Bring Us Canada
9:52 AM EST on November 21, 2023
We are coming up on 10 years since the last true best-on-best international men's hockey tournament, at the Sochi Olympics. Oh, it was grand: T.J. Oshie's shootout showcase, Latvia coming to play, Russia busting, Canada getting lucky again. And even that paled in comparison to the magic of 2010—until Canada got lucky, anyway. International tournaments rock, and few team sports have as many nations as legitimate contenders as hockey does. There is no good reason this shouldn't be a regular thing.
But the IOC stopped covering the costs of players' participation, so the 2018 Games saw no NHLers. A COVID-riddled schedule thwarted attempts to reach an agreement for 2022. Ten years is too long to wait; it is criminal that Connor McDavid hasn't yet had the opportunity for his Crosby Golden Goal (i.e. to get lucky).
The league knows this. International outreach is how you grow the game and make lots of money. Dozens of games have been played outside North America, but there's nothing quite like a tournament for healthy, mindless jingoism. The revival of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 was a nice thought and a fun little event, but it wasn't truly best-on-best: American and Canadian players under 24 were shunted to their own team, and a "Rest of Europe" monstrosity was mashed up to represent smaller hockey nations. If you're going to do it, do it right.
The NHL is going to do it in February 2025. But it's not going to do it right.
The league is preparing an international tournament with just four teams, according to ESPN—the U.S., Canada, Sweden, and Finland. I submit that a four-team tournament is no tournament at all. Where is Czechia, always a competitor? Where is Germany, a growing hockey power? Where is solid Slovakia, feisty Latvia, punching-above-its-weight Switzerland? Where is Russia? Well, we know where Russia is.
The NHL apparently feels a bit of appropriate shame about its mini-tournament, declining to call it a "World Cup." I do sympathize with the very real obstacles.
"I think at minimum, there are three factors that have impacted our ability to nail something down," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week in Sweden. "One was COVID. Two was the change in executive directors in the players' association. And three is the political climate in the world in terms of the way some counties are interacting with others."
You're just not going to have a World Cup that feels complete without Russian players. That's mostly out of the NHL's hands, and some amount of a hypothetical Russia roster is playing in the KHL anyway. So this blog post is less complaining that the NHL isn't making it happen than it is bemoaning that it can't currently happen. But four teams is pretty lame. I'm not canceling any plans for four teams. Time to hitch our hopes on the IOC and NHL reaching an agreement for Milan in 2026.
But! They can do something in the meantime. They can do a seven-game series between the U.S. and Canada, in the spirt of the Summit Series and the Challenge Cup. Call it the Fight for 49, after the parallel. Or call it something actually good. I don't care. I just want the world's best hockey rivalry on a big stage, and to indulge my latent anti-Canadian impulses. A full series is great for creating storylines, and for developing genuine enmity between the players, and for flattening out the chances that Team Canada could win by getting lucky yet again. Our fine American goaltending will stand strong; our fundamentally sound checking lines will grind down the Canadian attack; Jacob Trouba might wreck Brad Marchand's shit. There are no downsides. (Sorry to Sweden and Finland, but no one's worried that you'll take up basketball instead if you get left out of this.)
If we can't have a true best-on-best, don't insult us by throwing in some Nordic powers and calling it a tournament. Just skip ahead to the thing we all want anyway: U.S. vs. Canada, for all the bragging rights. Bring it on, maple-munchers.