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Wayne Gretzky celebrates Canada's first goal scored by Eric Lindros(R) during the first period of game one of the World Cup of Hockey final September 10, 1996. (Steve Falk/REUTERS)
Wayne Gretzky celebrates Canada's first goal scored by Eric Lindros(R) during the first period of game one of the World Cup of Hockey final September 10, 1996. (Steve Falk/REUTERS)

International hockey

All signs point to a revival of World Cup hockey Add to ...

The World Cup of Hockey may be on its way back – even as the NHL and its players can’t decide when they’ll return to the ice.

Talk in virtually every major hockey circle – NHL, NHL Players’ Association, Hockey Canada and International Ice Hockey Federation – all points to a return of the multination tournament that has been played only twice: 1996 and 2004, prior to the last NHL lockout, both times in late summer and early fall.

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A reborn World Cup, however, would be profoundly different, with the tournament played at prime time for television as well as prime time for hockey – February of every fourth year, alternating with the Olympic Winter Games so hockey fans would have a major international tournament every second year.

“We’ve had those discussions informally,” confirmed Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, who personally supports the initiative. “It’s all about growing all facets of the game.”

The IIHF is reviewing its championship structure and working on a 10-to-12-year plan that is roughly modelled on FIFA (soccer’s world governing body) and aimed at increasing international interest in hockey.

Hockey Canada and IIHF know the international tournament commitment is among the “non-core issues” – commonly called “underbrush” – that are part of the negotiations for a collective agreement between the NHL and its players. Once the two sides can agree on how to split the $3.3-billion (U.S.) pie that is NHL hockey, discussions will be held on what to do about league involvement in the Olympics and the feasibility of reviving the World Cup.

Both Hockey Canada and the Swiss-based IIHF are looking for a long-term commitment from the NHL and its players to enhance the game internationally. The IIHF is considering dropping the world championship in Olympic years to increase European focus on the Games, no matter where they might be held.

“It’s all about eyeballs and television,” Nicholson said.

Previously, the World Cup of Hockey was viewed as largely a North American event of little interest to U.S. viewers and of next-to-no interest to the non-North American audience.

Unlike the Olympics, and even the NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, the World Cup was not able to capture much of the hockey imagination. Interest in September hockey is restricted to fanatics and the tournament competed poorly against such events as the start of professional football, baseball playoff stretch and golf events such as the Ryder Cup.

The 1996 World Cup is remembered mostly for Brett Hull’s controversial high-stick goal that led to victory for the USA; the second tournament barely recalled at all, even though Canada won and the hockey was played at a high level.

A February tournament every fourth year, however, might prove wildly successful – just as Olympic hockey has since NHL players began to play at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

There is no denying the league is less than thrilled with the prospects of upcoming two Olympics: Sochi, Russia, in 2014, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. The time differences will make prime-time TV broadcasting impossible, but there are also the usual Olympic complaints from the league: Three weeks of empty arenas, star players in danger of injury, no piece-of-the-pie offering from the International Olympic Committee that makes millions selling tickets and broadcast rights to those games.

While the 2014 Winter Games tournament will almost certainly be similar to what so thrilled Canadian fans in Vancouver two years ago, some hockey insiders believe changes could be coming prior to the Pyeongchang Games.

While the NHL and its players have yet to commit, it is well known players wish to go. Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has said he would play for Russia regardless of any league decision not to participate.

“I’m going to proceed with full confidence that the NHL will be in Sochi,” Nicholson said.

Pyeongchang, however, is another story: A non-hockey nation in a time zone virtually impossible for Western broadcasters.

The difficulties of South Korea have led to informal talk about the possibility of, after Sochi, restricting Olympic hockey competition to players under the age of 23, as is currently the case for soccer.

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told The Globe and Mail in January that he quite liked the concept of a World Cup of Hockey. Fehr is also a devoted internationalist in sport, once a member of the United States Olympic Committee and was head of the Major League Baseball Players Association when the World Baseball Classic was born.

The first WBC was held in 2006, and will be played for the third time next year. Held during spring training, it is a formal partnership between MLB and its players’ association and is under the auspices of the IBAF, the sport’s international governing body. The WBC has good traction in Asia, in no small part because Japan won the first two events. The 2009 event generated some $18-million in revenue.

“To the extent that we are able with the NHL to work out agreements that are consistent in the operation of the league that year, then that’s great,” Fehr said. “I am not prepared to say that in all years and under all circumstances, it’s something players should do. But one of the things I think would be really good would be for the NHLPA and NHL to agree to a long-term establishment of a World Cup type of tournament.”

Fehr, however, would be against any suggestion that any elite hockey tournament buy into the under-23 (with limited designated older players) concept Olympic soccer has embraced. In hockey, he pointed out, many of the brightest stars are 23 or younger.

While the under-23 concept for the Olympics might appeal to some NHL owners – keeping their senior superstars for the more-revenue-generating World Cup – it would have no support at the IIHF level. The IIHF would be loath to tinker with its best-on-best crown jewel Olympic competition.

It is also worth pointing out that a similar suggestion recently in professional basketball did not go over well.

Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA players’ union, told USA Today that players are “enamoured” with playing in the Olympics. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who is 34, quickly dismissed the under-23 suggestion as “stupid.”

Players like Ovechkin and Canada’s Sidney Crosby, hero of the 2010 gold-medal victory in Vancouver, might have even stronger language.

As for Canadian fans, don’t even ask.

Given no Canadian NHL team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993, and yet Canada has twice won Olympic gold in that time – 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2010 in Vancouver – there can be no doubt how Canadians would feel about icing the best team possible.

As for the possibility of a revived World Cup, every two years in February, the only important question in Canada is: When do the tickets go on sale?

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