Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A complainer's guide to the World Cup

The World Cup of Hockey is fun. Along with the Olympics, it’s the only true best-on-best tournament on the international hockey landscape. It’s played on NHL rinks under NHL rules, so there’s less of an adjustment for the league’s fans. And it doesn’t even interrupt the season. All in all, it’s a pretty hard concept not to like.

But as we’ve explained in the past, not liking things is what hockey fans do. It’s kind of our thing. So with the 2016 World Cup officially getting under way this weekend in Toronto, we’d better start digging for something to complain about.

To get you started, here are a half-dozen reasons to be irrationally annoyed with the World Cup.

The teams are all weird this year

The World Cup evolved from the Canada Cup, a tournament that began in 1976 and ran five times through 1991. All of those tournaments were six-team affairs, and with one exception they all featured the Big Six of international hockey: Canada, Russia, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Finland and the USA. (West Germany replaced Finland at one tournament, in 1984). When the World Cup debuted in 1996, the format expanded to eight, with Czechoslovakia splitting into a Czech team and a Slovak squad and Germany being added to round out the field.

You may notice something about those teams: they’re all countries. That’s because the World Cup has always been an international tournament, one that pits teams representing individual countries against each other to determine world supremacy, or at least bragging rights. This might sound familiar, since it’s the standard format across all international sports and is just kind of taken for granted. It’s simple, it works, and you’d think it would be reasonably tough to screw up.

Enter the NHL. This year, the league decided to get creative, keeping the Big Six and then adding two new teams to the World Cup that don’t represent actual counties. The first is Team Europe, made up of players from countries like Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. It’s an unusual approach, but you can kind of see where the NHL is thinking here. None of those countries have enough talent to contend on their own, but combining them into one team at least gives fans a chance to see stars like Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), Zdeno Chara (Slovakia) and Roman Josi (Switzerland), who’d otherwise be excluded from the action.

But for the final team, the NHL just dropped any pretense of this being an international competition and let the marketing department take over. They came up with something called Team North America, which will feature players from Canada and the US who are 23 and younger, in a transparent attempt to highlight some of the league’s up-and-coming stars while trying to appeal to younger fans. The team has scary uniforms and just enough skill and speed to at least be vaguely threatening, and if you focus on that you might even manage to forget that the entire thing doesn’t make any sense.

You have to at least hand the NHL some credit for thinking outside the box here, given the league’s traditional aversion to ever trying anything new. But what we’re left is an international tournament that features eight teams, only six of which are actual countries, all because the NHL decided it had to come up with a weird solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

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