Eight Teams And A Cup

Team Canada won the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in dramatic fashion last night, coming from behind and clinching the second game of the three-game final with a late, short-handed goal.

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Jumping for joy in Toronto: Brad Marchand and Canada win hockey’s World Cup

If you already knew that, you probably live in Canada. Or maybe certain parts of Europe. Or you’re seriously addicted to hockey. Or, possibly, very, very lonely.

Most of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have cared so much about last night’s result. Outside the usual sources, the WCoH didn’t seem to resonate with the sports-viewing public. All things considered, it’s a wonder the tournament got any attention at all.

The DFR logo with hockey stick and puckFrankly, this is not the time to be holding a major international tournament in any sport, let alone ice hockey. There’s way too much going on: the NFL has started its season; MLB is winding down its season, and gearing up for its playoffs; and the NBA has just opened its training camps, meaning the crush of attention that will be directed towards the Golden State Warriors has begun in earnest. Add on top of all that the fact that we just saw the Rio Olympics end a few weeks ago–thus sating most of the public’s appetite for major international competitions–and the casual observer is left to ask: who thought it was a good idea to hold hockey’s World Cup now?

“Canada will celebrate their victory, to be sure, but it’s hard to really see last night’s result as an epoch-making outcome.”

Questionable timing may be written all over the WCoH, but the schedule is not the only subject for questioning. The tournament lineup worked against the event at least as much as the timing. “Team Europe”? “Team North America”? Seriously?

The addition of the composite teams (along with the regular national teams from the usual suspects) gave the tournament a certain air of desperation, like the NHL was trying really hard to gin up a bigger tournament than anyone–including the participants–actually wanted. If players from Slovakia or Germany or Latvia were that interested in getting their Cup on, they could have cobbled together full, representative teams and took to the ice. All the hockey playing nations make the effort for the Olympics (12 in total at Sochi two years ago); why would it have been so difficult to get two more real teams together to fill out the field for the WCoH?

And how would it have played out if Team Europe had won the thing? Years from now, would anyone look back fondly on that victory? You know, over in “Europe”? Would fans have been jonesing to see Europe defend its title in the next World Cup–if there even is a Team Europe in the next tournament? If, that is, there even is a next tournament? Filling out the roster of teams with composite squads may have helped the tournament in the short term, but as a long-term strategy for building the game…probably not.

All of these questions are, of course, about legitimate international competition; the 2016 World Cup of Hockey was nothing of the sort. The composite teams were included specifically to get more NHL players on the ice, to make the event more of a showcase for the league, rather than just a contest to determine the best hockey playing country on the globe. (We already knew that; hint: they like poutine.) But those odd teams must have raised questions in the casual fan’s eyes–questions like, “Team North America? What the hell is that?” For anyone who knows the geography–that there already were Canada and USA teams in the field–the “TNA” 23-and-under team must have left some wondering if those Jamaican bobsledders had abandoned their runs and taken to the ice, with sticks (not spliffs).

Alas, it meant nothing so entertaining. Just regular old Canadians and Americans, a touch on the younger side, skating as if they had made it onto the regular national teams. Better, in fact, than the USA squad, who thoroughly embarrassed themselves.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t any good hockey being played. On the contrary, the brief stretches of games I got to watch (between MLB games with playoff implications and football) featured some excellent play–a testament to the willingness of the players to go all out, despite taking the ice at a time of year when they normally would have just been easing into the start of camp. The participants, particularly Team Canada and the collected Europeans, played with skill and verve and laid it out there, even though there wasn’t really all that much on the line with this contest.

Sure, the announcers tried to make things seem otherwise. Viewers were treated to several references to previous international matches; not just the Olympics, but previous incarnations of the World Cup, as well as the old Canada Cup tourneys, and even the now legendary Summit Series and other exhibitions against the U.S.S.R. “Hey, remember when the Flyers kicked the shit out of the Soviets?”

Yeah, I do–and this wasn’t that. We no longer have those kinds of geopolitical rivalries, the ones that would get the blood boiling and make such a tournament a proxy for war. (The Islamic State does not play hockey, thank goodness.) Canada will celebrate their victory, to be sure, but it’s hard to really see last night’s result as an epoch-making outcome. Perhaps that’s why they haven’t held this tournament for the last 12 years–and who knows when the next one will be staged?

All in all, it was a nice little competition, something to soothe the most hockey-starved among us while they wait for the first real face-off next month. And it was probably a successful infomercial for the NHL, at least in the short term (which was undoubtedly the intent all along). But as a venue for stirring hockey passions? Sorry, but I’ll take the real thing. October 12th is when the puck really drops; this was just an appetizer.


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