Connor McDavid is right: it’s time for best-on-best international hockey to return
Shohei Ohtani. Mike Trout. It’s a 3-2 score. Full count. A showdown between two of the best baseball players in the world.
You couldn’t ask for a better way to end a championship game for a major international tournament. Ohtani ultimately threw a perfect final pitch to give Japan the win in the World Baseball Classic’s first running since 2017. It was a play that captivated the sporting world. It was exactly what the sport needed to breathe some life before the start of its season.
So why can’t hockey have its own Kodak moment on the international stage?
It’s been seven years since NHLers last participated in an actual best-on-best tournament. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Jacob Trouba, Connor Hellebuyck and many of the game’s biggest stars today weren’t even eligible to represent their nation. Two teams weren’t even countries. Local fanfare was quiet.
Two years before that, the NHLers participated in the Olympics in Russia and haven’t returned. That was nearly a decade ago.
So, add in the NHL pulling out of the Beijing Winter Games and the league passing on hosting the 2024 World Cup of Hockey, we’re going to surpass the 10th anniversary of the last time we had a true, authentic best-on-best international tournament, with no clear plans for the future.
While players like McDavid, Matthews, Cale Makar and many others are still young, the prime days of seeing Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Erik Karlsson on the world stage are dwindling. Most of the 2016 World Cup stars are in the twilight of their careers. Carey Price, one of the biggest stars in 2014 and 2016, will likely never play the game again. Father time is undefeated, but so much has happened in the league since the last time we got proper elite international hockey.
I love the World Hockey Championship. I’ll watch every level of it. I know the argument is that it never gets the best players, and the winner is often decided by which team had the best players available. That is, unless you’re Finland, who beat an NHL-heavy Canadian team in 2019 without a single top-level player. I understand how important it is for European teams just qualifying for the main tournament, regardless of the eventual result. We need that tournament, and all the lower-level events, to keep things moving. It’s still some of the most fun hockey around.
But I know it’s never going to attract the North American audience, and that’s what the NHL cares about. Sending players over to South Korea for the 2018 Olympics and playing games at 3:00 AM ET, was never going to be something the owners were interested in, either. In China four years later, with the rise in COVID-19 at the time, among other things, it made sense that they backed out. They won’t have a good argument in Italy, especially with a large chunk of the league having Italian heritage, even if there has never been an Italian-born-and-trained player in the NHL. The time slots will be late morning to early afternoon starts in North America, so it would be possible to make it work like in 2006.
But that’s still a lifetime away. Crosby will be 38. Ovechkin will be nearly 40. With the way some other 32-plus-year-olds are starting to decline, it’s entirely possible that we won’t see any of them in 2026, whether it’s due to retirement or weak play. From a Canadian perspective, it might be the only time we could see Crosby and McDavid together. That seems like an utter waste not to get your stars to participate in major events like this.
It’s no secret that events like the Olympics attract new, casual fans to the game. The diehards will always stick around for the grind of an 82-game regular season, but you need new blood to keep things fresh. Shorter events of major importance are one way you ensure that happens. The average person might not care to cheer on a specific city – they might be willing to watch their country, learn about those players and start advancing past that, especially if all their friends are also watching and supporting the same team.
The concern over injuries in these exhibition contests will never go away. We saw many prominent voices in baseball share their arguments for that when discussing the WBC. I understand owners not wanting their prized possessions to get injured playing in events they’re not being paid to participate in. But it doesn’t seem to be an issue for other sports. Yeah, the WBC didn’t get all of the biggest stars, but it got THE biggest stars, and people watched just for that.
International events are for the best of the game. We need the sport of hockey to keep growing. Showcasing the world’s best talent to the rest of the world matters. Fans from Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Finland, etc., often cheer for their homegrown talent, not a specific NHL team. Having a chance at an upset means a lot – ask Latvia about the 2014 Olympics or their win over Canada on home ice at the 2021 World Championship off the heels of an outstanding performance from Matiss Kivlenieks. Or Slovenia beating USA at the 2018 Olympics. Or Denmark staying alive at the 2015 World Junior Championship.
Moments like those do a lot more to grow the game than a standard Tuesday night matchup in January that doesn’t even sell out.
Connor Bedard is about to enter the NHL in a few months. No prospect since McDavid has held so much star power. If he ends up living up to expectations, we have another superstar on our hands. Let’s show him off to the world and give everyone a good glimpse of the future of the sport. He’d be ready for Canada by 2026.
There’s the obvious elephant in the room: Russia’s participation. Replacing them would hurt the claim of “best on best,” and we’ve seen that at events already. But we have no idea how long the war with Ukraine is going to last, and, even after, then what? I don’t think Russia being banned or not should hold up the Olympics in 2026. If the IOC/IIHF doesn’t let Russia participate, then OK. But we have no idea how long this is going to last, and does it make sense to hold the rest of the league hostage at this point? It’s not like that was a concern in 2018.
I understand why the NHL doesn’t want to participate in international events that can affect its product. But there’s so much risk-reward potential here. We’re getting high-quality superstars every few years now at this point. The talent level has never been higher in the NHL. Why wouldn’t we want to do whatever it takes to showcase that? Take the risk. Let the players have fun. Let the fans enjoy it for what it is.
Whether it be a proper long-term plan at making the World Cup of Hockey work, or a commitment to keep going back to the Olympics – or both, and rotating every two years – it’s best for the game to make best-on-best international hockey a part of the future. I don’t think we realize how good we had it when the Olympics were a sure thing every four years. The hockey was great, memories were made and fans were overjoyed.
But now, as we watch other sports bask in the glory, you have to wonder what could have been. It’s not too late to work together to change that for the long run.