The World Cup of Hockey is in a strange place right now.
At worst, international hockey tournaments are free-for-all exhibitions that don’t mean anything in the NHL standings. The only real impact possible is an injury, and no club wants to end up on that end of history. At their best, though, these tourneys capture our emotions just as well as playoff games, creating tension between two evenly matched foes that just so happen to be plucking at our nationalistic heartstrings.
We don’t need to look that far back to find brilliant examples of this. Hockey fans in the United States still remember T.J. Oshie single-handedly taking down the Russians during the 2014 Winter Olympics. Despite what the NHL has taught fans, shootouts can be dramatic and we got a full dose of that as the forward took shot after shot on Sergei Bobrovsky.
For a few weeks, Oshie was an Amerian hero. Hockey was in the spotlight, and the headlines basically wrote themselves. The forward got a shoutout from the President of the United States, for crying out loud.
Canadians won’t remember this moment like fans in the United States, but they got their “Golden Goal” from Sidney Crosby at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. This, too, was a moment that became the gravitational center of the sport for weeks on end. The Americans and Canada clashed in the gold medal game that year, and the contest was one of the most dramatic and tightly contested in recent memory.
Who can forget Zach Parise tying the game with less than a minute to go, with goaltender Ryan Miller sitting on the bench for the extra attacker? And who can forget Crosby finding just a bit of room in the slot, where Jarome Iginla found him with a sneaky pass? It leads to a goal, giving Canada the 3-2 win on home ice.
It’s moments like these that make the Olympics special. If NHL skaters go to South Korea to play in 2018, these are the clips and highlights we will see. There’s a history in place that carries a ton of weight, and that’s why players want to participate, cramped schedules and funky time zones be damned.
The World Cup of Hockey doesn’t have a list of moments like this hard coded into its DNA. The 1972 Summit Series is a distant memory for fans who witnessed it. The series featured some of the most legendary moments the sport has ever offered up–NHL.com once wrote that the sequence of games defined the era of hockey we’re currently in–but that was a generation ago.
This version of the World Cup needs a Oshie shootout moment or a Crosby golden goal. The NHL and NHLPA badly want the WCOH to become an annual event that fans look forward to, and two things are preventing them from doing that: consistency and the spotlight.
That consistency will come with time. If they manage to put this tourney on for the next half decade, they will be able to build a history from scratch. At least enough to make the games feel exciting and meaningful. Right now the response to the World Cup seems to be “what’s the point?” That’s because there’s virtually no context for the games themselves outside of this one specific tournament. It’s tough to get fans to invest in something that feels like a one-off.
Especially when that one-off is threatening the quality of their favorite NHL teams because players could always get injured.
The second part of that equation–the spotlight–isn’t so easy to come by. History is only manufacturable to a certain point. Moments like Oshie’s shootout can’t be scripted. That’s why those instances are enshrined in our minds forever.
We didn’t know that Oshie was going to take over that shootout and knock off the Russians on their home soil. We didn’t know that the most visible face in the game today was going to put Canada over in front of a ruckus crowd in Vancouver six years ago.
That’s what made these junctures so significant. They make you remember where you were when you witnessed, where you were standing and who you were on the edge of your seat with. That’s how lifelong fans are born, and those are the kinds of occasions that the NHL/NHLPA are hoping for here.
Moreso than the Olympics or the World Junior Championships, the World Cup of Hockey needs a special moment to act as a springboard for interest and antiquity. At this stage, waiting for that one spectacular instant might be the best thing going for the tournament. Where will you be when the next big international event happens? Who will you be sitting with?
You might not know the answer know, but hopefully, fans are able to identify the 2016 World Cup of Hockey with something besides a gnarly injury or controversial comments from head coaches.