Primordial Man gazes into the ooze whence he just emerged and of which he still stinks, and ponders his reflection. “Oog,” he says approvingly. Ten thousand years later, Gary Bettman looks out over a freshly surfaced sheet of ice, pondering the modern world reflected in it. “Oog,” he says approvingly. “This will be way better than the Olympics.”
In this year’s World Cup of Hockey, the third such event ever conducted (the USA won in 1996, Canada won in 2004), the world’s population, clamoring for more and more hockey (apparently), will see eight teams meet in Toronto to compete for the title of … well, not the world’s best, since the Winter Olympics still exists and pretty much resolves that. Let’s settle on “Winner of the World Cup of Hockey, 2016.” Yes, that’s what they’re after. That’s the brass ring. Go out and get ’er, boys.
Unlike every other international sporting event contested anywhere on the planet, and probably on the moon if it had sports (astronaut Alan Shepard’s righteous chip shot notwithstanding), the 2016 World Cup of Hockey will not simply feature nation against nation, flag versus flag. In addition to the six countries deemed “hip” enough to field their own teams (Canada, the USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic), this year’s World Cup will also feature a Team Europe and a Team North America. Team Europe, composed (like hot dogs) of the parts left over from grander endeavors, will have players from eight nations, none of which deserved their own team, it appears. Goalie Philipp Grubauer, for example, plays for Germany in the Olympics, and hockey fans will recognize names such as Marian Hossa, Anze Kopitar, and Zdeno Chara, each of whom will be skating for a nation that doesn’t exist, under a flag that has never been sewn, hoping to hear an anthem that hasn’t been written. They do have a logo, though, in an excellent and prescient bit of readiness for a future in which the only fatherland any of us has is Coca-Cola.
Never mind the fact that countries such as Slovakia, Switzerland, and Denmark regularly contend for medals in the Olympics. If the average American can’t find them on a map, they won’t be playing in the World Cup of Hockey. Czech Republic, I don’t know how you got in under those rules, and honestly, Canada, even you got lucky.
Team North America, on the other hand, is the product of free-trade agreements and pure continental dominance. All the players, composed of Americans, Canadians, and (theoretically) Mexicans, are younger than 24, per the rules, and the team is probably still the second best in the tournament. In a phallus-waggling display of hubris, the USA and Canada have essentially told the rest of the world, “See if you can beat our B-team. If you get through the JV, you can play the varsity.”
Of course, if either the USA or Canada gets beaten by this Bad News Bears-like consortium of ruffians, it will cause more tension than the first time you beat your father in one-on-one and he acted like he wasn’t angry but, come on, Dad, we all knew you were angry, how come you smashed that beer bottle?
This format reeks of North American elitism, and I can’t huff it deeply enough. It mirrors our geopolitical sensibilities wonderfully. How many countries “matter” to the United States? You’ve got Russia, China, England (for old time’s sake), Canada (by virtue of proximity) … heck, are there even six? Like a lazy racist erroneously calling all Latinos “Mexican,” dubbing a participant Team Europe may not be right, but damn if isn’t convenient for stateside viewers.
But why hold this event in the first place? The Winter Olympics take place every four years, the IIHF World Championships and the Stanley Cup, annually. For a sport whose television ratings lag behind the other Big Three (yes, even baseball) and whose greedy and gluttonous over-expansion into markets with no particular connection to hockey has already led to financial hardships across the NHL, why does it make sense to increase the supply when the demand is already so low?
ESPN dollars, baby. Those sweet, sweet, bottomless ESPN dollars. The Pistol From Bristol owns the broadcast rights to this year’s tournament, and the hockey you’ll be seeing on SportsCenter this month will be no illusion or production mistake. The NHL wanted more coverage on the mothership network, and as commissioner Gary Bettman put it, “We kind of view this as an opportunity to rekindle the SportsCenter interest. To the extent that the people on SportsCenter are more focused on hockey in September, maybe that carries over to the regular season.” For his part, ESPN president John Skipper said, “We’re thrilled to be back with the NHL. This place is electric with excitement about getting back into hockey. We have a lot of hockey fans here.” So hockey wanted ESPN, ESPN wanted hockey, and hockey put on its Sunday best to answer, “Yes, ma’am!”
This year’s World Cup, like a fast-food value meal, comes with some juicy extras, too, such as the pre-tournament Pre-Tournament. The cleverly named Pre-Tournament gives fans outside Toronto the chance to catch their favorite teams and players in a series of warm-up exhibition games around the world. Matchups between the USA and Canada, and Team Europe vs. Team North America, have already proven feisty, fun, and delightfully contentious. The World Cup may be an afterthought of a tournament for some fans, but for the players involved, this baby is as serious as Alan Rickman. That’s why I’ll be attending the Team USA vs. Finland exhibition in Washington, D.C., doing my patriotic duty to get drunk on domestic beer and craft slurs on the fly about a country I know literally nothing about, performing my cheering and booing with all the flag-waving vitriol I can muster.
So enjoy the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Or don’t. Just so long as you watch the NHL when it starts in October and ingest your daily dose of SportsCenter highlights the following day. But if you’re jonesing for a little diplomacy à la cross-checking and are curious how international hockey might look on an NHL-size rink with only NHL-quality players, tune in from September 17 to October 1. I will.
Jason Rogers’ plans for the weekend include watching the World Cup of Hockey and napping, probably at the same time. You should follow him on Twitter.