We are the World (Cup of Hockey)

Editor’s note: We fully intended to write a World Cup of Hockey preview two weeks ago, but life got in the way. Nevertheless, here we are gearing up for the final series between the presumptive favorite Canada and the unexpected geezer castoffs of Europe. The best-of-three final starts Tuesday night.

The NHL regular season starts on Oct. 12, but luckily we got a head start on hockey a few weeks early with the World Cup of Hockey. First known as the Canada Cup, the tournament has lost a lot of its luster since the NHL started sending its players to the Winter Olympics (starting with the ’98 Nagano games). The last WCOH was in 2004 and was exciting enough, but it had the bad fortune to be followed immediately by a season-long lockout. But with future NHL involvement in the Olympics up in the air, the league and NHL Players Association were counting on this tournament to get the WCOH brand back in the public’s mind again.

The final series will feature powerhouse Canada, led by Sid Crosby, Brad Marchand and Carey Price, against the veteran-laden Europe squad, which includes Zdeno Chara, Anze Kopitar and Jaroslav Halak. Nobody’s expecting the series to go beyond two games, but Europe has been confounding expectations since the pre-tournament when the under-23 North America team skated circles around it. The Euros—comprised of players from eight countries that aren’t Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic or Finland—slowly got their bearings and improved as the games went on. Europe lost to Canada in its first game, but took out the Czechs, US and Sweden to make the final. Canada should win easily, but if Halak stays hot and the Euros get some clutch scoring, who knows?

A few other observations from the past two weeks:

  • Many consider it a cash grab, and ticket sales were sluggish for some of the non-Canada games, but I’ve always enjoyed these best-on-best tournaments. Sure, it doesn’t match up to the 1976 or 1987 Canada Cups (the latter of which featured Gretzky and Lemieux in their prime on the same line), or even the 1996 World Cup (which saw the American squad knock off the Canucks in a thrilling final), but the players always get fired up for international competitions and this is no exception.
  • Before getting bumped after Russia took out Finland to get out of the preliminary round (because Russia had the tiebreaker after beating NA), the North American squad was the buzz of the WCOH. Full of speed and skill, the team was led by Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the #1 overall pick who has yet to play his first NHL game for the Leafs. It would have been fun to see the young bucks take on Canada. The NA-Sweden game was an epic battle, marked by an OT with end-to-end rushes and a sick game-winner by Nathan MacKinnon.
  • One team that was definitely overshadowed by the NA kids was team USA, which favored veteran grit over speed and youth and was led by loudmouth coach John Tortorella. The team went 0-3 and went out with a whimper instead of a bang. It certainly didn’t help the low profile of the tournament that the US team sucked out loud. It’ll be interesting to see if USA Hockey goes with a different approach (and different leadership) next time around.
  • The WCOH marked the first time pro hockey has been on ESPN since…the last World Cup in 2004. After that season’s lockout, the NHL’s TV contract was up and the league opted to go with the Outdoor Life Network/Versus/NBC Sports. Meanwhile, ESPN promptly ignored the NHL in its SportsCenter highlight shows and hockey became an afterthought on the biggest sports TV network in the U.S. So it was interesting to see the NHL go with ESPN for this WCOH, even though it’s still in the middle of its deal with NBC. Familiar faces like Barry Melrose, Steve Levy, John Buccigross and Linda Cohn were enthusiastic about presenting hockey again, and ESPN put some of its muscle behind the WCOH, even though it faced tough competition with the baseball pennant races and the start of the NFL and college football seasons. Ultimately, ratings haven’t been great, but it’s been nice to see hockey on the Worldwide Leader again.
  • Excited to watch the WCOH final series, but also getting pumped for the new NHL season. Look for a season preview here coming soon!