By Rob Ficiur
The 2016 World Cup of Hockey will be the thirteenth Best on Best hockey tournament of the modern era. The first five Best on Best tournaments, the Canada Cup, ran about every four years from 1976-1991. Since 1998 the NHL has sent its best players to the Olympics five times. Twice in this time frame the NHL and NHL Players Association have sponsored the World Cup of Hockey (1996 and 2004). The difference between the Canada Cup and the World Cup of Hockey is essentially marketing. By calling it the World Cup, will more hockey fans pay attention to the event than when it was called the Canada Cup? When you live in hockey crazy Canada it is impossible to answer that question. For the purposes of this article, and the real life experience of Canadian hockey fans, all name of the tournament does not matter as much as can Canada win again?
Canada has won eight of the twelve best on best tournaments over the last 40 years. The other winners have been: the Soviet Union (1981), United Sates (1996). Czech Republic (1998) and Sweden (2006). Can one of these former winners win again or will one of the new teams surprise everyone and win?
1. New Teams – The World Cup of Hockey introduces two new teams. The North American team consists entirely of Canadian and American hockey players under the age of 24. The regular Canadian and American teams could not select anyone under 23 to bolster their lineup. Can these almost rookies win?
The 2010 Canadian Olympic Gold medal team had three players under that were 23 or under. They included: Sidney Crosby (22), Jonathan Toews (21) and Drew Doughty (20). Crosby scored the gold medal winning goal in overtime; while Doughty and Toews played more ice time as the tournament went on. While the young stars can and have contributed, having a full roster does not sound a team that would have enough depth to win it all.
Team Europe consists of all star players from European countries other than Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic and Finland. The final roster consists of players from nine different countries. Before fans scoff at this put together roster, this team is going to be better than what we had before. Since tournaments need eight teams to balance out the past two Olympic games have included Slovakia, Norway and Latvia who won zero games. Teams like Slovenia and Austria won a game because they played one of these other weak sisters. This European team is filled with NHL players, who could play an upset role, winning a game needed by another team in the round robin.
2. Anyone can win – In any one game tournament there can be surprises. Canada won the last two Olympic Gold Medals by the narrowest of margins. In both 2010 and 2014 Canada won their semi-final and final games by one goal. Four wins by a total of four goals. A team that gets a hot goalie in a two game playoff can win anything.
3. Injuries could be a factor – In the weeks leading up to the World Cup of hockey there have been regular (seemingly daily) roster updates. Canada has lost at least three players from their roster. The replacing players are great, but maybe not quite as great as the ones they replaced. While Canada has more depth to draw upon, there seems to be more injured players than in the past.
If teams are being cautious about players and minor injuries history tells us there is good reason to be careful. In the 1981 Canada Cup Gilbert Perrault of Buffalo was leading all scorers with nine points in four games when he broke his ankle. Canada went on to win the tournament but Perrault missed almost half of the NHL season. In the 2006 Olympics Czech republic goalie Dominic Hasek played nine minutes in a the qualifying round before injured a hip muscle. The Ottawa Senators had hoped the former Olympic Gold Medalist would lead them to a Stanley Cup championship; instead Hasek never played another game that season because of the Olympic injury.
Prediction: I predict that the USA will win the World Cup of Hockey. In 2010 and 2014 the Americans lost in the Olympic playoff round by one goal to Canada. They can’t be any closer (2010 was in overtime which is even closer). On paper Canada has a better team, but the margin of difference is close. Eventually the puck bounces a different direction, and this time the USA is the team that will be ready to claim its first championship since 2004.