The World Cup of Hockey: The NHL’s Saviour and Solution

Sidney Crosby celebrates Canada's first big win of the tournament (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

“No matter what people say, Canada and more specifically Toronto will always be a hockey nation/city. You would be foolish to think otherwise.” Wise words from a dear friend but I sensed something from this statement. There was fear. Fear that this statement is growing to be less and less true. Just ask TVA Sports, the media company that reported a massive $14.7 million loss in its first quarter from the NHL TV deal. What’s even more frightening than the truth? How about the fact that the NHL has had to respond to it by doing a 180 on their branding strategy.

Don’t believe me? Explain the rise of more severe protocols on fighting. While you may argue it was simply due to outcry over player safety, you would be foolish to not think it was a PR move for the NHL to change the public view on the league. Just to reinforce this one point, long-time Habs enforcer George Parros joined the player safety department just last week. Coincidence? I think not. Have you also noticed the widespread elimination of “rough ‘em up” fourth lines and its conversion into high energy lines that produce more than just dirty hits in the corner? If it was one team I would be more skeptical but the whole league has jumped on the trend. Not to mention other factors like players being placed in grass root ads promoting a safe and community oriented hockey environment (e.g. Toews in the Canadian Tire “Jumpstart” advertisement). This leads me to the ultimate branding move from the NHL, the resurgence of the World Cup of Hockey.

No, its not a move to target children, families, or a new group of fans.

It’s a renewed method to keep its most loyal fans. It’s THE gage for the NHL to determine where lies the interest of all hockey fans, not just NHL fans. That’s the brilliant thing about this tournament. It caters to the classic patriotic fans (Canada, USA, Russia, etc…), the fanatics of young stars (Team North America), and fans looking for something refreshing (Team Europe & North America). And here’s the kicker, the NHL can change its rules at will. Why? Because this is all an experiment based on the absurd interest stemming from hockey at the Winter Olympic Games.

While TV ratings for the 2016 NHL playoffs were down 61% in Canada, the past two Winter Olympic Games crushed records for both Canadian and American TV audiences. And while no Canadian team did participate in the playoffs, even industry experts acknowledged its abnormally low numbers. With record viewing for the 2010 gold medal and the 2014 semi-final between Canada and the US, its clear to everyone where the money is. Because ultimately, its all a business, regardless of the talent on the ice. Let’s not forget that those 2016 NHL playoffs included the likes of Crosby, Thornton, Couture, Burns, Kessel, and Malkin. That’s no joke. That’s the show right there. Yet the ratings show us another side of the story.

Insert the World Cup of Hockey and it changes everything. For one it’s a small taste of what rivalries may arise for the upcoming NHL year. Second, it finds itself in the perfect lull for competitive sports as it only has to compete with baseball for prime TV time. Lastly, it brings a new twist to the infamous national rivalries we all love. It’s a showcase. Not only of talent but also of generational tensions. McDavid versus Crosby. Young blood versus Captain Canada. The future versus the present.

On that note, the NHL/NHLPA have done an incredible at fixing a perennial issue with international tournaments; parity. While the Olympics tend to be handed to Canada/USA/Sweden, this tournament is different. With North America’s team of 23-year-old and under players, the likes of McDavid, Larkin, and Matthews have a whole generation to fight for. Team Europe will put up a fight with its talents from all over Europe (as seen against the US). Apart from the Czech Republic, all teams have a realistic chance of winning the whole tournament. That’s a huge attraction to fans who’ve felt as if the tournament had already been won prior to the first puck drop. Exciting stuff.

This whole revitalization of how fans see the NHL is going to change for the better. At least that’s what Gary Bettman and co. are hoping for. With exciting matchups, nail-biting finishes, surprising results, and of course the best of the best showcasing their raw talent, the World Cup winners will be oozing with pride post-tournament and into the NHL campaign. You can even see traditional Canadian fans rooting for the young guns in the streets of Toronto, reinforcing that, “out with the old, in with the new” mentality as others stick to their patriotic roots. This divergence from the usual fandom is resulting in a semi-natural rebrand as the NHL has provided a new platform for fans to create new ties and strengthen others. Why? Because the key piece to this tournament, Team North America, has disturbed the natural course of Canada and the USA’s reign over hockey. This “nudge” towards a new and intriguing team has flipped the hockey world onto itself and made all hockey fans rethink our alliances.

And that my dear readers, is beautiful. Because that means hockey is back. And with that, the NHL will receive its first financial and emotional boost since the Sid the Kid versus Ovi.

The NHL/NHLPA love it. The fans love it. The players love it. And that combination right there is how the World Cup of Hockey is the single best thing the NHL could have asked for in these tougher times for the sport.

So this begs the question, where do your alliances lie for the upcoming two weeks?

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