Much at stake if NHL, NHLPA don't get the World Cup format right

Outside of expansion -- and regardless of what commissioner Gary Bettman says, it's coming, it's just a matter of where and when -- the World Cup of Hockey might be the single most important enterprise the league will undertake in coming years.

Most know the story of the tournament. How it evolved from the wildly entertaining, profitable (at least for organizers such as the disgraced Alan Eagleson) Canada Cups in the late 1970s and through the 1980s to 1996, when it changed names and gave the world one of the greatest tournaments ever won by the U.S. over a star-studded Canadian team. The tournament was last seen in 2004, for the most part a lackluster affair that was followed immediately by the season-long lockout that scuttled the entire 2004-05 season.

Since that time the tournament has been pushed aside like an old bike in the garage, mice nibbling at the tires, birds building a nest in the handlebars.

But after years of disregard, indications are that the NHL is going to revive the tournament amid great fanfare in the fall of 2016.

There are all kinds of moving parts, especially regarding its place on the NHL's international calendar. Does the World Cup of Hockey replace participation in the Olympics?

Many owners hope that is the case.

Most players do not.

We believe, ultimately, that the World Cup will join the Olympics and provide best-on-best tournaments on a rotating two-year cycle, with the World Cup revived in ’16 and the Olympics to follow in ’18, and so on.

If you're a hockey fan, what could be better?

But regardless of whether the Olympic experiment ends or not, it behooves the NHL and the NHLPA -- who are full partners in the World Cup of Hockey endeavor (unlike the Olympics, where both the league and the players sit at a crowded organizational table) -- to get it right.

Sorry, not just right, but perfect.

You can't just tell people the return of the World Cup is important and demand that they show up or tune in. You have to show them.

In 2004, perhaps because the tournament was played against the backdrop of impending labor doom, it was a blasé affair in terms of fan interest. Games held in the United States were poorly received. The U.S. team was ordinary. The Canada-Finland final was anticlimactic after a sensational semifinal between the Czech Republic and Canada.

And then the hockey world (OK, the NHL world) went dark for a season.

You can't just dust off the old World Cup of Hockey logo and expect people will give a darn, especially when they were halfway out the door on the mistreated property a dozen years ago.

This new event must have pizzazz, it must have panache and it must resonate not just in Toronto, where the tournament will reportedly be held, but around the hockey world.

It has to be embraced by players and fans everywhere.

It has to mean something. It has to get the juices flowing and the imagination turning with thoughts of Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux and the 1987 Canada Cup.

It has to promise hockey magic and then it has to deliver it.

Or else this will blow up like a dime-store gag cigar.

Which is why the idea that the roster of teams might include a couple of made-up squads is more than a little befuddling.

Multiple sources have confirmed that one of the ideas for the tournament would be to have the top six nations -- Canada, the United States, Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic -- joined by an all-star squad representing Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Norway and Switzerland. And then have either a young stars team or some other patchwork squad assembled from guys not on their national teams. Blech.

We understand the idea.

To our earlier point, the league wants as many of the world's best players -- i.e., as many of the NHL's best players -- to be playing in this tournament as possible. That doesn't happen with the Olympics.

But part of the allure of the Olympics is that each nation brings its best and we see what happens. Was there a better story than the Slovenians winning their first Olympic game and then moving on to the elimination round in Sochi?

Now, the downside is that at the Olympics the hockey isn't always great.

In the four years that separated what was the mightiest of Olympic competitions in Vancouver in 2010 to last winter in Sochi, Slovakia went into a period of decline. So, too, did the Czech Republic.

The games -- outside of the Americans' defeat of host Russia in a shootout in the preliminary round -- for the most part lacked edge-of-your-seat drama. That's partly a function of playing on the bigger Olympic ice surface and it's partly the function of having 12 teams in your tournament, many of whom simply weren't that good.

The NHL is hoping to replicate the drama that dominated almost every game at the Vancouver Games and maybe the way to do that is to ensure almost all the players in the tournament are NHL players.

But in artificially creating this kind of grid, what do you lose in terms of history and national pride?

Why don't the Slovaks deserve their own team? What about the Swiss, who have over the past 15 years proved their worth as a true hockey nation?

Agreed that it would be nice if players such as Anze Kopitar, the pride of Slovenia, could play in the World Cup of Hockey. Likewise Christian Ehrhoff, Thomas Vanek, Mark Streit and Mats Zuccarello would drive up the recognition factor if there was a mechanism that allowed them to take part, even though their respective nations might be outside the bubble.

But what the NHL and NHLPA risk in trying to accommodate these kinds of players and to ensure that there is maximum NHL participation is drifting too far into gimmickry.

If this tournament is going to take hold, to become part of the public's hockey consciousness, there has to be continuity, consistency.

How often have we drawn lines from previous Olympic tournaments to current ones? The history of those tournaments builds a foundation for the future.

Canada's loss to the Czech Republic in 1998, followed by a surprise gold medal for the Czechs.

The clash of longtime international rivals Sweden and Finland in the 2006 gold-medal game.

The classic U.S.-Canada meeting in the 2010 final that was preceded by dramatic tilts between Canada and Slovakia in the semifinal.

If you've got a made-up team or two made-up teams, that can only impair the process of building such a history for a tournament that is desperate to start to build or rebuild some sort of history.

And are players going to want to give up the end of their summers to play for teams that have no real meaning other than to fill in a schedule?

What will the water-cooler talk be like?

"Hey, remember when Leon Draisaitl of Team Whippersnapper upset Canada in the quarterfinals?"

Or "Hey, that overtime game between Team Leftover Nations and the Russians was a real barnburner, no?"

Doesn't just roll off your tongue does it? Worse, it seems a bit too fake to us.

The NHL and NHLPA have time to get this right. But the issue for them is that they are going to get only one chance to do so.

If they concoct a lineup of teams that destroys the credibility that this tournament so desperately needs moving forward, then a huge part of the NHL's long-term international calendar will be in jeopardy.

Tough choices, no doubt, but choices that need to be made correctly and right now there's not a lot of optimism the right choice is in the offing.