NHL stars hoping for World Cup in 2024, lament missed opportunities

Connor McDavid has seen enough big-time opportunities slip through hockey's fingers.

The NHL made a business decision when it opted against sending its stars to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea after participating at five straight Winter Games.

The league was then on course for a return to the world's biggest sporting showcase in February as part of a 2020 deal with its players in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

But the plug on going to Beijing in 2022 was eventually pulled because of "profound disruptions" to the NHL schedule following a long list of coronavirus issues.

The disappointment for players – now stretching back over two Olympic quadrennials ­– was and is real.

"The NHL has missed out on, and hockey in general, has missed out on a huge chunk of international play and best-on-best play that would have been really, really special," McDavid, captain of the Edmonton Oilers, said at last month's NHL/NHLPA player media tour ahead of the 2022-23 season.

"They missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game."

The league and NHL Players' Association continue to move toward holding a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, but there's still nothing official roughly 16 months out from a potential start date.

Owners have never been enamoured with the Olympics for a host of reasons, including the need for a pause to the schedule, but an event put on by the NHL has been more palatable.

If a World Cup happens in 2024, it would mark hockey's first best-on-best tournament since the event was last held in 2016.

McDavid, however, didn't get the opportunity to play for Canada six years ago as a member of the under-23 Team North America, while Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Auston Matthews and Vegas Golden Knights centre Jack Eichel of the U.S. were in the same boat.

"Whether it's representing your country or having the opportunity to play against the world's best, everyone wants to do it," said Eichel, who agreed with McDavid's assessment of opportunities lost. "It's something that fans want to see. I think it's great for our game. We're trying to grow hockey globally, and the Olympics is the biggest thing in the world for a month.

"The World Cup was a great opportunity as well."

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said last month the league was moving "full speed ahead" on the World Cup, but added there are challenges.

"Working through all the traps we need to," he said. "Whether it be with the international hockey communities, which has been a little more difficult than we anticipated it would, but also out in the marketplace in terms of potential broadcast partners and marketing sponsors.

"We have a pretty good handle on what we want the competition to look like, subject to a Russian question."

That question remains a big one.

Russian teams have been banned from participating across international sports since the country's invasion of Ukraine. The NHL has not barred players from Russia, but did suspend all business ties to the country.

Daly, who reiterated there will be no Team North America or Team Europe – the latter consisted of players from smaller hockey nations in 2016 – should the 2024 edition go ahead, said the World Cup could be held minus a Russian entry.

"Is it as good a tournament without Russia? Probably not," Daly said. "I think that's what you're finding in some of the other international competitions. But by the same token, the actions and the decisions were made for a reason.

"We certainly share the sentiment of that reasoning."

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy hopes there's a Russian team if the World Cup is a go.

"You always want to represent your country and to make your Russian fans happy," said the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top netminder. "I'm not sure what's gonna happen next. It's complicated now.

"We have lots of talented young hockey players from Russia. It would be really interesting to play together."

The generational links and threads running through a number of countries' rosters would be intriguing at a World Cup held in 2024.

The likes of McDavid and Colorado Avalanche stars Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar have never played with 35-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby at a best-on-best tournament. Matthews and Eichel, meanwhile, have been denied the opportunity to receive passes from 33-year-old Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane in front of a global audience.

"There's just a great mix of young and older guys, guys that have been there before and guys that are new, young and exciting," McDavid said.

"It's a great mix of talent."

The NHL has committed to the 2026 Olympics in Italy, but that will come too late for some of the current generation.

A two-time Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP, McDavid pointed to many of hockey's iconic moments coming as a result of international play – from Paul Henderson's goal to clinch the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union to Crosby's winner that captured gold at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

"That only comes from playing best-on-best hockey on the biggest stage," McDavid said.

"On the global stage … we've just kind of missed out on that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2022.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press