TORONTO – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr were front and centre in Toronto yesterday as they announced further initiatives for next month’s World Cup of Hockey which begins September 17.
Among the most notable is a ten-day festival at the historic Distillery District in downtown Toronto from 16 September to 25 September. The centrepiece of the festival will be Hockey House, a hub of activity for fans everywhere. As well, there will be a World Cup of Hockey Tower, some 10 metres high, and daily concerts, starting with retired star Theo Fleury and his band Death Valley Rebels.
An important element for the tournament is also the Olympic-style concept of leaving a legacy in the host city. In the case of the World Cup, that means several things, including an initiative between partners Hockey Canada and MLSE to develop awareness of the sport to kids who come from other countries (i.e., whose culture is less hockey-based than Canada’s).
There will be Town Hall discussions, educational programs, and a ceremony to swear in 100 new Canadians, all part of the international tapestry that is this celebration of the game, on ice and off.
“Nobody’s trying to replace the Olympics or the players’ participation there,” said Fehr of the premise behind the World Cup. “This is an attempt to create a hockey-only international event that will generate an enormous following and make a significant statement which is good for hockey all over the world. That’s why we’re working with the federations and will continue to do so in the future. There’s no reason why this would have an impact on the Olympics at all.”
Perhaps the most singular element of the tournament is that it starts prior to the NHL season, whereas all IIHF events are played during or after the season. Although the history of Canada Cup/World Cup events supports it taking place in September, it was not automatic.
“We had a lot of discussions about when to hold it, when we’d get the best audience, when the players would be in the best shape,” Fehr admitted, “but we also have to fit it in with the normal NHL schedules, and if we created another two-and-a-half or three-week break that squeezes the season and extends the season, we felt at least for the first one it would be better to do it at the beginning of the season to control the schedules better.”
The most controversial aspect of the eight-team event was that instead of eight nations, the 2016 World Cup would feature six of the top nations and two “all-star”-type teams – one a Team Europe and the other a Team North America featuring under-23 players.
“I always felt confident but I’m more confident than I ever was in the format,” Fehr noted. “This is not the World Championship or the Olympics, but when people looked at the teams and the number of different countries represented and the unique storylines of a young team that will be lightning fast, I think it’s going to create a very interesting set of circumstances. After the tournament is over, and before the next one, we’ll look at it and see if we continue or revert to a more traditional format.”
Bettman agreed. “The feedback we’re getting, from all constituents including the media, is that the more that people have had time to think about it and had an opportunity to look at the rosters, there’s a level of excitement about those two teams that has built over the last year. I think people are really looking forward to how those teams perform.”
The last World Cup was played in 2004, won 3-2 by Canada over Finland at the ACC. Now, after 12 years, it’s back and here to stay. Bettman and Fehr fully expect to have another event in four years, but several factors will go in to choosing the location for 2020.
“We’ll evaluate after the event itself and then focus on the things that can make a great event and big event even better,” Bettman said.
“We’ll look at the reaction worldwide,” Fehr explained, “how we integrated with the city, what we could have done to make it better, what were some of the problems – nothing is ever perfect – and then look around and try to make a judgement as to where the next one should be to maximize the tournament and fan opportunity, whether it’s in Europe, or the States, or somewhere else in Canada.”