Soccer's World Cup is Here, but When Will it be Our Turn?
U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Photo
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
Every four years, soccer fans around the world know they will get to see the best of the best competing in a true world-championship tournament. Unfortunately, the opportunity for fans to enjoy the best hockey players on the planet representing their home countries and competing never has happened consistently.
And it’s been way too long since it has happened at all.
A few weeks back there were rumblings that the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association were in discussions about a potential World Cup of Hockey in 2024. But alas, last week on the eve of soccer’s grand event, the two organizations announced that the next World Cup of Hockey would be delayed and “hopefully” played in 2025.
The original plan was to halt NHL play for 17 days in February 2024 to accommodate the tournament. As of now, the hope is to execute a similar strategy in 2025. Not long ago, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that outstanding issues with the International Ice Hockey Federation needed to be cleared up before plans could be finalized.
The last World Cup of Hockey was held in Toronto in 2016, with Canada capturing the championship. That’s most recent time the world’s best have competed for their countries in the same tournament, and for hockey fans that is said and disappointing.
We had hoped to see the game’s stars on Olympic ice in Beijing last February, but after lengthy – and at times contentious – negotiations between the league and the NHLPA, the NHL ultimately kept its players home because there had been too many regular-season games postponed by an unexpected surge in COVID-19 cases.
If a 2025 World Cup of Hockey can’t be pulled off, the next possible time we could see the best players competing for their countries would be at the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan. The last time that NHL players competed at the Olympics was 2014 in Sochi.
If that’s what happens, by February 2026 it would have been nearly 10 years between true hockey world-championship events featuring most of the game’s best players.
Of course, the IIHF hosts its World Championship every spring, but that tournament takes place during the Stanley Cup playoffs, forcing many countries – specifically the United States and Canada – to send their “B” or even their “C” teams to compete. Although the IIHF World Championship is a popular event in Europe, it never has gained much traction among North American fans, who are too busy watching the sport’s top players compete for the most-coveted trophy in all of team sports.
The International Olympic Committee first decided to let professional athletes compete in Olympic Games in 1986, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the NHL, the International Olympic Committee, the IIIHF and the NHLPA could come to an agreement that would allow it to happen in hockey. The first Olympics featuring NHL players was the 1998 Nagano Games in Japan. NHL players would compete in 1998, 2002 (Salt Lake City), 2006 (Turin), 2010 (Vancouver) and 2014.
With the world’s best players competing, ice hockey moved to the forefront of Olympic competition and the sport garnered national network television exposure in the United States at a time when a legitimate national-television deal was difficult for the NHL to obtain. Casual and less-than-casual American fans – and many adults whose only real memories of hockey were from the 1980 Miracle on Ice – were drawn to the speed, skill and intensity of those Olympic hockey contests. The games were so fast, exciting and well-played that no one missed the fights that tend to attract more casual fans to the sport in North America.
Those Olympic tournaments produced some of the best hockey ever played and some of the sport’s most memorable moments. Acrobatic goalie Dominik Hasek showed why he was called “The Dominator” at the 1998 games, leading his Czech Republic team to a semifinal upset of Canada and a stunning victory against Russia to earn his nation’s first ice hockey gold medal.
Belarus came out of nowhere to upset Sweden in the quarterfinals at Salt Lake City, and Canada captured its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years by beating the United States in the finals there. In 2006, bitter rivals Sweden and Finland faced off for the gold medal, with Sweden becoming the first country in international hockey history to win Olympic gold and a World Championship in the same year.
The Vancouver games in 2010 gave many young Canadian hockey players a lifetime hockey memory thanks to Sidney Crosby’s overtime golden goal as Canada beat the United States for the nation’s eighth Olympic gold medal. Slovakia advanced to the semifinals for the first time that year, while the Sochi games featured Slovenia and Latvia’s first trips to the Olympic quarterfinals, with the Latvians pushing Canada to the brink in a 2-1 playoff-round loss.
Finland’s Teemo Selanne scored six points in Sochi at age 43 to earn tournament MVP honors and finish his Olympic career as the all-time leading scorer with 43 points. Canada never trailed at any point in that tournament and rolled to its ninth gold medal, shutting out Sweden, 3-0, in the finals.
The world’s best hockey players would gather once again for the World Cup of Hockey during late-summer 2016, but that tournament came with a twist. Younger North American stars ages 23 and under such as Americans Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Auston Matthews would suit up for Team North America along with young Canadian prospects such as Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.
There also was a Team Europe, which was comprised of European players from countries such as Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland, France, Austria, Norway and Denmark that didn’t send teams to the tournament. That team included top NHL talent such as Zdeno Chara, Roman Josi, Anze Kopitar, Leon Draisaitl and Mats Zuccarello.
While fans flocked to North American venues to soak up the speed and skill – and to catch a glimpse of the NHL’s next wave of superstars playing together – having the North American and European teams participate detracted somewhat from the intensity and national fervor that international tournaments usually generate. Canada ended up facing Europe in the championship game, with the Canadians capturing the World Cup after a two-game sweep by scores of 3-1 and 2-1 and knocking off Russia, 5-3, in the semifinals. Europe upset Sweden in a 3-2 overtime thriller to advance to the title game, and the U.S. went 0-3-0. Team North America was 2-1-0, posting victories against Sweden and Finland, but did not advance to the knockout stage.
That 2016 World Cup of Hockey was the third such tournament contested, dating to the inaugural event in 1996.
Prior to the appearance of NHL players at the Winter Olympics in 1998, most of the top hockey players in the world never really competed against each other in international tournaments. During the Cold War in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations iced some of the best hockey teams in the world, but their players were considered amateurs and not allowed to come to North America to play professionally. And of course, North American professionals were not allowed to compete in the Olympics.
To bridge the gap, the Summit Series and between Canada and the Soviets was held in 1972 and 1974, and the Canada Cup was held during the NHL’s offseason five times between 1976 and 1991. These events brought together many of the world’s top hockey players, but not all of them, and like the future Olympic tournaments featuring NHL players, they produced some iconic moments and memories.
Any Canadians who were old enough to remember the 1972 Summit Series can tell you exactly they were and what they were doing when Paul Henderson scored the overtime game-winning goal in Game 8 vs. the Soviets to cap a two-goal, third-period comeback by Canada and give the Canadians the series victory in an intense – and at times ugly – battle between the world’s top-two hockey-playing countries.
Canada captured four of the five Canada Cups that were held, defeating the Soviets twice and the U.S., Czechs and Sweden once each in tournaments that featured only four European nations along with the North American teams. One of the most memorable Canada Cup highlights came during the 1987 tournament, with future Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, two of the greatest players ever to lace up a pair of skates, playing on the same line and teaming up on the decisive goal in Game 3 of the finals that year.
While the people who were lucky enough to watch those games and see those historic moments unfold in real time before their eyes will never forget them – and thankfully, because of modern technology, we can relive them and show them to younger generations of hockey enthusiasts via the internet – they largely went unnoticed in the United States unless you lived near the Canadian border or owned a giant satellite dish.
Growing up in a non-traditional hockey market in the United States I vividly remember adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV and watching all the hockey I could through snow and static on some distant UHF channel that probably doesn’t exist today. Some of the Canada Cup games I remember watching on an obscure cable channel once we finally got cable television in the mid-80s.
Even the 1996 World Cup, which featured perhaps the greatest U.S. team ever assembled and was one of the most exciting international tournaments ever played, was nearly impossible to find on television in the United States. After more than an hour searching for a place to watch while on a business trip in Williamsburg, Va., I finally stumbled across a bar that had a couple of televisions and a satellite dish – along with a bartender who was capable of actually operating the dish – in time to watch the infamous third period of the deciding 1996 World Cup finals.
That game took place in front of a rabid Canadian crowd in Montreal, with the Americans earning a 2-1 series victory. No doubt it was one of the top-three moments in United States hockey history. The U.S. dropped the opening game, 4-3, in Philadelphia before rallying to win Game 2 and then erasing a 2-1 third-period deficit in Game 3 on the way to a 5-2 victory and the World Cup title.
Ironically, there was one other person at the bar who suddenly became interested when the game popped up on the TV. As the Americans celebrated the victory on the ice in Montreal, he muttered something about Brett Hull being a traitor and stormed out of the bar. As he drove off, I noticed his Ontario license plates.
You can’t make stuff that up, but it makes for great memories and great stories. I only wish that more people in the United States could have experienced that feeling of pride that as an American hockey fan I hadn’t felt since 1980.
Brett Hull was just one of many future Hockey Hall of Famers on that American team. He was joined by Chris Chelios, Phil Housley, Pat LaFontaine, Mike Modano, Brian Leetch, Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Mike Richter. Canada’s team was full of stars as well, including Martin Brodeur, Paul Coffey, Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman.
Six other European nations competed in that tournament – Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Russia and Slovakia. The star power wasn’t limited to the North American teams in what was one of the most talent-laden international hockey events ever contested.
Jaromir Jagr, Roman Hamrlik, Jari Kurri, Selanne, Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Gonchar, Alexei Kovalev, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Alexander Mogilny, Alexei Yashin, Sergei Zubov, Peter Bondra, Miroslav Satan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Forserg and Mats Sundin were just a few of the more-recognizable names who participated.
The United States and Canada played four times in that inaugural World Cup, with the U.S. winning three of those games in perhaps its greatest international performance. A 5-2 victory over Russia in the semifinals propelled the Americans into the finals, while Canada beat Sweden, 3-2, in the semis on Theo Fleury’s goal that ended the longest international game ever played with 13 seconds left in the second overtime.
While that tournament didn’t include every hockey-playing nation or all the top players in the world, it remains perhaps the highest-level non-Olympic tournament ever contested.
The World Cup was created to fill the void left by the absence of the Canada Cup in the years after the Berlin Wall came down. It’s not clear if the original intent was for the World Cup of Hockey to be held every four years like soccer’s World Cup, but if that was the plan it probably was put on hold when NHL players began participating in the Olympics in 1998. The second World Cup was held in 2004, with Canada defeating Finland for the championship.
Sadly, some of the greatest games and moments in hockey history were experienced by only a relatively few people outside of Canada.
I remember how exciting it was as a lifelong hockey fan to see a generation of American players spawned by the 1980 Olympic gold-medal team – a generation considered by many to be the greatest in American hockey history – perform at that level and win a major international tournament. All the memories and emotions from America’s greatest hockey triumph in 1980 came flooding back as it became clear what that historic achievement had done for the sport in the United States.
In the aftermath of the 1996 victory, I already was looking forward to the next World Cup, assuming it would happen in four years and hoping that coverage in the U.S. would be more extensive. Maybe some network TV exposure and national pride would combine to generate more interest in hockey and help grow participation in the U.S. the way the Miracle on Ice had.
Even though there wasn’t another World Cup for eight years, my excitement was transferred over to the Olympic tournaments. After all, hockey couldn’t find a bigger or better stage than that on which to showcase the sport being played at the absolute highest level. And that’s exactly what we got every four years from 1998 through 2014 – and again to some degree with the 2016 World Cup.
That allowed another generation of young players to grow up seeing the best and brightest that hockey had to offer from all over the world representing their countries and competing for gold every four years. Nothing stirs the passion and emotion of athletes or their fans like competing for or cheering on a country’s national team as it competes for world supremacy.
We will all get to witness that over the next month as fans from around the globe descend upon Qatar for the world’s most-watched sporting event. The excitement for the World Cup will be at an all-time high in North America, too, with both the United States and Canada having qualified.
While hockey interest and participation never has been an issue in Canada, there is no doubt the sport has exploded in the United States and internationally since that first World Cup of Hockey in 1996. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his executive staff have done a great job growing the sport and making it accessible in the United States and around the world through improved and increased television exposure and marquee events such as the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series in North America and the Global Series in Europe.
There’s also little doubt that international exposure to hockey being played by the best players in the world via the Olympics has played a large part in the continued global growth of the sport. Like most things in modern-day sports, however, politics and money – and a pandemic – have muddied the waters, and we may end up going 10 years or more between major international hockey tournaments featuring the NHL’s top players if there is no World Cup of Hockey in 2025.
In this day and age of multi-million-dollar athlete salaries and multi-billion dollar professional sports franchises, complications arise anytime the approval of leagues, team owners and players’ associations is necessary for anything.
Past non-Olympic international hockey events have been held in the late summer prior to NHL training camps. That shortens participating players’ off-season rest window, their training regimens and their family time. When NHL players have gone to the Olympics, the league has been forced to shut down for several weeks in February, leading to a condensed slate of games during the rest of the season with less rest between games and a more grueling travel schedule. Then there are the injury concerns, which are shared by players, team owners and coaches alike.
It's never easy, but as with anything in life, it seems like most times when a group of adults get together in a room and talk about their issues and concerns face to face, difficult situations become easier to navigate and compromise can be achieved. Given the NHL’s recent partnerships with worldwide sports-programming leader ESPN and Turner Broadcasting, it seems like the timing has never been better to commit to a regularly scheduled international tournament that allows the NHL’s best players to showcase their talent and the sport to the world.
Soccer figured this out long ago.
Professional leagues around the world work hand in hand with soccer’s various governing bodies to create breaks in scheduling that don’t fluctuate from year to year and that allow national teams to train, then qualify for and compete in highly anticipated and viewed regional and international tournaments.
Admittedly, hockey isn’t soccer. Literally every country in the world plays soccer, but shouldn’t that make it easier for the hockey powers that be to put something together that would be a win for everyone?
There is no higher honor for athletes than to represent their countries on an international stage. NHL players already have made it clear how they feel about playing in the Olympics, so whether it’s the Olympics or a true world championship that only happens every few years, there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t be on board.
Nothing stirs the passion in fans of a sport more than being able to cheer for their country’s national team competing for a world championship in the sport that they love, and nothing piques the interest of a casual or part-time sports fan more than an intense and exciting international tournament that generates national pride. Just tune into any World Cup soccer game being played during the next moth to see that firsthand.
But what’s the next big thing for hockey?
The NHL, its players and other hockey governing bodies have done a spectacular job growing the sport and making it more accessible during the past 20 years, but we’ve hit a lull and the future is now. It’s time to put politics and differences aside for the betterment of the sport.
I’m not a big soccer fan, but I’ll be tuning into their World Cup pretty much every day for the next month. I’m excited to see the games, the pageantry and the passion of the players and fans. I’m also excited to root for both North American teams.
Of course, I am a big hockey fan, so I’ll be tuning in pretty much any time there is an international tournament for men or women at virtually any level. But how great would it be to have something that showcases the best the sport has to offer on a regular basis? Something we can plan for, look forward to, build toward and get the rest of the world excited about hockey the way soccer does? A way to truly showcase the best in the world and all that is great about the sport while generating national pride among hockey fans all over the world?
It's fine to schedule something occasionally or send players to the Olympics whenever it works for everyone. Hockey fans are among the most loyal sports fans in the world and will always tune in to see a competitive game or watch their favorite players. But we aren’t the ones who need to be convinced. We’re already hooked and aren’t going anywhere. Tell us when there’s a good game, and we’ll show up or tune in no questions asked.
Hockey never will duplicate the worldwide interest that soccer has, but it’s about time that those in charge of the sport and those who play at the highest level put their differences aside and do what’s best for the future of the game.
It’s clear that the next step in hockey’s international growth is to hold a regularly scheduled, true world-championship event that allows players and fans to celebrate all that is great about the sport, exposes the game being played by the world’s best players to new fans and potential future players and provides something for governing bodies and young players in countries where the sport still is developing to strive for and dream about.
Hockey players young and old deserve this. Fans deserve it. The sport deserves it.
Oh, and for those wondering, it probably would make a ton of money, too, just in case that’s what the people with the ability to make it happen need to hear to be motivated enough to actually do it.
Enjoy the soccer, but while you’re watching take a few minutes to imagine what it might be like to have a similar hockey event that generates even a fraction of the interest soccer’s World Cup does to look forward to every few years. As fans, we do have some power. The sport needs us more than we need it, so let’s do our part to think it, talk it, Tweet it, Tik Tok it, Facebook it and Instagram it into existence.
If hockey can figure out how to put on an outdoor hockey game in front of tens of thousands of fans in California, this should be a piece of cake, right?