International hockey. Does it have a place in a post-pandemic world?

Prepare for a world where the NHL doesn’t take part in international events for the next few years.

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Hockey fans around the world were delighted to hear the NHL would allow players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Olympic Winter Games. After skipping out on 2018 in South Korea, the move showed that the NHL and NHLPA might be able to get along after all.

Last week, NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider joined Nick Kypreos on the Real Kyper at Noon show to discuss what made the agreement work, citing the ability to market players involved in the Olympics as a barrier-mover for both sides. Schneider also mentioned that there are plans for the World Cup of Hockey to happen again in 2024, giving hope to the idea of best-on-best international action every two years.

But before we get that far, can we even be sure that NHL participation in 2022 will happen – let alone international tournaments as a whole?
Or rather, should they happen?

Feb 24, 2018; Gangneung, South Korea; Canada players including Mat Robinson (37) and Brandon Kozun (15) celebrate after defeating Czech Republic in the men’s ice hockey bronze medal match during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Gangneung Hockey Centre. Mandatory Credit: David E. Klutho-USA TODAY Sports

COVID-19 uncertainty makes travel an issue

From the World Hockey Championship to the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, nearly all international tournaments that were set to take place after March have fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Junior Championship in December is still scheduled to take place in Canada, but there’s ever-growing doubt as to whether that’ll happen, since we simply can’t predict the COVID-19 timeline.

Various two-team tournaments have taken place this month in Europe, but they all involve neighboring nations. Holding a tournament between two teams on the same continent when their numbers are going down is one thing. An international event with 10 teams from around the world though? That’s different. Given how restrictive Canada has been around travel, making the World Juniors a reality could be a major challenge. There aren’t many international competitions in other sports taking place. Formula 1, for example, has canceled its North American dates for 2020, among other cancellations.

The NHL’s participation in the 2022 Olympics is great news, but it currently comes with the assumption that the global pandemic will have calmed down. With a year and a half until the trip to China, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. NHL teams have already begun assessing the risk of travel for future events like the Global Series, which takes place in Europe each year, with logistical adjustments likely in the works. Does going to China make the most sense? Add in the threat of a potential 2022 Olympic cancellation and the players could be forced to wait even longer to fight for gold.

The fact is, nobody can accurately predict if and when the virus will flair up again, so teams and players need to take extra precautions to get ready. In a perfect world, we’d have a vaccine in place for next season, enabling teams and fans to return to their home rinks. We just don’t know if that’s going to be possible. If it’s hard enough to get domestic events going, it’s going to be an even bigger challenge to stage international tournaments.

Can the World Cup of Hockey and Olympics co-exist at all?

By 2024, we should (hopefully) be far past the virus and back to our normal lives. If the Olympics don’t take place in 2022, the World Cup of Hockey could be the next available time to get everyone on board – as long as the Olympics don’t move back a year. Assuming the World Cup takes place before the season again, most of the players would already be in North America for training camp, and the league could always limit the player selections to NHLers only. This would likely lead to the use of Team Europe and Team North America once more, which would annoy traditional international hockey fans due to the dismissal of countries like Switzerland or Slovakia that have earned their spot in an eight-team tournament, but at least it’s as close as possible to getting best-on-best action.

Fans had big gripes about the first World Cup tournament, with the two made-up teams and a short round-robin limiting general fan support outside of the medal round. Team Europe was far from a popular offering for European fans and, while Team North America was fun to watch, wouldn’t it be better to see what Canada and the United States each have to offer at full mast?

As a fan of the World Hockey Championship, it’s been a pipe dream for ages that we’d get an edition of the tournament with full firepower. Give the current circumstances, that’s even less likely. Players were hesitant to travel overseas for the event due to the risk of injury playing for a team that doesn’t have them under contract. Now, throw in the uneasiness of travel and it’s unlikely players will want to take the risk in the next 2-3 years.

The World Cup is far enough away – and not even official yet – that we likely won’t have to worry about social distancing and other virus-related precautions. In the short term, however, one has to think the World Hockey Championship and all the IIHF’s other top-level tournaments will be on hold going forward. Considering how restrictive sports leagues are being, there isn’t a big need for international action just yet. We all want everything to go back to normal, but this might change the scope of international tournaments in the near future. Could we see a Canada/USA series, like in women’s hockey? That’s something that hasn’t been done on a big scale, and it would give North American fans a commodity to get passionate about. 

Best-on-best is hard to come by

It’s hard to get a full gauge on international growth when the opportunities for nations to show their best lineups are limited as it is. The Olympics comprise just 12 teams and, as was the case with South Korea in 2018, a spot will be taken up by a country that wouldn’t have qualified without an automatic berth. In this case, China is perhaps the worst team we’ve ever seen qualify for an Olympic hockey tournament in the modern era, taking the place of a team that would have qualified any other year on performance merit. We don’t know all the teams just yet, with qualifying tournaments still set to take place next August. That’s enough time for the pandemic to conceivably start slowing down and, other than South Korea, all teams will be from the same continent. We just don’t know how everything is going to play out.

16 teams compete in the World Championship, but very few have close to full-power lineups. The World Cup of Hockey had eight teams in the last event, with just six proper nations. Taking these events into account, it’s easy to see why getting the best competition together is a challenge. European fans would love to see the NHL send more players and even adjust their schedule to fit in with the World Championship (like all of Europe and Asia do), but that’s unlikely with an 82-game regular-season schedule and the warm North American climate in August – when most European leagues kick-off.

The World Cup of Hockey shouldn’t be a replacement for other tournaments, and it can be used as a way of getting fans excited for hockey before the pre-season begins, or as a way of allowing teams to further judge their options for the Olympics two years onward. It can’t just be an NHL money-grabbing technique to offer players a best-on-best platform while removing Olympic participation. The 2004 World Cup was great for that. There were no questions about NHL participation in 2006 and, with the Olympics heading over to Italy, it gave North Americans a chance to see the action up close. Under normal circumstances, with NHL participation confirmed in 2022, this scenario could have been replicated, but that’s not a given anymore. It might not be in either party’s best interest to send players over to China if portions of the pandemic still exist two years down the line.

If all parties involved in making international tournaments happen – the NHL, NHLPA and the IIHF and its partners – feel they can safely go ahead with events in the future, both from a safety and financial standpoint, excellent. There will be tough decisions to make to ensure everything’s fluent for a return, but it could be out of the control of those in power.

At the very least, we should prepare for a world where the NHL doesn’t take part in international events for the next few years.

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