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World Cup will have big upside

We haven’t even started NHL training camps yet but there’s going to be major news for next season coming out of Toronto on Wednesday. The view here is that hockey fans are going to love this.

Full plans are expected to be unveiled for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which will be played entirely in Air Canada Centre. The Leafs’ home will be a beehive of activity from Sept. 17 through Oct. 1, 2016, for the eight-team event featuring teams representing Canada, the USA, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden. The field will be filled out by Team Europe (players from all other countries) and Team North American Youngstars, comprising players 23 and younger.

After pool play and single-game semifinals, there will be a best-of-three championship series. High-level hockey the last week of September? Yes, please. It will be the first Cup played since 2004, an event won by Canada two days before the lockout was called that wiped out the 2004-05 season.

Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli is expected to be named GM of the Youngstars on Wednesday, according to Sportsnet, and Chicago’s Stan Bowman is rumored to be his assistant. If you’re 23 or younger and from Canada or the U.S., there’s no choice to be made. So if you’re, say, Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, you can’t play in the World Cup for Canada or Team USA. You’re on the Youngstars.

That could be quite an intriguing entry, with a potential roster including the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brandon Saad, Seth Jones, Aaron Ekblad and Dougie Hamilton joining McDavid and Eichel.

All the teams are going to need a training camp locale and a place to play an exhibition game or two. It will be interesting to see what role HarborCenter and First Niagara Center will play in that, given our proximity to Toronto. The growing synergy between the Sabres and USA Hockey could make this a perfect Team USA training site. The likely presence of Eichel on the Youngstars could make Buffalo a good choice for their camp as well.

Big names such as Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Malkin and Anze Kopitar are scheduled to be on hand at Wednesday’s announcement. So are NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr.

A storyline to watch will be the continuing comparison and perception of this tournament vs. the Olympics. There’s no telling if the NHL is going to keep going to the Olympics, something its players have done since 1998. There’s currently no agreement to send players to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, and the 2022 Games are in Beijing.

As we learned in 2014 in Sochi, sending players halfway around the world and then returning to the NHL schedule is quite a bit different than having them play in, say, Salt Lake City or Vancouver.

Most players want that national representation in the Olympics. But there’s a distinct school of thought from the league that shutting down for three prime weeks in February – after the Super Bowl is finished and before baseball gets cranked up – is not the best business practice for NHL markets.

At Tuesday’s NHL Media Tour in Toronto, held annually by the league with national outlets and rights holders to kick off the season, Lundqvist made it clear that top players have some reservations about the significance of the World Cup.

“I think the Olympics is another level when it comes to just the emotions you have: all the other athletes, the size of the tournament,” Lundqvist said. “I think we always should be at the Olympics. I think it’s the biggest stage for any sport.”

Still, there’s talk this tournament could bring in upwards of $200 million in revenue to be split between the league and the players association. That’s a lot of loonies.

Patrick Kane wasn’t part of the Media Tour and won’t be at Wednesday’s announcement either as the league continues to distance itself from one of its most prominent players. The Chicago representatives Tuesday were captain Jonathan Toews and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Duncan Keith.

This year’s tour was moved from New York to Toronto, less than two hours away from Buffalo. So of course it would have made sense to include Kane, especially since he’s likely to have a prominent role in the World Cup.

No offense to former Chicago teammate Saad of Columbus, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk or New York Rangers defensive standout Ryan McDonagh, but they’re not remotely close to being faces of USA Hockey. A guy with three Cup rings is. But that aforementioned trio will be the Team USA representatives. No Kane.

The ongoing investigation of the alleged sexual assault that took place in Kane’s Hamburg home on Aug. 1 figures to be the elephant in the room and it will be interesting what, if anything, Bettman will say about it. The guess is he’ll defer any comment for now as the league will put a happy face on its plans.

Fair enough. It’s easy to poke fun at the NHL for a variety of reasons. But that shouldn’t be the case Wednesday. Talk of a great hockey event a year in the distance should produce plenty of interesting fodder.


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