Luke DeCock

Even players uncertain about World Cup of Hockey – DeCock

Hurricanes’ coach Bill Peters confers with an official during a game against the Canucks on Jan. 15. Peters is on Canada’s World Cup of Hockey coaching staff.
Hurricanes’ coach Bill Peters confers with an official during a game against the Canucks on Jan. 15. Peters is on Canada’s World Cup of Hockey coaching staff. cseward@newsobserver.com

Andrej Nestrasil and Joakim Nordstrom haven’t played in an Olympics for their native countries, the Czech Republic and Sweden respectively, but they have always watched the hockey competition on television. When the World Cup of Hockey begins this weekend, neither can say exactly how much they’ll watch – only that it isn’t a priority for the two Carolina Hurricanes forwards.

“I think it’s going to be pretty special for the guys who are going to play the tournament but I’m not planning to watch any of it,” Nestrasil said. “I’ll read the news. I’ll keep up with the Czech team. But we play a lot of hockey ourselves, and I don’t need to watch more on TV when I get home.”

“I’ll probably watch one or two games,” Nordstrom said. “Maybe a little more than that. I’ll probably not read the newspapers and follow it that way.”

The tournament starts Saturday with appearances by the United States and Canada, the two big guns when it comes to television ratings. The Hurricanes’ playing contingent of Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho (Hurricanes coach Bill Peters is on Canada’s staff as well) debuts Sunday when Finland plays the North American under-23 team. But will anyone be watching?

“The new baby at home doesn’t seem all that crazy excited about watching all the hockey,” Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said. “I’m sure if I see it on TV I’ll find a way to watch it for sure. That’s kind of the feeling I’ve gotten throughout. Part of it’s because I’m not sure how it will turn out. It could be really great. It could flop.”

The new baby at home doesn’t seem all that crazy excited about watching all the hockey.

Hurricanes center Jordan Staal

That’s the odd sense of uncertainty about this tournament. The World Cup in 1996, an outgrowth of the old Canada Cup, was one of the greatest international tournaments ever played, but was quickly eclipsed by NHL participation in the Olympics beginning in 1998.

They tried this again in the fall of 2004 before the lockout came crashing down on the league. Because the labor unrest overwhelmed everything at the time, it had the impact of a small stone in a large lake.

And now here we are again, not coincidentally as the NHL and IOC haggle over participation in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, which will be held in neither a time zone nor a country that offers much synergy for the NHL.

The sense is this World Cup – there’s another scheduled for 2020 – is a trial run to see if this tournament can serve as a substitute for the Olympics, which NHL players love. To that end, the NHL and NHLPA have tried to create opportunities for players the Olympics typically exclude, specifically the multinational Team Europe and the under-23 Team North America.

There’s also an even stronger sense that this is a massive cash grab on the part of the NHL and NHLPA, which control the revenue streams. Every game will be played in Toronto under the assumption that Maple Leafs fans will pay extravagant prices to watch just about any garbage (with many years of evidence to back that up). Meanwhile, the TV rights were sold to ESPN – which has largely ignored the NHL since losing its rights in 2005 – instead of longtime NHL partner NBC.

And with the preseason timing, there are legitimate concerns about the quality of play, especially as the tournament wears on. The Olympics are played in midseason, with NHL players in peak form and fitness. The World Cup is being played at a time most elite players are deciding whether or not to fake a groin pull to skip a preseason game against a bunch of junior players and minor-leaguers.

As always, it will come down to the hockey. If the games are compelling, and the exhibition games have been so far, people will watch. They always do. And that includes nonparticipating NHL players who may find themselves drawn into it with everyone else.

“You get all those players together, it’ll be good hockey,” Staal said. “I’m sure that’s the exciting part. Whether or not it’s sustained, and the excitement stays, we’ll see how it goes.”

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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