Injury absences calling into question the players' enthusiasm for the World Cup of Hockey

The absences of Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg were among the most high-profile of the tournament. Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty Images

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The World Cup of Hockey, dormant since 2004 and in desperate need of an identity as it prepares for a relaunch in Toronto in less than two weeks, is already facing a crisis of confidence.

Or at least those are the optics facing the NHL and the NHLPA, partners in this venture that hope to rekindle the magic of the long-ago Canada Cup and the first World Cup of Hockey tournaments, as a slew of key players have abandoned the tournament because of injuries.

If it were just one or two players opting out of playing in the eight-team tournament because of lingering injuries or fresh aches and pains coming out of a shortened summer, that would be one thing.

But Team Canada, for instance, has already had to replace two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, former league scoring champ Jamie Benn and two-time Stanley Cup champ Jeff Carter. No boo-hoos for Canada of course, as the host country is deep and replaced those players with a former Hart Trophy winner, Corey Perry, and last year's leading point producer in the playoffs, Logan Couture, along with former Olympian Jay Bouwmeester.

But many teams have been scrambling to fill in their rosters as players, many of whom had been working out in preparation for the tournament, have suddenly dropped out.

Most telling -- or at the very least, most curious -- was the comment by San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson in a press release that praised Hertl's choice of preparing for the Sharks' season ahead of competing for the Czech Republic.

"After speaking with Tomas, we're pleased that he has chosen to put his commitment to the Sharks and his teammates first," Wilson said in a statement, adding that Hertl is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. Hertl hinted at the possibility on June 30: "I just want to be 100 percent ready for [the] season and I don't want to go to World Cup at just 80 percent health."

Could Hertl, who had been skating in the San Jose area, have played in the tournament? And who ultimately made the decision that he should not join his countrymen in Toronto?

Maybe Wilson and other executives and players didn't get the memo that this is an NHL-NHLPA collaborative event.

And not just any event, but a key moment for the NHL and its players as they navigate the uncertain waters of further Olympic participation and hope to build a vibrant, lucrative international schedule for years to come.

This isn't to suggest that players are making up injuries to avoid the tournament. League officials said they, along with the NHLPA, vet all of the injury replacements to ensure the injury claims are valid. Some are easy to confirm. So far, Ryan Callahan is the lone member of Team USA to opt out -- offseason hip surgery will keep him out of action until November.

But many of those not taking part in the World Cup of Hockey have been working out and might not miss a beat when regular NHL training camps open, or are expected to play when the regular season opens in early October, making for bad optics.

The World Cup might yet turn into the dynamic set piece that organizers on both sides of the table believe it can be.

One NHL GM with international experience said enthusiasm for the tournament has already been blunted by the flood of injuries. But another NHL GM with significant experience in international competition said the injury issue might be something that people are focusing on now, but it will soon be an afterthought and won't influence the success of the tournament.

"Once the puck drops, the players and fans won't care or give it a second thought," the longtime executive said.

And let's be clear: An abundance of talent will be on display in the coming days, including defending MVP and scoring champ Patrick Kane of the U.S., a powerful Russian team led by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, a star-stacked Team Sweden led by two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and the dynamic young stars of Team North America, led by Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews.

But the pressure has increased on those players to deliver a compelling product on the ice to erase the initial perception that players don't really care about the World Cup of Hockey. Or at the very least, care less than we thought they would. And the harsh bottom line is that if the players are perceived as not caring about the new World Cup of Hockey, why should the fans who are being asked to pay top dollar for tickets?

Lundqvist, who took a hard shot to the ribs during practice but is committed to playing in the tournament, said injuries are part of the game and each player has to decide what is best for him.

"It doesn't matter if it's World Cup or the start of the NHL season," Lundqvist told reporters as Team Sweden opened camp in Gothenburg, Sweden. "This is a tough sport, and people think you just snap your fingers and you're ready to play. No, that's not how it works. You put a lot of pressure on your body physically and mentally and injuries are a part of it. If you can't be there giving it your all, I think it's better not to play. You've got to be honest with yourself, but injuries are always going to happen. It's a physical sport."

What this tournament might mean, or maybe should mean, to NHL executives and players comes from U.S. coach John Tortorella. Always a heart-on-his-sleeve guy, Tortorella is especially sensitive when it comes to issues of national pride, a point he has discussed with his team. His son, Nick, is deployed for a third time to Afghanistan as a member of a U.S. special forces unit.

"In today's world, with what's going on and what our troops are doing over there in all facets, unconventionally, it's just nuts," he said. "This is about your country. This is a platform for us, for our country. If you're not ready and you're not ready to give, I just don't know how you'll ever live that down as you go through this, and that's how we're presenting it. It's hockey, but this is about your country first and foremost."

Well said by a man who understands better than most the nature of national pride.