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Column: World Cup of Hockey should ditch gimmick teams next time

Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

Column: World Cup of Hockey should ditch gimmick teams next time

The World Cup of Hockey is a great premise on paper. An attempt to capture the magic of the Olympic games, presumably on a yearly basis, just in time to whip up interest ahead of the NHL season. Gather a majority of the top players in the World for a best-on-best tournament, while allowing the NHL and NHLPA to benefit financially in the process.

Call it a money grab if you want, but there’s enough talent out on the ice to look past the profitability of the whole spectacle. Professional hockey is a business, and if there’s cash to be made, you can bet team owners will take a hard look at the options.

Before the tournament opened, we wrote about the unique challenges that the World Cup of Hockey would face moving forward. We touched on how an injury could cloud the tournament and wondered if the event could catch on during the busy sports month of September.

The first of these issues won’t ever go away, regardless of what banner teams clash under. Hockey is a physical game played at high speed, and sometimes (unfortunately) players get hurt.

We also won’t know what sort of traction the WCoH can gain until the whole tournament has concluded and we get a look at television ratings, merchandise sales and that sort of thing. It’s looking good so far, but even if the 2016 version isn’t overly successful, the NHL/NHLPA are looking to plant some seeds for future success here.

While the jury is out on these two potential problems, we’re ready to bring the gavel down (hard) on another point that was touched on briefly before. And that’s the presence of the All-Star style, catch-all squads in Team North America and Team Europe. If the World Cup of Hockey is ever going to reach a broader audience — let alone tap into a large market of casual hockey fans who aren’t used to paying attention in September — these gimmicks need to be kicked to the curb if there’s a 2017 edition.

14 September 2016:  Team Europe forward Leon Draisaitl (29) is congratulated after scoring in the first period by forward Tobias Rieder (8) and forward Nino Niederreiter (22) in the World Cup of Hockey Pre-Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

14 September 2016: Team Europe forward Leon Draisaitl (29) is congratulated after scoring in the first period by forward Tobias Rieder (8) and forward Nino Niederreiter (22) in the World Cup of Hockey Pre-Tournament. Photographer: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

Maybe the NHL/NHLPA deserve some kudos for trying to think outside of the box a bit. Team North America and Team Europe were both created to get even more of the league’s top stars onto televisions and in front of viewers, both internationally and in North America.

Who’s to say that Connor McDavid would have cracked Team Canada’s ridiculously loaded roster? Leaving star power like that on the shelf doesn’t make sense when ratings and ticket sales are at stake, so it’s not difficult to see where these ideas came from. Especially since this whole tourney is really about making some extra cash.

The creativity behind this to be applauded to a point, but it’s just not working in execution. Accessibility is a big deal when you’re trying to get a tournament (essentially) started from scratch, and these All-Star style squads create a barrier to entry that simply doesn’t need to be there. Seeing Team USA square off with Team Canada makes sense.

All the skaters on Team USA are from America, and all the players on Team Canada are from Canada. There’s no explanation needed there. You don’t have to Google anything to figure that out because that’s how tournaments like this almost always work. Things get sort of confusing when fans notice that there’s a Team North America also in the mix alongside Canada and the United States. Ditto for the Team Europe squad.

This awkwardly pits players of the same nationality against one another, and it sucks some of the air out of the whole nationalistic pride angle the NHL/NHLPA are asking us to buy into in the first place. It can also make picking a particular team to cheer for somewhat difficult for fans who won’t watch a zillion hockey games a year.

Hardcore fans of the sport are going to tune in no matter what. They’ve known about the North Amerca/Europe division since the tournament was announced and already have a handle on how things could shake out.

What about the folks who randomly flip on ESPN during a Team North America or Team Europe contest, though? It’s confusing, to say the least, and to make matters worse, there’s really no easy fix. The color commentators can’t explain the tournament’s setup during every stoppage, and it’s impossible to communicate this odd break away from traditional tournament structure with enough frequency to make it stick.

It’s difficult for the aforementioned diehards to pick a favorite squad due to seeing their beloved players split away from their home nation’s team. Meanwhile, it’s tedious (at best) for casuals to get a grip on what’s happening if they are just now tuning in.

None of this is to say that Team North America isn’t fun to watch. And Team Europe is an intriguing mix of players from countries that simply don’t have enough high-end players to compete. Yet it’s a needless stick in the spokes of a tournament that is simply looking to latch on right now. It’s also fair to point out that a handful of players who would have made Team USA outright (and made them better) are biding their time on Team North America because of when they were born.

This World Cup of Hockey tournament will be fun to watch, but the NHL/NHLPA need to put their collective heads together and figure out a better way to piece together teams if they decide to try again in 2017.

Franklin Steele is the assistant editor and featured writer of FanRag Sports' NHL side. He also covers the WWE for FRSSLAM.com. Steele, who joined FanRag Sports in October 2013, has been watching and playing hockey since the age of 6. His work has also appeared on TheHockeyWriters.com, FanSided.com and Bleacher Report. All told, he has more than 3,000 bylines to his name and more than six million people have read his work since 2011. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @FranklinSteele (NHL) and @SteeleTheHeel (WWE).

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