 tournament that had the feeling of an underwhelming cash grab, a series of forgettable exhibition games that were overshadowed by the looming lockout.
So when the NHL announced last September that the tournament would return with an unusual format, with two invented teams – North America and Team Europe, the backlash was predictable.
What wasn’t was how quickly minds have changed once they hit the ice.
The 2016 edition of the World Cup of Hockey gets going in earnest on Saturday in Toronto, but the preliminary-round games have offered a glimpse of what is to come. The hockey has been surprisingly competitive, with players already shifting into something resembling a top gear. Most of the buzz around the tournament, however, has been about Team North America, after lopsided wins over Europe were filled with highlight-reel plays by teenagers Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews.
While Team Canada’s exhibition games have had the highest TV ratings in this country, North America’s are not far behind, with nearly 600,000 viewers watching each of their tune-up wins. Meanwhile, tickets to see the young guns are in heavy demand on the secondary market, far surpassing that of any non-Canadian team.
Early indications are that the team many believed would hurt the World Cup’s credibility will instead be what makes it memorable, bringing in an audience anxious to see the top young players in the world play against the veterans.
“These guys can play,” King said. “Not that we’re surprised. But the way they play together is pretty neat. It’s going to make for an interesting tournament. It looks like it’s going to work. And they’ve become the adopted team for the younger people that I talk to. Of course, Canada’s going to be the team that their dads are going to cheer for, but I think the kids are cheering for North America.”