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Canada won the 2016 IIHF World Championship and will be one of eight teams competing in the World Cup of Hockey, which will feature NHL stars playing for their home countries. Photo courtesy of Artyom Korotayev/TASS via Getty Images

Twelve years since its last international tournament, the National Hockey League will head to hockey-mad Toronto for the third installment of the World Cup of Hockey, an event that could help determine the league’s future direction in international competition. Set for September 17 to October 1, this latest version of the World Cup will be organized by the league and the NHL Players Association with coordination from the International Ice Hockey Federation.

The NHL last organized its World Cup of Hockey in 2004 in seven cities across North America and Europe. Canada defeated Finland to win the gold medal, and the finals were contested at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, which will host the entire 2016 tournament. The inaugural World Cup, held in 1996, was played in Europe and North America with eight teams and the United States came out on top.

“We’ve been talking about this for years now,” said Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who plays for the New York Rangers, when the NHL announced details about the event last year. “The league has been pushing for it, and the (players’ association) has been talking about it. Having a break for 12 years, it’s important to let people know that it’s back and you need to set the tone by putting on a good product here.”

NHL officials said the tournament is a chance to showcase the league’s top talent in a tournament setting. “The WCH 2016 will feature the 184 best players in the world—and from around the world—and its unique format almost guarantees that it will provide the best and most competitive tournament the sport has ever seen,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “And by scheduling the entire competitive phase of the tournament in Toronto, which many consider to be the center of the hockey universe, we feel it will only add to the impact and the visibility that the World Cup of Hockey will generate.”

Depending on the success of the event, the tournament could also offer the league an option of backing away from its participation every four years in the Olympic Winter Games, a deal that remains unresolved for the next installments in 2018 and 2022. While league players have participated in every Olympics since 1998, the NHL has to put its own season on hold for two weeks in Olympic years to accommodate players headed to the Games, all of which has caused some doubt as to whether the league will still allow its stars to play for Olympic medals in years to come under the current format. In addition, the International Olympic Committee has reportedly canceled its contribution to player travel and insurance costs for Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, which would leave the IIHF or the NHL to cover the loss, estimated at as much as $10 million. While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the World Cup will have no effect on the league’s Olympics participation, the IIHF has set a January deadline for a deal for future Olympic events.

Regardless, the league may use the World Cup to help expand its international presence. “With [the World Cup] as the foundation, you’re going to see an increased international presence on a regular basis, whether it’s exhibition games with NHL teams against each other, against local teams, regular-season games, clinics,” Bettman told nhl.com in August. “We’re on television and other media in over 140 countries. We’ve had to do a variety of things to make sure North America was strong and healthy. And now with this as the foundation we have an opportunity to do further exploration for a sport that has the most diverse player group of any of the North American sports.”

Cup Format

For the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, eight teams will skate for the title: Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States, as well as Team Europe (composed of NHL players from other European countries not sending a full squad) and Team North America, with select 23-and-under team players from the United States and Canada. The teams will boast standouts like Sidney Crosby, playing for Canada; Patrick Kane, for the United States; Alex Ovechkin, representing Russia; Marian Hossa, playing for Team Europe; Nicklas Backstrom, for Sweden; and Tuukka Rask, playing for Finland. Team North America will feature the respective No. 1 and No. 2 picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, forwards Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres.

The teams are divided into two groups for the preliminary round, with each group playing in a round-robin format. Group A is composed of Canada, Czech Republic, the United States and Europe. Group B’s teams are Finland, Russia, Sweden and North America. The two semifinalist winners will play each other in a best-of-three-games format to determine the champion. All will be played at the Air Canada Centre, which is the home of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and can seat up to 18,800 for hockey events.

In addition to the main tournament, 10 other cities will host 12 preliminary games from September 8–14: Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; Washington, D.C.; Montréal; Ottawa, Ontario; Québec City; Prague; Gothenburg, Sweden; Helsinki; and Moscow.

An Expected Profit

The NHL estimates the World Cup could generate $100 million in profit. And the organizers have a big media push planned. ESPN has secured the media rights in the United States, and most games will be aired on ESPN and ESPN2, with ESPN International holding exclusive rights in more than 20 countries. In Canada, Sportsnet has the English-language media rights, while TVA Sports was awarded the exclusive French-language rights. The rights encompass all tournament games, television, online and mobile coverage.

Sponsors are also on board—and will be on the boards. They include PepsiCo, Air Canada, Honda, Molson Coors, Visa and Scotiabank. Adidas and Rogers Communications are also major corporate partners. “The caliber of these partners shows the enthusiastic response for the World Cup of Hockey 2016,” said Kyle McMann, the NHL’s group vice-president of integrated sales. “The World Cup of Hockey has provided us the opportunity to both deepen our relationship with many longstanding NHL partners while also serving as a catalyst for several brand-new relationships.”

Meanwhile, the Scotiabank World Cup of Hockey Fan Village in downtown Toronto’s Distillery District will offer fans a free festival area where they can celebrate the sport for 10 days beginning on September 16 with a Pepsi Premiere Party that will feature player appearances followed by a concert. The 200,000-square-foot village will also offer a variety of food, music and cultural programming that reflects the participating hockey teams’ nations. Interactive exhibits will include a virtual reality experience and the Scotiabank Sport Pad hockey rink, where fans can test their skills. Every game of the tournament will be broadcast live on big screens in the village, and the finals can be viewed at Maple Leaf Square, outside of Air Canada Centre.

The NHL also intends to use puck- and player-tracking technology, last featured at the 2015 All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio, which allows TV viewers to track the speed of the puck and the players, as well as the distance both travel, to better understand aspects of the competition. The information is also expected to be released on the tournament’s website following the games.

In addition, for the first time, the NHL will permit small ads or corporate logos on the players’ jerseys during the World Cup, according to Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief marketing officer and executive vice-president. The small ads will be placed on the shoulders of each of the teams’ jerseys.

Toronto Has an Edge

Tourism officials in Toronto said they were excited about hosting the international hockey event in the city. “In many ways, Toronto was a natural way to relaunch this event because it’s such a strong hockey community,” said Andrew Weir, Tourism Toronto’s executive vice-president and chief marketing officer. “You’ve got global media access here and venues and the capacity to host it.”

The NHL’s Daly agreed the city was a natural fit. “The decision to host all tournament games there over a two-week period as a worldwide celebration of hockey seemed both a logical and exciting way to bring this tournament back in a big way,” he said.

Toronto is on a winning streak when it comes to sports events. The city hosted the Pan American Games in 2015, the 2016 NBA All-Star Game and, Weir said, will complete the year having welcomed the World Cup of Hockey, Canadian football’s Grey Cup in November and the IIHF World Junior Championship in December, an event it shares with Montréal. Then, on January 1, the Maple Leafs (celebrating their 100th year) will host the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Centennial Classic, an outdoor event scheduled to be held at the recently renovated BMO Field, home of the city’s Major League Soccer team. “We haven’t had the right outdoor venue until now, but some expansions done this year on our soccer stadium give us an ideal venue for an outdoor hockey event,” Weir said.   

As if the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin and Kane weren’t enough star power, this year’s World Cup of Hockey will enjoy an added dusting of glamour thanks to another massive event winding down in the city just as the hockey tournament begins: the annual Toronto International Film Festival, scheduled to run September 8–18. “Between the two, they really take over the city this year,” Weir said. “It should be a lot of fun with all of that celebrity horsepower in Toronto at the same time.” Weir said he’s unsure whether there will be any cross-promotional opportunities. “There’s a lot of promotional activity for whatever film is coming up,” he said. “They don’t tend to have a lot of extra time, but I’m sure the NHL is holding some front-row seats available for whoever happens to be free that night.”

Drawing a Crowd

Toronto expects to draw local fans and visitors from a regional market that is within a four-hour drive of the city and includes Ottawa, Montréal, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, New York, Weir said. “The third group you’ll see will be some fans from Sweden, Finland or Russia or some of the competing countries who want to see the best of their country compete against the best of the rest of the world,” he said.

These relatively smaller numbers of visitors from Europe are “very lucrative travelers,” Weir said. “They’re more likely to stay in paid accommodations, they are going to stay longer, and they’ll likely do more when they’re here. They won’t just go to games; they’ll go to the games, eat their way around the city and probably pick up some other attractions while they’re here.”

Both the World Cup and TIFF visitors will be “significant draws to our hotels,” Weir said. “We’re well served in this market. We’ve got about 40,000 hotel rooms. The majority of those are in the downtown core, with other clusters by the airport and other regions. People who want to visit in that period will find a room and be able to stay here.”

The appeal of the World Cup hasn’t been lost on another Canadian hockey town: Edmonton, Alberta. In March, the Edmonton Journal reported that Bob Nicholson, CEO of the Oilers Entertainment Group, plans to bid for the next tournament, scheduled for 2020. Hosting the tournament in four years “will be right in our wheelhouse,” Nicholson said, notably because the Ice District, a mixed-used sports and entertainment area under construction in the heart of the city, will be finished in 2019. The multibillion-dollar development will feature Rogers Place, expected to open in September as the new, 18,500-seat home of the Oilers, as well as two office towers, condominiums and a casino spread over more than 25 acres.

“There’s always competition” for events such as the World Cup of Hockey, said Weir. “And every destination wants to showcase its ability to host a major event because you know event organizers have options. Clients have choices, and we have to earn that business and work very hard for it.”

Good for Business

Elite sporting events are good business, Weir said. “They can be very lucrative events for a city to host, but they open the door to future events because hosting major events successfully begets hosting more major events,” he said. “Every one you host increases your appeal as a major event destination.”

Similarly, the NHL is confident the World Cup concept will catch on once fans and viewers get a taste of the action. “I think, in many respects, the tournament has already proven to
be a major success for the NHL and NHLPA, as well as the sport generally,” Daly said. “Now, it basically comes down to execution. We have created and sold the platform. Now we have to deliver the product. And that’s where it all comes back to the quality of what we have to offer—the players, the game and the incredible competition over a two-week period at the end of September. We are very confident the international sporting world will be genuinely excited with what they see.”