It was good start for the modern incarnation of the World Cup of Hockey. What lessons can we apply from 2016 to improve the format in 2020?
The World Cup of Hockey was what we thought it was, at least among the level-headed crowd who didn't foolishly decry the idea as a crime against humanity. The stakes weren't high enough to rival the thrill of Olympic competition, but even the grumpiest detractors must admit the hockey was good. That's what happens when you get 184 of the best players on Earth competing in the same tournament. It was impossible for the product not to be entertaining as heck most of the time.
Technically, 2016 marked the third World Cup, but since it was the first in 12 years, it felt like a franchise reboot. And with anything new comes a few bugs to work out. The tournament was fun but not perfect. I've spent the last few days pondering tweaks to improve the format in 2020. The NHL has already announced plans for a followup event then, so why not explore how to make it even better?
1. START THE PLAYOFF ROUND WITH A QUARTERFINAL, NOT A SEMIFINAL
Call it the North America Rule, and it's not just because the team was so darned exciting to watch. The North Americans played very well throughout the 2016 World Cup, beating Sweden and Finland and losing a nailbiter to Russia. The kids looked like a top-three team in the tournament and had a .667 win percentage yet didn't even qualify for the playoff round because only two teams from each group made it. That was unfortunate, especially since the North Americans, being the fastest and most unpredictable team in the field, might have given Canada its toughest test.
Next time, let's transition from the round-robin to a quarterfinal instead of a semifinal. It would feel too warm and fuzzy, however, if all eight teams qualified and the last-place finisher got a chance to upset the first-place team. Instead, how about the second- and third-place teams from each group advance to a quarterfinal while the two group winners get byes to the semifinal? Or, better yet…
2. EXPAND THE FIELD TO 12 TEAMS
The World Cup and the Olympics are different beasts, but the IIHF was still involved in organizing the World Cup, so what's wrong with duplicating the Olympics' tournament format? Let's go with 12 teams, with three groups of four in which each team plays a three-game round-robin. Under this format at the Olympics, the bottom eight teams play qualification matches to earn berths in the quarterfinal against the top four teams. Maybe a pre-playoff round is too much hockey for September, so how about the top eight teams straight-up qualify for the quarterfinal, with no byes handed out, while the bottom four head home?
And if this setup still apes the Olympic tourney too closely for your taste, not to worry…
3. DON'T JUST KEEP THE UNDER-24 TEAM…ADD ANOTHER UNDER-24 TEAM
Team North America made the World Cup must-see TV. The likes of Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau and Auston Matthews dazzled viewers so much that it felt like many fans were cheering for the kids over their own countries. It would be silly to scrap that idea for 2020, as gimmicky as it was. How about double down and insert an under-24 Euro team? A similar setup in 2016 would've created a squad featuring Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, David Pastrnak, Leon Draisaitl, Nikolaj Ehlers and Ramus Ristolainen, among others. Like with Team North America, the Euros 2.0 will be allowed to draw from every nation on its continent, meaning young Finns, Swedes, Russians, Czechs and so on will have to play for this squad.
4. ELIMINATE THE CURRENT VERSION OF TEAM EUROPE FROM THE FIELD
'Team Europe' still exists in my proposed format, but only in the same sense as Team North America, as Europe 2.0 will be a young-stars squad. My timing is odd for this suggestion, sure, as Europe just reached the tourney final, legitimizing the team's concept and skyrocketing Ralph Krueger's stock as a coach. But when this tournament concludes, how many of us will look back and marvel at the way Team Europe captured our hearts and brought us to our feet? Team North America won the unofficial Gimmick Bowl. And while the Euro players have banded nicely together under Krueger, most or all would rather suit up for their individual countries. So let's imagine a group layout looking something like…
- Europe (23 and under)
- Czech Republic
- North America (23 and under)
More teams, more countries represented, more playoff rounds, plus all the gimmicky fun that stole the show in 2016. How about it for 2020?
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin