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NHLPA's Don Fehr: World Cup of Hockey will be back in 2020

Don Fehr says that the NHL and NHLPA will "look at hard data" and talk with players about whether the next World Cup should again include non-country-specific squads like the 23-and-under Team North America or Team Europe. AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot

TORONTO -- The 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which culminated with Canada's 2-1 victory over Europe on Thursday night, was a joint venture between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association, which split the event's profits 50-50. ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun sat down with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr on Thursday night before the final game to discuss the event's impact and its future.

Pierre LeBrun: Can you share your observations so far on how the World Cup has played out?

Donald Fehr: The first thing I would obviously look for is, how do the players feel? And it seems to be uniformly positive. They like the event, they like the format, they really enjoy the level of the competition and doing it in one place without having to fly around the world. So that's really good.

Secondly, I think the public acceptance of the quality of the event has also been really good. In terms of the future though, and going back to see what could we have done better or differently -- what would it look like if it was in a different place, if the format was slightly altered -- that's yet to come. I think we're going to examine it to see what can be made better, not to see what was a problem.

LeBrun: [The NHLPA] has agreed with the league that there will be another World Cup, right? There won't be another 12-year wait like the last time?

Fehr: No, [the next one will be held in] 2020, absent something very unusual happening.

LeBrun: That leads to my next question. There's an opt-out window in 2019 for either side to announce it is pulling out of the collective bargaining agreement (in September 2020). What impact could that have on a 2020 World Cup?

Fehr: Theoretically it could have an impact -- just like anytime you're negotiating, it could have an impact on the [NHL] season. But you can't plan for that. You have to plan for normal operations and to get ready to make it work. One of the side benefits that I hope grows out of this effort is that we develop a better day-by-day working relationship (with the league) -- not just the labor relations, but in day-by-day [issues], and that we learn to appreciate what the other side can bring. We learn to make it better. Maybe it's a little extra nudge to try to avoid the problems that have plagued the sport for so long.

LeBrun: Well, gee, that sounds promising. But I guess we'll see.

Fehr (smiling): We will always see ...

LeBrun: Many hockey fans who tweet at me seem to confuse the existence of this event as a replacement for the Olympics. I keep telling them that one has nothing to do with the other. In a perfect world, I think you believe that both could exist side by side, correct?

Fehr: Yes, I personally do. I don't think there's any doubt about that. The Olympics, you have to remember, is an event onto itself; it's unlike anything else. It's a multisport event, you have people from all over the world and it has its own special charm, its own special issues. But it's distinct from anything else.

That's an entirely different thing, I believe, than one sport saying: "Look, we want to have a celebration for ourselves. We want to have the very best." And I think that we can have a higher quality of competition here than we can (in the Olympics), just like the U.S. Open is likely to have a higher quality of competition than the Olympic golf tournament is ever going to have. And therefore, you can do both. And maybe you can do some other things, too, as you begin to grow the game internationally. But one doesn't necessarily preclude the other at all.

LeBrun: This week the NHL painted a bleak picture for participation in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea unless there's a change in tone from the IOC as far as covering some the costs that have been covered in the past (for players' travel and insurance, etc.). What's your sense of where this stands right now in regard to South Korea?

Fehr: Well, I'm going to say a couple of things about that. First of all, the players obviously want to go, provided appropriate agreements can be reached. There's no question about that. The second thing is, we do have a long history of certain kinds of expenses being covered, basically in recognition of the fact that you're shutting down a $4 billion business in the middle of the season. The third thing is that, although I don't know what the magic dates are for [finishing] negotiations, I recall that we didn't wrap up an agreement on Sochi until seven or eight months ahead of time. We'll just take it as a matter of course. I choose to look at it in an optimistic way. Hopefully, it'll work.

LeBrun: The league seems to be suggesting a Dec. 31 deadline for an Olympic decision.

Fehr: Well, Dec. 31 has some relevance because schedules have to be put together. It doesn't mean there aren't alternatives or you couldn't move some things around at a later point in time. But the requirement to put a schedule together is not a made-up thing. That's real.

LeBrun: There has been a lot chatter about what the NHLPA does with its side of the profits. You are a co-owner in this particular event, which in itself in unique. You're going to make some money -- probably not as much as you'd hoped. You have a 700-plus player membership but also 160-plus players within that who played in this tournament. The debate internally, from what I can gather, is what take the players here at the tournament should get compared with the players at large. Is that fair?

Fehr: First of all, there's a lot of debate and discussion going on, and it'll continue over the next several weeks -- but I would be surprised if it persists past the beginning of the season. But it's really funny. When unions come out and make a pronouncement -- "We've looked at this, and 100 percent of everybody agrees to A, B, C" -- then people say there's been no debate, no discussion, no democracy, no anything like that. And then when an issue comes up, and the players are actively debating, discussing, talking among themselves, trying to reach consensus, then people want to talk about division.

All I can say is, that's what the players are supposed to do. And that's what we encourage them to do. I'm not concerned about it getting worked out in a reasonable time frame. That's not a problem at all. I don't think there's ever been any question that, on a per-person basis, the players who participated [in the World Cup] would get multiples of what would be distributed to anybody else. Exactly what that percentage is going to be is what the discussion is about.

LeBrun: My last question has to do with the format of the tournament. There's a debate already about whether the next World Cup should have a traditional field, country versus country only, or whether it should bring back the 23-and-under North America team and Team Europe. What are your thoughts?

Fehr: One of the most positive things about this is that when the format was announced, you had a lot of questions, a lot of discussion, a lot of people who are very close to the game saying, "What about this? What about tradition? How's it going to work?"

To see those opinions change, in some cases, as we got close to the event, and then to see that you're going to have discussion afterward, that suggests to me that people care -- that they think it's important, that it's an issue that bears serious attention. And that's all to the good.

We're going to look at everything, and obviously we'll talk to the players. We want to look at the reaction in various markets, including the Team Europe markets. We want to see if it makes sense to go another route, or if it makes sense to continue this or to tweak it somehow. And I don't want to prejudge it, any of it. One of the benefits we will have by doing that analysis post-facto, rather than ahead of time, is that we'll be doing it informed by hard data. And that matters.