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Golden Goals

As the World Cup of Hockey wraps, we’re reminded that a league with a proudly patriotic past faces an uncertain Olympic future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mike Babcock is a Stanley Cup winner, an Olympic gold medalist, and the NHL’s highest-paid coach striding behind its highest-profile bench. And sometime in the next few days, he’ll probably win a World Cup of Hockey title, for whatever that’s worth. At the helm of the Canadian squad, Babcock has spent the past few weeks overseeing an embarrassment of riches, and he’s done so effectively: Team Canada has been exactly as good as it should be.

That sounds like a neg, but Babcock’s efforts have actually been a beautiful thing to behold. The American team humiliated itself before, during, and after its early exit. The glorious young-guns team, made up of a mix of the top U.S. and Canadian players aged 23 and under, was too beautiful and stupid for this world. But Team Canada has played just like the thoughtfully curated exhibit of the finest, fastest, scariest, and most-skilled players in the world that it is. And it’s done so with a practiced consistency that has made the tournament’s outcome feel all but inevitable.

On Tuesday morning, before Game 1 of Canada’s best-of-three championship series against Team Europe — a catchall consortium of international players from Slovenia to Denmark, but not from the Czech Republic, which had its own team — Babcock was asked only three questions at a press conference. “Nothing to ask him,” tweeted NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika. “No lineup changes. No goalie issues. No drama.”

But one remark Babcock made in the short session may have created a tiny amount of it within league offices. “The World Cup’s great,” said Babcock, one of the most respected men in hockey, about the latest iteration of the tournament. (Previous World Cups took place in 1996 and 2004.) But: “It’s not the Olympics. Let’s not get confused.”

The first time the NHL sent its players to the Olympics, things didn’t go quite as the league hoped. In the 1998 Games in Nagano, the U.S. team won a single contest, against Belarus, and left a trail of Olympic Village destruction in its wake. Team Canada lost in the semifinals in penalty shots.

Still, the Dominik Hasek–led Czech team won gold, and, as Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber pointed out, that mattered. Petr Svoboda, who defected from Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1984, told Farber after his country’s anthem played: “I didn’t hear that song for many years.”

Since then, Canada has won three golds; Sweden one. The U.S. and Canada played in an epic overtime championship game in Vancouver; the U.S. and Russia had a penalty shootout for the ages in Sochi. Intense patriotism and national identity is part of the history of the game. (For years, the Canadian five-dollar bill depicted kids playing hockey, and the sport was no small part of the Cold War.) The best young hockey players are funneled toward national teams. The NHL constantly makes gestures toward growing hockey (and itself) internationally. The league’s main broadcast partner, NBC, is also the Olympics’ most significant rightsholder.

Yet the NHL’s ongoing participation in the world’s biggest international competition remains an open question. And it’s a question that has come up repeatedly during the World Cup of Hockey — an event rekindled, in part, to be a replacement for the Olympics.

On Wednesday, International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel, who flew to Toronto for the World Cup of Hockey, assessed the odds of NHL participation in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, to be a coin toss. (This was up from May, when he said chances were 40 percent.)

But the same day, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he had grown increasingly pessimistic. “I think time is very short to make a decision,” Daly said, “and I’m not sure there’s been a lot of progress made in the past six months, and I’m not sure there’s any prospect for progress to be made. So on the basis of that, I’d say that I’m more negative today than I was two weeks ago.”

There’s a decent chance that the widely reported downer of a quote shouldn’t be taken totally at face value. The 2012 NHL lockout, during which Daly was front and center, was a labyrinth of reverse psychology and via-the-media mind games. In that light, Daly’s recent comments could be the words of someone genuinely uninterested in the 2018 Olympics. But they could also be a strategic public nudge in the direction of the IIHF and the International Olympic Committee.

The league wants assurances that the IOC will foot somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million worth of travel, insurance, and other sundry bills. (This has been the arrangement in the past, but this spring the IOC announced it would be turning off the spigot.) The time zones of the next two Winter Olympics — in South Korea in 2018, and Beijing, China, in 2022 — aren’t exactly simpatico with North American viewership. Shutting down the league for three weeks disrupts and perturbs a whole lot of people, from arena employees to owners. The potential for major injury freaks everyone out. In 2014, Islanders captain John Tavares hurt his knee playing Latvia at the Olympics and missed the rest of the NHL season.

And the NHL insists that even when hockey gets nominal buzz during the Olympics, the league doesn’t see much of a lasting financial boost. In contrast, the NHL is said to have netted an estimated $65 million from this latest World Cup of Hockey, which is a whole lotta commemorative melted ice.

The choices surrounding the Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey don’t have to be either/or. The NHL could allow its players to compete in both, with the scheduling staggered so that one or the other takes place every two years. The frequency, and stability, of this sort of recurring best-on-best international competition could lend credibility, heighten rivalries, and boost player-marketing efforts. Done correctly, the World Cup could make it rain for the league, while the Olympics could grow into a partnership rather than a never-ending negotiation.

This isn’t just a question of PyeongChang in 2018. The 2022 Olympics in China will be a fascinating showcase for hockey in a country where the sport has just begun to take hold. A Chinese news team deployed to Tampa to cover the 2015 Stanley Cup final informed forward Patrick Sharp that he had a lot of female fans halfway around the world. Last year, the first Chinese-born player was selected in the NHL draft. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, the NHL’s biggest (though distant) competition, added an expansion team in Beijing this season called HC Kunlun Red Star. Contingents from the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders have made trips to and hosted clinics in China. Daly acknowledged that it wouldn’t be out of the question for the NHL to skip South Korea but come back for Beijing, though that seems like an inelegant solution.

Regardless of what the NHL decides about 2018, the league’s top goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin, insisted “matter of factly” the other day that he plans to represent Russia in 2018. His young Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov agreed: “We’re all going to go and not even think about that,” he said. The Chicago Blackhawks’ Niklas Hjalmarsson, from Sweden, told the Chicago Tribune that he’d love to go to South Korea. “Looking back when you’re 60, 70 years old,” he said, “I think everybody would look at that as a great life experience, to represent your country in the Olympics.”

There’s a bigness, and a bigheartedness, to the Olympics that can never truly be matched by a league-run event with ever-changing rules that feels, by virtue of its September schedule, like better-quality preseason hockey. In Sochi, huge photos of Ovechkin were plastered across vending machines all over the Olympic Village. Before Canada won the gold medal, I saw a big group of players’ parents mugging for photos with the Olympic rings outside the arena. And it was about more than just hockey. When Team Canada played Sweden for the gold medal in women’s curling, a group of the NHL guys from Team Sweden were there in the stands, participating in goofy cheers along with everyone else.

Babcock was there, too; he made a point to see as many non-hockey sports in Sochi as he could squeeze in, hitting up short-track speedskating and ice dancing. (“I sat with the families and it made me too nervous,” he said then. “I went there to relax and I was a nervous wreck.”) In addition to watching the women’s curling final, he gave some advice to the men’s curling team. “It’s how you finish,” he told them. “Just go out and execute.” Both Canadian curling teams, like both Canadian hockey teams, won gold.

He’ll probably tell his World Cup of Hockey team the same thing Thursday night in Toronto, and they’ll probably win gold and be great. But it won’t be the Olympics, so let’s not get confused.