The NHL is pawing at international competition again

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While admitting I’m completely clueless as to the detailed logistics of constructing an international hockey tournament, the overall idea of it isn’t complicated. While the actual hockey is probably better before the NHL season when players are fresh and teams have a chance to practice and shape themselves, the players have shown a preference for the Olympics window. And the issues that the World Baseball Classic has, as fun as it’s become, such as pitching limits and a host of pitchers (mostly American) not wanting to disrupt their ramp-up to the season, probably makes the February window the more sensical one.

What can make the NHL more exciting?

Beyond that, get eight international teams together, split them into groups of four, and let’s go. Even Russia’s omittance from international tournaments sports-wide shouldn’t be much of a hurdle. Insert Denmark or Austria or Switzerland or Latvia or whoever else.

And yet the NHL can’t manage it. They appear on the brink of borking it twice.

If you don’t remember, when the NHL first looked to get out of the Olympics that it didn’t get any money directly from and set up its own thing that it did, it exhumed the World Cup in 2016, formerly the Canada Cup, from the ashes of 2004. But it completely mutated it into basically a joke of an exhibition by inserting two gimmick teams into it, the 23-and-under All-Stars that had neophyte Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid on it instead of having them face off against each other as the No. 1 centers for Canada and the US. It also contained a Team Europe instead of including tournament regulars like Slovakia or Germany. The made-up teams took most of the gloss off it as a true international tournament. It was also held in September, when previous iterations of the tournament had been held, which didn’t really help it grab anyone’s attention.

(Also didn’t help that the US team was created in the dumbest fashion possible, but that’s another rant for another time)

The World Cup is a tournament the NHL has never been able to get right. It even had a US victory in Montreal in 1996 to work off of and couldn’t do it. They didn’t hold another one until 2004, as a way to rake in a final bit of lucre before the Great Bettman Lockout II (with another awful US team) that wiped out an entire NHL season. The NHL ceded the international competition stage to the Olympics, while bitching all the time that they didn’t profit from it while risking the health of their players.

They’re doing it again with this concoction they’re whispering into existence for 2025, something of a preview to Turin’s Olympics in 2026 that they almost certainly will participate in again. While Gary Bettman was quick to claim that there simply isn’t time to set up a full international tournament in any window, it’s only because everyone has sat around with their thumb in their ass for so long about it. Mostly, they did that to see if Vladimir Putin would either be deposed or, even more miraculously, come back to sanity and end the Ukraine war so they could include Russia in whatever they wanted to do. That didn’t happen, and now time is short.

So they’ll create this four-team what-have-ya, with the hopes that they can pile in three US-Canada games into a 10-day span. Sweden and Finland will be included for the sake of it and to make it look like it isn’t a mini-Summit Series between the two North American powers.

As a warm-up or preview for Turin 2026, it’s fine. Fans will get a look at what the shapes of every roster might look like a year later when it really counts and the debates that come with it which is a great percentage of the appeal. Fans will get to see those uniforms against each other and whenever a US jersey is pitted up against a Canadian one, and a Finland one against a Sweden one, a hockey fan’s heart can’t help but stir a little. It’s the preview tag-match before the pay-per-view, really.

But that’s all it is. It’s not a tournament and it’s probably not worth stopping the season for, especially when February is when hockey can have the sporting world’s attention to itself with something like this. This thing will be over before it gains any momentum or traction in the general consciousness. Waiting around for Russia made some sense, if only to capitalize on the history of Russia-Canada or USA-Russia. But it’s been clear that wasn’t going to be possible for a while and the smaller hockey nations have gotten close to the big ones in the meantime. Even Latvia and Slovenia made the big boys sweat in Sochi in 2014.

If it’s just going to be an Olympics preview, they’d be better off having the US and Canada play a best-of-five across the continent for a week instead of the All-Star break. Hold those in the right cities and the league would be guaranteed a sell-out (Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Nashville, St. Paul would all gobble this up and that’s probably not even half the list. Or have the whole thing in Vegas and enjoy the building being split 50-50) while supercharging the one matchup that even casual hockey fans tune in for.

If they can’t do it well, then don’t do it at all, and wait for the gap in 2028 between Olympics to have a proper World Cup. But not doing something well has never stopped the NHL from doing anything. In fact, it’s a major tenet.

Follow Sam on Twitter @felsgate and on Bluesky

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