Photo Credit: Kevin Souza/USA TODAY SPORTS
OK, the tournament’s over. No, honestly it is. It didn’t take as long as you thought if you rightfully avoided all the roster selection debates (which are fun, I admit, unless you’re Phil Kessel) and the pre-tournament games. So does that mean the criticism and the jokes about poor attendance, apathy, and the potential for Team USA players to destroy desk chairs at the downtown Hilton in Toronto now ends? Well…not yet.
This didn’t go as planned, no matter what party line you choose to toss at it — it wasn’t as disastrous an event as some would have you perceive, and it wasn’t a big success as others would insist. But given all that’s up in the air about NHL players attending the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018, and Beijing, China in 2022 (you know, after Connor McDavid’s career has peaked), this is still a tournament worth saving and improving upon, and making sure some of the mistakes this time around won’t ever be repeated.
I have a list that can assist in that department but can I point out how stupefying it was to hear actual shock and amazement, even when the exhibition games began (and particularly the Canada v. USA games) that it wasn’t being treated like an All-Star game? Of course the players were going to hit, of course there would be bad blood, of course there would be trash-talking — national pride still matters. Most of the players played in the semi-finals in Sochi against each other, or the gold-medal game in Vancouver, or countless hyped (and properly so) round-robin or knockout-phase games at the World Juniors — those rivalries don’t just die off and disappear. It was amazing to me people assumed there’d be a John-Scott-at-the-ASG feel to things. Does the absence of a tournament for twelve years really dull the senses that much?
Regardless, I am a man who likes his hockey without gimmicks. Honestly, though I attended a Team North America game (the Sunday night debut against Finland) and, yes, they were impressive, and it was “fun”, but, seriously, we can’t be doing this again. The entire time I’m watching I’m wishing McDavid had played for Canada the day before, and the same with Aaron Ekblad, and potentially Nathan MacKinnon. It was special watching an 18-year old Eric Lindros assert himself in 1991 for Team Canada against MEN 7-8 years older than he was, and in the prime of their careers no less. Not to mention that Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, and Adam Oates were all left home (332 NHL points combined the previous season!!!) to watch the Nordiques’ #1 overall draft pick holdout smash heads and take names while not being old enough to drink legally in any province EXCEPT Quebec! And I’m not sure those laws stopped him, necessarily.
So though Team N.A. had some cool and adorable qualities to it — a best-on-best world tournament should feature fewer things you can do in a video game, and fewer things that apply to fantasy sports — because it’s as real as it gets. I don’t care how much Team North America gear was purchased (I even offered my 10-year old son the opportunity to get anything he wanted in the black-and-orange and he reversed the tables on me by opting for a traditionally red Canada toque — #proud #blessed #thankful), this was no marketing win and in retrospect, I wish it had never happened, because it’ll be difficult to explain why it isn’t going to happen when this tournament re-assembles in 2020, and it’s going to.
Second point on the Young Guns, it utterly depleted what could have been a more competitive Team USA. Look, it went horribly — no one would deny that. The timing is very off for peaking as a “program” as they were able to do in 1996 at the World Cup. But the Americans didn’t win that tournament because of “grit” or “finishing more checks” — they had superlative skill. Mike Richter was the best goalie on the planet at that given time not named Patrick Roy.
By the way, go back to 1996 and think about this — Patrick Roy wins the Stanley Cup in 1993 with a 10-0 overtime record in the playoffs, and three springs later, makes a seamless tradition after all the controversy leaving Montreal, wins the Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy with Colorado, and is NOT chosen for the World Cup, but is eighteen months later to play every minute in Nagano when NHLers finally go to the Olympics. We’re killing Dean Lombardi for decisions like David Backes over Phil Kessel, and Glen Sather put Bill Ranford in a best-on-best tourney instead of Patrick Roy? Rumour was at the time that Roy wanted to be promised the #1 goalie spot — well, yes, do that! That seems totally reasonable. If he stinks or shows up 20 pounds overweight in August, then circumstances changes that — one of the dumbest things ever, really. But Russ Courtnall and Dirk Graham were on the 1991 Canada Cup team, so maybe I’m overstating things.
Back to Team USA, roster selection (and usage) by their brass was a big problem. John Tortorella, at this point, shouldn’t be coaching the Greenville Swamp Rabbits let alone the best American players on the planet, ok, yes, we’re all in agreement here once again!
BUT, please don’t deny the damage the very existence of Team North America did to Team USA. Overwhelming and devastating. Think about it — adding, say, Connor McDavid and Aaron Ekblad to Team Canada. Modest improvement, right? OK, good. Now add Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba to the USA backend, now let’s add 5 forwards to the grown-up table and subtract 5 forwards from the same:
OUT: Justin Abdelkader, David Backes, Kyle Palmeiri, Brandon Dubinsky, James van Riemsdyk (sorry, pal — had to be done)
IN: Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Brandon Saad, Dylan Larkin
Arguments I simply won’t listen to:
1) You couldn’t have trusted USA brass to be smart enough to make those changes. Umm, they make those changes.
2) USA isn’t exponentially better-equipped to do better than the awful result they posted up.
3) USA isn’t in better shape for EITHER the 2018 Olympics or the 2020 World Cup, or both, with these changes.
So as I sat there and watched North America/Finland on that first Sunday evening, I knew USA was toasted, not because they came out and laid one out against Team Europe, but because they were stripped of a boatload of potential skill (and skill leads to goals, and preventing them). Would it have made them repeat the 1996 USA team’s great victory (led by the best goalie in the tournament, 7 future Hockey Hall of Famers playing key roles, not to mention GREAT players like Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight)? No, I don’t believe so, but you have a fighting chance. This USA team was cannon-fodder and similarly, 2016 Jonathan Quick isn’t close to the goalie 2010 Ryan Miller was — and that factors in more than anyone actually mentioned.
But, of course, Canada’s in fantastic form right now to suit up for international tournaments. I’m not going to tell you there’s another country close to producing star players like Canada is. I mentioned the 1996 Team USA squad has seven Hall of Famers — I think Canada has 11 at least, and Duncan Keith couldn’t play and he’s going also. As an aside “going to Toronto” hasn’t got near the ring “going to Canton” or “going to Cooperstown” has, does it? Not sure how we fix that.
If Canadian pros go to South Korea in 18 months for Olympic hockey, I truly believe that will be the greatest collection of talent ever to be assembled in one dressing room, with considerable reverence for Team Canadas of 1976, 1984, and 2010. I leave off 1987, because I think we were less-than-fantastic in goal with Grant Fuhr (playing ahead of Ron Hextall was a crucially-biased error at the time that nearly cost Canada the tournament) and yes to Gretzky, Mario, Messier, and Bourque as all-timers but we had to flesh out the rest of the roster with Normand Rochefort, Doug Crossman, Brian Propp, and Kevin Dineen — I’ll leave Brent Sutter alone, because I SUPPOSE checking lines mattered even then.
But we’re in an amazing place and somehow, whoever (hypothetically) puts the 2018 Olympic team together needs to add McDavid, Hall, Keith, Seguin, Ekblad, MacKinnon (and possibly Schiefele, Couturier, or Monahan as longshots) into the mix. Best of luck. The days of making phone calls to Brenden Morrows or Brent Seabrooks are over for the next several years at least.
Improving The Tournament
So what do I want to see at the 2020 World Cup? That part’s easy. Follow along:
1) You have to lower ticket prices. Package holder and scalpers who bought right away took an utter bath on this puppy. I’ve been there, you win some or lose some when you hold tickets for things. Who knew REO Speedwagon don’t pack them in like they did in 1981 during the Hi-Infidelity Tour? But the perception of allowing people like me to get into Russia/Finland for $7 US on Stubhub is far worse than modestly reducing the face value of the tickets to begin with. You are making money already — choose to make LESS money and not have as much negativity surrounding the event. In 2016, that’s a delicate balance, but it can be accomplished.
I’m a radio guy. Work on the content and product and the ratings will potentially take care of themselves. If I cut corners on the former, it can impact the latter. If I don’t cut corners, I sleep well at night knowing I have a good show and I can’t control the rest. The perception of greed for tickets costing $300 or $400 for important games is a look the NHL can do without. If I can pay 75 EURO for a good seat at a quarter-final match in Paris this past summer, then surely, you don’t need to be seen as trying to charge me three times that to watch Sweden play Russia in a preliminary game.
2) Get it the hell out of ONE city. I’m as wrong as often as I’m right but no apologies for this one — it’s too many games at one venue in one city. I spat out my coffee when it was suggested Edmonton can host a similar tournament in 2020. Can they have a few games? Sure. You can even have the Final there if you like, but twelve round-robin games and up to five knockout games in a 13-day span. Nope. Not going to work any better anywhere else. Not when we have 400 TV channels at home and the Internet and a million trillion other things to entertain us that we didn’t have in 1976, 1984, 1987, or 1991.
I don’t blame the NHLPA for wanting to do away with pool play games in Europe (as there were in 1996 and 2004) but you have to spread this out somewhat. I think with the new arena coming in Detroit, I’d spread 2020 out like this:
Of the 12 round-robin games, play 3 in Toronto (yay, it’s special again!), 3 in Montreal, 3 in Detroit, 3 in either St. Paul or Boston — I’m avoiding New York — I don’t think you can make it work in September with 2 MLB teams potentially in pennant races, 2 NFL teams, and many more distractions.
Let’s do semi-finals in Detroit and Toronto, Game 1 of the Final in Boston, and play a potential Game 2 and 3 back-to-back in Edmonton. That way you’ve got hype in Edmonton at the new arena like a Super Bowl or Final Four. Instead of Toronto this past go-round where it was just more hockey piled upon more hockey upon more hockey.
I’m telling you if the NFL played EVERY single playoff game in the same city, the same overkill would be felt, and it doesn’t matter where it is. If the New England Patriots play three playoff games in three consecutive weekends at, say, Soldier Field in Chicago, it lessens the impact and joy of the event.
Best 3 on 3 overtime in hockey history. pic.twitter.com/c8GCYVQKIY
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) September 21, 2016
3) No 3-on-3 overtime and no shootouts. Yes, the climax of Team North America vs. Sweden was exciting, but so is endless overtime. No one ever suggests we alter the overtime concept in the NHL playoffs (I’d almost be ok with the second 20-minute OT going to 4-on-4 — now that I’m older, I don’t think triple or quadruple-OT games in the middle of a series are good for players, coaches, fans, or media) so why do it here? Play these games out. The 1984 Canada/Russia semi-final and the Bossy tip-in goal is memorable not because Canada won but it happened in the flow of play — same as the Crosby Vancouver goal — if Crosby wins the gold medal in shootout on Ryan Miller, the moment is no less euphoric but the memory is less precious. Please believe me — I’m very right about this.
4) Back to eight countries. I can’t stress myself out if Roman Josi or Christian Ehrhoff don’t get to play in this tournament because the rest of their countrymen couldn’t qualify. I don’t worry about it with any other country. Life and sport are very full of inequalities, so deal with it. Euro 2016 this summer went on without the Netherlands and featured Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Iceland. We’d have certainly swapped one of those three “also-rans” out for the Dutch if we could have before the tournament began, and yet, all three nations provided amazing drama. Easier to do in a 24-team tournament than an 8-team one where the best team is so top-heavy with talent? Sure it is, but, again, best-on-best doesn’t need gimmicks. So if there just isn’t an Anze Kopitar or Mats Zuccarello (well, no, of course there wouldn’t be), we’ll all swallow back our tears of empathy and move right along.
5) Start the damn thing earlier — yes, summers are precious for NHL players, but you have to get this thing started before college football and NFL rule the day, not just in the United States, but Canada, too. No matter when you start in August, you’re also fighting domestic soccer leagues, specifically the Premier League, but all you can do is not schedule daytime Saturday and Sunday games so as not to clash with a Chelsea/Arsenal or Manchester City/Manchester United game. I mean, Sweden vs. Europe was a 1pm eastern game going against eight NFL games. Smarten up. No excuse for that. Marketing means not just pushing your own product, but recognizing the strength of others.
The 1987 Canada Cup began round-robin play with an August 28th game between Canada and Czechoslovakia. Yes, good, that’s about right. It’s special to play for your nation in a best-on-best tournament so get all your cottage and travel time in early. Show up at training camp on August 15th or so and get a couple games into this thing before Labour Day weekend. You even get the added bonus of getting people emotionally invested before the MLB division and wild-card races start to absorb the collective attention of potential host cities and this clearly factored in here in Toronto this year, as anyone could see coming. Hockey lost out to baseball in most households and where people were spending their discretionary entertainment income. Take Saturday night — imagine a Game 3 with Canada against Europe and let’s pretend, the Blue Jays were actually facing being eliminated from playing in the AL Wild-Card game at Fenway Park? Now, YOU may tell me how much you love hockey and don’t care about baseball but you know damn well you’re in the minority in this nation when it comes to TV viewers. The hockey gets slaughtered (Sportsnet would show both games on their platform so claim a win-win) but the World Cup of Hockey Final does better if you’re not ending it on baseball’s final weekend. I mean, obviously.
That’s that. Do I expect all these ideas to be agreed upon by the masses and instantly implemented? Far from it, but there isn’t a single one I’m wavering on or suggesting “just to suggest”. The best businesses aren’t afraid to try new things and for this alone, the NHL deserves credit for thinking outside the box, but now it needs to tweak — something it’s been willing to do so incredibly often with pedestrian rules of the sport, but not often enough with formulas like how to show off its fantastic product to have the most eyeballs watching, and the most satisfied customers after it’s all said and done. There’s an opportunity here — it could be seized and handled astutely, or it could be fumbled disastrously. Up to them, really.