World Cup plan needs to be nailed down

LOS ANGELES -- With discussions on a return of the almost forgotten World Cup of Hockey taking longer than anticipated, the next World Cup tournament might take place in the fall of 2016 and could be held in Toronto instead of multiple locations, including European cities.

And that's a good thing.

For a long time, it was believed the NHL was hoping to resurrect the tournament -- held just twice, in 1996 and 2004 -- for the fall of 2015 in the hopes of avoiding having to go up against the 2016 Summer Olympics, during which broadcast revenues, advertising dollars and general interest might be more difficult to come by.

But that’s not likely to happen, sources told ESPN.com, and the fall of 2016 is now the prime target, assuming details between the league and the NHL Players' Association can be ironed out.

Commissioner Gary Bettman admitted while talking to the media Wednesday in Los Angeles it would have been nice to announce a firm date for the World Cup, but that didn’t happen.

"We're not ready," Bettman said. "It's not something that's fully baked."

Still, if the NHL is going to finally get behind the tournament and schedule it on an ongoing basis -- and that is the plan, to grow it into the world's best hockey tournament -- it needs to be in a pattern that makes sense, and that means a logical pattern, starting in 2016.

By having the tournament in 2015, the league would have pretty much cut itself off from future Olympic competition with the next Winter Olympics set for South Korea in 2018. How would the World Cup fit in with that rotation if the NHL had a tournament in 2015? The short answer is, it wouldn't.

At some point, the NHL will decide whether it will continue to take part in the Olympics, although Bettman said Wednesday the league has not given it much, if any, consideration, even though the Sochi Games in Russia in February were considered, on most levels, a terrific success.

The two events are not related in that the World Cup is intended to happen, regardless of whether the NHL continues to take part in the Winter Olympics, but they are related in that they both fall under the long-term planning being undertaken by the league and the players’ association toward building a comprehensive international calendar.

I still feel the NHL needs to be part of the Olympic experience, in spite of the negative elements, such as difficult time zones and injuries to top players. The tournament is too good, the drama too high, the stage too great to walk away simply because it's hard to get the games on in prime-time television in North America.

But, regardless of the Olympic decision, the return of the World Cup stands as a crucial undertaking, and, in a perfect world (or our perfect world), it will roll into a rotation that would feature a World Cup every four years, two years after the Olympics. That’s why the '16 World Cup makes sense, as it will be at the midpoint of the Olympic cycle.

Bettman said the World Cup is an important entity on a number of levels.

"It's something we know is very important for our players, to be able to represent their countries,” Bettman said. "We understand that and appreciate it."

These tournaments provide a way to make money in terms of ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcast rights, but they also play a role in the development of hockey players around the globe. Think about the Slovenian national team’s surprise run at the Sochi Olympics and the value that has to the game in that tiny country.

And it’s clear both sides are looking at this tournament as a monster event. In the same way that the NHL went out on a limb with the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, New York, in 2007, this will be a similar risk/reward proposition.

If the league is ultimately going to sever ties with the Olympics, it needs to replace that tournament with something equally impressive, and it can’t just be about sending out invitations to a bunch of hockey federations and renting a couple of NHL rinks.

That’s why Toronto is being touted as a possible host, given its status as a major hockey, media and corporate center.

The last tournament, in 2004, was held in various cities in North America and Europe and, in general, did not generate the interest it was expected to.

If the NHL and the players decided they wanted to run the tournament in two cities, it’s believed Toronto and Montreal would be the likely host cities.

Whenever, wherever the World Cup of Hockey takes place, it won’t be something held in isolation, Bettman said. There could be things like exhibition games, preseason games, regular-season games, clinics.

"Which is why the discussions are as elaborate as they are," Bettman said.

Talks regarding a new World Cup of Hockey are expected to continue this week.

"Active talks continue with the NHL‎ regarding World Cup of Hockey plans,” NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said Wednesday.

As for discussion of the Stadium Series, the Winter Classic will be held at Nationals Park in Washington, but it’s possible the NHL will dramatically reduce the number of outdoor games from the record six held this past season.

We wouldn’t be surprised if there was just one additional game, and, given the successes of the outdoor game at Dodger Stadium in late-January, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the San Jose Sharks get an opportunity to host in Silicon Valley, perhaps at Levi's Stadium, the new home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.