The World Cup of Hockey is coming back. That seems to be the one thing every person at a certain level of the National Hockey League's hierarchy can agree on. The only question, however… is everything else. When is it going to happen? Where is it going to be played? Who will play in it? There isn't even a potential TV agreement settled for it in either country (though, let's face it, there's now only one game in town in both the U.S. and Canada, so figure it out) or any loose dates.
I love speculating on this kind of stuff. I like the idea of the World Cup. It brings international hockey consistently to countries that love it. The Olympics can be held anywhere, and that's terrific for the sport's growth, but getting USA-Canada or Russia-Czech Republic or Finland-Sweden to those countries every four years is a fantastic idea. The NHL needs to figure out the right way to do this between now and the next lockout. With the World Cup of soccer coming in 2014, it seems right to dream it all up again. Here are my ideas.
The league has wanted to do the tournament in 2015 or 2016, and I think 2016 is a great start. It's a Summer Olympic year, so everyone's already been put in a very "Rah! Rah! Go country!" mode by that, and it's the middle year between the Olympics. You'd get a best-on-best tournament every two years or so.
As far as when on the calendar, though we all secretly think it'd be neat if the NHL ditched the All-Star Game and, Olympics-style, shut things down for two weeks… it just probably isn't do-able as managers and owners wouldn't want to risk their stars' health in the midst of every other season. Start the NHL season a little late, and launch the World Cup on Labor Day weekend, with Team USA playing on both Saturday afternoon and Monday evening.
The two hockey-playing North American nations (sorry, Mexico) would get the first dibs on hosting it. Then, four years later, two European nations (Finland and Sweden or Russia and the Czech Republic) would get to host. If the tourney were agreed upon beyond that, the United States and Canada would host again, then two European nations again.
While it's great to spread every country around, the fact is, giving the tournament a centralized location is better for competitive balance. You don't need to bring Finland or Sweden over from Europe on short rest to face off against Canada in Montreal or the United States in St. Paul. Hold everything within one of the two major continents for hockey and then flip every four years.
We're going to do two groups of eight teams. The seven most-well known hockey playing nations at the moment (United States, Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia) will automatically be in. What I want to do to determine the two remaining clubs is take an idea from the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where lesser hockey playing nations had the opportunity to play themselves in through a qualifying tournament.
So, we'd seed up the eight other hockey playing nations that are either prominently ranked or have a prominent NHL star on it — so, for sake of argument: Slovenia is in, along with Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Latvia, Denmark, France (Cristobal Huet!) and Belarus — and play a knockout tournament.
The winner of the knockout round joins the other seven teams in two groups, A (USA, Russia, Finland, Slovakia) and B (Canada, Sweden, Czech Republic, Knockout Winner) that play the usual round robin format. The top six advance, the top team in each group gets a bye. The second-place team in Group A plays the third-place team in Group B, and vice-versa. The winner of those two matchups plays the two group winners for the right to advance to the final.
Borrowing something from the 1996 World Cup, this tournament's finals will take on a Best-of-3 format. First to two wins, obviously.
Host Cities (in North America)
So, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is to be held in North America. For the round robin, the United States and Canada will basically play as host cities for their individual groups, with two rinks in each city getting to host. Canada's bracket will split between games in Montreal and Calgary. With all due respect to Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal and a possible Red Mile redux are too good to pass up.
Now, for the United States bracket, there are a lot of deserving cities. What I'd do is take an Original Six market and a newer market, both providing a possible home ice advantage. Boston and San Jose are my picks. Boston would be loud and sell tickets for less attractive matchups, while San Jose's Shark Tank could potentially be nuts if sold out.
For the semifinals and finals, Canada's games would be held in Toronto, while the United States would be held in Philadelphia. Similar to the 1996 tournament, where would you get a better, nastier home ice advantage than in Philly?
There's no way NBC, Sportsnet and the NHL Network in both countries don't get the rights. The NHL Net in the U.S. and one of Sportsnet's channels would air the initial knockout tournament. From there, set it up similar to the NHL season.
NBC would air a USA-Russia showdown on the first day of the tournament on a Saturday afternoon, while Canada would face off against Sweden at 7 p.m. ET, making for the first de facto Hockey Night in Canada of the season. The rest of the games would air on NBCSN and Sportsnet in both afternoon and primetime sessions, providing those networks with a ton of programming. The final would air, similar to the last Olympics, on Sunday afternoon on both NBC and CBC.
Anyone have any different ideas? Problems? Suggestions? A different way to decide that eighth team in the tourney? Feel free to throw them my way.