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World Cup

NHL, NHLPA pleased by early success of World Cup

Commissioner Gary Bettman: 'This is a spectacular way to build for the excitement and the anticipation for the start of our season'

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- The World Cup of Hockey 2016 is three days old, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association Executive Director Donald Fehr already see significant positives.

"We're very pleased," Commissioner Bettman said Monday morning, at the Hockey Hall of Fame for Hockey SENSE, an NHL/NHLPA summit to discuss social equality and sustainable environments.

"A lot of planning by the organizations of the NHL and the NHLPA has gone into creating what looks to be an exciting [World Cup] tournament. The competition on the ice is off to a strong start and all of the other events around it, whether it's the Fan Village or the Legacy program, are playing out exactly as planned. 

"The buzz in Toronto is incredible. We are, as a practical matter, sold out. There is a handful of tickets, I think, on the secondary market. But based on all the international tournaments I've been to, including the Olympics, our attendance in the building is fuller than anything I've ever seen."

The eight-team World Cup, featuring six national teams and hybrids named Team North America and Team Europe, already has had its share of surprises. Team Europe beat Team USA 3-0 on Saturday in the tournament's first game. Then on Sunday, Team Sweden, led by backup goalie Jacob Markstrom, beat Team Russia 2-1, and young, fast Team North America beat Team Finland 4-1. Team Canada defeating Team Czech Republic on Saturday wasn't a surprise, though the 6-0 score probably was.

"The reason people come to watch sports is, in the end, the drama of it," Fehr said. "Because no matter what you think, you never know. For every game that plays out the way somebody predicted, there's a whole bunch that didn't. It's marvelous to watch, and to watch the players adapt.

"I think we've seen some great initial games and some great performances, and I think it sets the stage for what the remaining games are going to be. You're going to see all teams adapt styles and become more intense as the pressure continues to mount and that's what we hope for. …

"We don't, during the tournament, take surveys or have detailed interviews or anything like that. But it's been clear for about a week now, for whatever anybody thought about the intensity, it's right up there at the top-notch level and that's what we hoped for."

The hybrid teams have been especially engaging for fans, Team North America being built on youth, Team Europe having been assembled by casting a wide geographical net.

"The results are fascinating, and that's why we play the games," Commissioner Bettman said. "We created, we hoped, a framework, particularly with Team Europe and Team North America, that would make this the most competitive -- perhaps that's another way of saying unpredictable -- international hockey tournament ever. It looks like we're off to that kind of start. … We're still in the early stages of the tournament. Let's see how it plays out, but it's clear that those teams are very competitive."

Said Fehr: "Whenever you do something like this [World Cup], you're creating something new. It's different. You have people who say, 'Oh, it's not what I watched before.' But with Team Europe we got an opportunity to have players from a lot more countries play and still have an extraordinarily competitive team and get into a lot more markets. And with the young players, you have the future of the League out there right now, so it's pretty hard to knock that."

Commissioner Bettman touched upon a number of topics during a brief session with reporters.

On how the World Cup might set the bar for the NHL season:

"I think this is a spectacular way to build for the excitement and the anticipation for the start of our season. You're going to have a number of players, about 169, go back to their clubs in midseason form and I think that's going to bode very well for the start of our season."

On having the entire World Cup tournament played in a single city:

"Having not done the World Cup in more than a decade, we wanted to create an event that would re-establish the energy and excitement and importance of this event. In order to make the event as big as possible to start, we needed to do it one place because you can't do things like the Fan Village and the Legacy program in multiple sites. How we proceed from here I'm not certain. But it's clear the World Cup is back in a big way. And when it's over, the NHL and the Players' Association will take a deep breath and evaluate and re-evaluate. We'll look at what we thought went extraordinarily well and we'll look at those things we think we can do better, and then we'll decide on how best to proceed. But our intention is to use this [World Cup] as a foundation moving forward. … My guess is we're talking about a couple of months, not days or weeks [to evaluate], because we're both going to have to do an internal review with our own organizations first and then come together."

On International Ice Hockey Federation head René Fasel suggesting the NHL is more interested in money than sport when it comes to any involvement by the League in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics:

"I think, sometimes, that Mr. Fasel overstates, in a dramatic fashion, the true dialogue that goes on. There is no deadline. As a practical matter, we've been told at some point in the winter, in January or February, we're going to have to figure this out. But there are still a lot of open issues because there are many, many expenses dependent to the NHL players going, and in a sharp departure from the past five Olympics, apparently the IOC [International Olympic Committee] is no longer willing to pay them. And I've said repeatedly, I'm having trouble envisioning a scenario where the NHL owners will want to pay for the privilege of shutting down the season for two and a half weeks."

On Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin having stated that he'd go to the Olympics to represent Russia if the NHL chooses not to take part:

"You know, if and when we get into that situation, because we haven't made any Olympic decisions yet, we'll deal with it and we'll talk and we'll figure it out. I have the utmost respect for Alex and I admire his passion for the game and his passion for his country."

On a possible introduction to the NHL of a referee helmet camera, which has proven popular with television viewers during the World Cup:

"It's a work in progress. It's something that the officials have to get used to. We tested it in prior seasons, working with Rogers [Sportsnet]. It's one of the innovations they've brought to the games and something we're continuing to focus on. But as you know, whether it's digitally enhanced dasher boards or puck and player tracking, we're ready to embrace new technology that isn't a gimmick, but that can work. When I became Commissioner [on Feb. 1, 1993], email was in its infancy, there was no, there was no NHL Network, there was no NHL Radio, and the same applies to all the sports leagues. There was no social media to speak of. I'm excited about it. You need to be adaptable. You need to be flexible. But what's great about [technology] is that it enables fans to connect with our sport that nobody ever imagined and our fans can do it on their terms. You can get what you want, when you want, how you want it."

On the NHL and NHLPA working together to organize the World Cup:

"This event and everything around it gives the League and the NHLPA, Don and myself and all the people [in] the tremendous organizations we both have, an opportunity to work together. While we may not agree on everything, even in those areas where we may not agree, having a framework of working together in trust and understanding and the ability to communicate certainly should help smooth out what could be -- not predicting, hopefully wouldn't be, but could be -- some of the rough spots. In terms of the NHL and the NHLPA, this is an important project just in terms of our relationship."

Fehr, on the same topic of the NHLPA working with the NHL:

"We want our relationship with the NHL to be one where we cooperate where possible. We try to do things better together than we could otherwise, and when circumstances prevent that, we can relapse where we have to (laughs). Labor laws are not our friend. It's called an adversarial system for a reason. … When we talk about bringing the game and the fans together outside of North America, you need these kinds of events to do that. It highlights not the differences but the common interests in people and fans and how they can relate together. My hope, and I know the hope of the players, is that this is the kickoff of a project that will go on indefinitely to try to really enhance hockey's position around the world."

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