By Tom Hunter (@)
When the NHL announced the participants for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the vast majority of us would be lying if we said we didn’t snicker at the idea of a Team North America. The tournament was criticized for the ‘gimmick teams’ to the point that North America and Europe were seen as more of a punchline than anything else.
But something happened. Something that the NHL surely didn’t expect. Something that falls squarely on the shoulders of Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews and a group of young hockey stars. We fell in love.
Team North America skated their way into our hearts. They played with speed, flare, and creativity that we haven’t seen from any of the other teams – even Canada, who while dominant, are nothing more than a Mike Babcock helmed robot at this point.
They were by far the most exciting team in the tournament and while they didn’t make it out of the preliminary round, they are certainly the lasting impression we will have from the 2016 World Cup. Unfortunately for us all, this is likely the one and only time this team will exist. Whether we like it or not.
The goal from the minute the NHL re-introduced the World Cup, was to make money from an international tournament. The NHL Board of Governors and Players Union did not feel it was right that they participate in the Olympics without making money from it.
The solution? Re-introduce their own tournament that would line their pockets. Whether they’ll say it or not, the NHL almost certainly views the new incarnation of the World Cup as a way to bypass the Olympics for their own benefit – especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NHL will no participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang games.
Do you blame them? I don’t. above all else, the NHL is a business and international hockey tournaments are just a business veiled by the disguise of patriotism. The Olympics are for the IOC to make money and the World Cup is a way for the NHL to do the same.
It’s for this reason that the NHL will almost certainly do away with Teams Europe and North America by the time the next World Cup rolls around – likely in 4 years. The league has always maintained that the intention is to have some sort of play-in tournament to see which countries get the remaining two spots – North America and Europe were simply placeholders due to a lack of time.
Despite how much buzz the team created and how much merchandise they sold, Team North America is likely finished – forever. Sure the NHL might see that they have become the most popular team in the tournament and have a change of heart, but that’s not likely – for a few reasons.
The Patriotism angle is one that the NHL will push as they move forward with the tournament They will try their best to get us to look away from the Olympics and like in soccer push the World Cup as the true measure of international supremacy. That can’t happen with gimmick teams.
The reason to believe this is Donald Fehr. Fehr is the current executive director of the NHLPA. Why does Fehr matter? He formerly held the same title with the MLB Players Association and is one of the key figures behind the World Baseball Classic. While the WBC is still not overly popular in North America, it is huge in Asia and Latin America and has become the benchmark for international competition in the sport. The way the WBC looks today is a far cry from how it started out. It is a lot bigger, more competitive, and the players actually care about representing their country. If you’re interested to know what the NHL’s blueprint is for the World Cup of Hockey, it’s all mapped out for you with the WBC.
The WBC is an example of a tournament that was spawned out of greed, was underwhelming to start, but has grown and changed with each new incarnation. My bet is the World Cup ends up being the same
The second big stumbling block preventing us from seeing another Team North America is Hockey Canada and USA Hockey demanding their best players. Four years from now, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews will all still be 23-years and younger and so would be destined for Team North America once again. With the debacle that was Team USA this year, it’s hard to imagine a world where USA Hockey doesn’t flex their muscle to get their two best centers – Eichel and Matthews – onto Team USA.
Sure, Canada doesn’t face the same issue. Team Canada will be the favourite with or without a Team North America – but when 2020 rolls around, Connor McDavid will be undoubtedly the best hockey player in the world. Hockey Canada will insist he play for their team – and it’s hard to see the NHL saying no.
I’ve seen suggestions to get around this – specifically a ‘one and done’ rule. Guys like McDavid and Matthews who were on Team North America this time, are eligible to play for their country in 2020. While this idea makes sense, it would defeat the purpose of fighting to save the U23 team. What made them so exciting was how talented and competitive they are – and the fact is, there simply aren’t the same level of prospects coming that could create as good a team without this big-3.
Sure guys like Nolan Patrick, Mitch Marner, Mathew Barzal, Noah Hanifin and Matthew Tkachuk will be around to bring some exciting talent to the team, but the simple fact is that this year’s team was the culmination of a golden age of prospects and without McDavid and Matthews, the 2020 team likely won’t be able to compete with the national teams.
I loved Team North America just as much as the next person – and not only because I was finally able to buy a McDavid shirsy without supporting the Oilers – but the simple fact of the matter is that they were likely a one-time thing. The NHL captured lightning in a bottle – seemingly by complete accident, and now they are ready to move on.
Instead of dwelling on the fact that the NHL is going to ‘ruin a good thing’ be eliminating the team, let’s just look back on this young team as a wonderful apparition that we were all lucky to experience.
Besides, in September 2020 it will be too hard for us to care about the World Cup of Hockey since fans in the centre of the universe will still be suffering from the hangover of an Auston Matthews-led Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup party.