American players and hockey icon Jean Beliveau at the 1996 World Cup (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
IIHF president Rene Fasel says he likes the idea of two "all-star" teams comprised of players from Europe and North America playing at a World Cup of Hockey – and although that makes some people uneasy, the truth is, Fasel is right to feel as he does.
Rene Fasel has been serving as IIHF president for the past 20 years, so when he floats an idea out in front of the media as he did Sunday in Toronto before the semifinals of the World Junior Championship, you can be sure it's not an inconsequential slip of the tongue. In this case, the idea Fasel discussed – the notion of a World Cup tournament that includes two teams comprised of players from Europe and North American players not selected to traditional national squads – rankles some in the hockey world. It would be unlike anything the sport had seen at the international elite level and could lead to a championship ceremony that included no national anthem played in honor of the winner. (Well, maybe this would suffice if it ever came to that.)
But despite the unfamiliarity of it, Fasel is absolutely right to embrace the concept, because it represents two things hockey often isn't: being bold as a product, and a willingness to be different.
“It could be great because we have all the national teams at the Olympics and World Championships, so doing the same at the World Cup would be a deja vu,” Fasel said of the so-called "all-star" teams. “But it’s still just an idea. But I like the idea that players from non-participating European nations and from North America can build All-Star Teams.”
Fasel's point is clear and correct: if the NHL continues to send players to the Olympics (leaving aside the potential issues surrounding participation at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games) and annual World Championships, a World Cup with the usual rules and regulations does nothing to separate it from the rest of the international tournaments. But if the all-star teams are introduced, that changes instantly.
Suddenly, the World Cup would have an element not seen anywhere else; if it were a North American "B" team made up of those professionals who didn't make the cut for their national teams, you'd have an underdog story potentially for the ages, and if it were a European team comprised of players from smaller hockey nations like Slovenia, the game would be allowed to showcase the skills of players such as Anze Kopitar, Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa. Under the standard structure of the international tourneys, those players will almost never get the chance to play in this type of event, and finding a place for them can't be the worst thing on earth, no matter how much squawking the traditionalists engage in.
Now, if the NHL decides it's no longer going to participate in Olympic games, all bets are off on this all-star concept, because once that happens, the World Cup is going to be one of the few opportunities to see the best of the best represent their homelands. But if the league does the right thing and continues to take part in future Games, turning the World Cup into something different is exactly what's needed to differentiate that event from the rest. This is not a tournament with a golden history behind it. Indeed, if you trace the lineage back to the days of the Canada Cup, you have to acknowledge what that tournament was: a money stream that Alan Eagleson, Canada Cup organizer and Benedict Arnold of the NHL Players' Association, used to line his pockets. So there is no grand "tradition" whatsoever to protect here.
The only thing a new World Cup should concern itself with is entertainment. And if you can put aside what you've been conditioned to believe is the only way the international game should be played, you might wind up enjoying a new World Cup more than you enjoyed any that came before it.