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Of the 200-plus countries in the world, there are two where it can be reasonably claimed that hockey is the most popular sport – Canada and Sweden.

According to the NHL's own estimation, as evidenced by the competitors included in the World Cup of Hockey, there are four other nations that care at least a little. Everyone beyond that gets dumped in a cardboard box with the word 'Europe' squiggled across it in magic marker.

Six countries, the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a team of ringers with no national affiliation. There's your 'World' Cup.

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Anybody who hasn't already been indoctrinated into the cult of hockey can see this for what it is – not a new start, but a last stand.

As the world gets bigger and more interconnected, the league gets smaller and more parochial. The result of that is a retreat to hockey's last defensible redoubt. During the next two weeks, Toronto becomes the NHL's version of Tora Bora.

Regardless of how well the World Cup is played, how many people attend it, how big the TV numbers are in this country, who wins or how the whole thing is spun, the end result of the World Cup has already been determined – this is when hockey gave up on itself. This is where we admit that no one cares about this but us, and that we can no longer be bothered to convince them otherwise.

By the most generous measure, hockey's penetration into the global consciousness amounts to perhaps 4 or 5 per cent of the total population. The remainder may know there is a thing called hockey but they've never played it, never watched it and never plan to do either until the dawn of the next Ice Age.

If hockey were run like a real business, this would be an acknowledged problem. There is little long-term point in producing a product so few people recognize or want.

What is so frustrating about this is that we few who do care know the product is good. Several million people – mostly Canadians, Swedes, Finns, Russians and a few hipster Americans – consume it avidly. What you have is a distribution issue. You need to package it with a bigger commodity in order to boost exposure.

In hockey's case, there is only one brand that can do that for you – the Olympics.

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In a sane fiscal world, the NHL would be down on its knees begging the International Olympic Committee to have it. Cost would be no issue. The NHL would think of it as a marketing windfall regardless of the price.

Emboldened by its key enablers – the average Canadian fan – the NHL thinks about it quite differently. The league wants to argue about insurance payments, plane charters and downtime on the factory floor. Offered the biggest possible global stage, the NHL is the understudy bickering over which brand of vodka is listed in the rider.

In the only media that covers this stuff – Canadian – the NHL versus the IOC is portrayed as a fight between equals. It is so patently not that, that once you start to think about it, it's almost comedic.

"I'm pretty sure our teams are not really interested in paying for the privilege of disrupting our season," commissioner Gary Bettman sniffed a few months ago. It's not posturing, since I'm sure it's true. But it's also not effective.

There is no real fight here because the NHL cannot threaten to take hockey away from the Olympics. There's always going to be hockey at the Winter Games. The IOC does not care who plays it. Sidney Crosby or some 19-year-old OHLer you've never heard of – it's all the same to the IOC.

Whatever advantage the NHL thinks it has in this argument, it is fatally undermined by its own stars. Once Alex Ovechkin announced he would play in the Olympics regardless of the league's position, the NHL's last iota of bargaining leverage evaporated.

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The only way this ends the way it should is if the league gives in. Given its behaviour during a steady series of work stoppages, compromise is not a big part of its negotiating playbook.

What's left to the NHL is Canada, that small corner of the world where hockey is king and always will be.

No matter how many times the NHL jerks this country around whenever expansion comes up, Canada will be back for more. When the league cooks up a phony tournament and drives it down people's throats during the fallow period at the end of summer, Canada will swallow it all. We're the goose that doesn't mind being fattened up and then plucked.

One day soon, someone will announce that the NHL is not going to Pyeongchang 2018. Somehow, we'll convince ourselves this is the IOC's fault.

That's the final stage of the bunker mentality the NHL would like hockey's fans to endorse. Us against them, and we no longer feel like sharing.

It won't be until a few Canadian amateurs are getting hammered at the Olympics by a team of Russian pros (because you know they're going to put their best team out there, whatever that takes) that we'll feel the letdown. It may not be until years later that we realize how incredibly mean and shortsighted this all was.

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Choosing a tournament only staged in a single backyard for a very select group of neighbours over the biggest show on Earth is an existential proposition for hockey's growth. Because any business that isn't growing is, in fact, ossifying. The NHL is trading money for aspiration, and insularity for openness.

In time, we'll realize that the World Cup's only loser was the game itself.

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