Sources: NHL looks to put on four-nation tournament in 2025

The NHL's international hockey tournament scheduled for February 2025 will be scaled back to just four national teams, sources confirmed to ESPN.

The proposed event would feature national teams from the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Finland.

The NHL and NHLPA have been attempting to stage the next World Cup of Hockey tournament since it was revived in 2016 as a preseason event in Toronto. Sources said that due to its limited scope the 2025 event would be called something other than the World Cup of Hockey, and that the mission for both the NHL and the NHLPA was to simply stage some kind of international tournament ahead of the 2026 Winter Olympics.

"We're hopeful to have an international tournament in February 2025," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in Sweden last week. "We're working with the players' association on the construct of that. Then, after that, we would like to be in a regular rotation between the Olympics and the World Cup every other year. That obviously involves us having an agreement to go to Milan [in 2026], and that is still a work in progress."

The next attempt at a World Cup of Hockey is expected in 2028, as the NHL envisions having a World Cup every four years and in between Winter Olympic tournaments.

"I think at minimum, there are three factors that have impacted our ability to nail something down," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week in Sweden. "One was COVID. Two was the change in executive directors in the players' association. And three is the political climate in the world in terms of the way some counties are interacting with others."

In particular, the NHL has struggled with how to incorporate Russian-born players into an international tournament, given the hockey world's backlash against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has banned Russia and Belarus from competing in tournaments through 2024. The NHL ended all business relations in Russia -- including its Russian-language website, media and sponsorship deals -- after the February 2022 invasion.

The NHL had talked about Russian players competing under a neutral name and flag, rather than directly representing their nation, in the next World Cup of Hockey. But Daly said in 2022 that other participating countries did not view that as satisfactory and were advocating for no Russian player participation at all.

The current concept for the 2025 tournament would not include any Russian players. It would include only four nations. One source said there isn't enough time to plan the logistics for a larger tournament.

The proposed format would have the U.S. and Canada playing two games in North America, while Sweden and Finland would play two games in either of those two nations. The winners of those matchups, either by points or aggregate goals, would face the second-best team from the other matchup -- most likely in North America. The winners of those "semifinals" would then meet for the tournament championship, leaving open the possibility that the U.S. and Canada could meet in that final game.

The tournament would be completed in around a week. The NHL would pause games during the event. The tournament format and the location of games have yet to be finalized. There is a chance the entire tournament could be held in one location.

The NHL hasn't participated in a "best on best" national team tournament since the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The revival of the World Cup in 2016 was criticized by some for having two teams that were invented for that event: Team North America, which showcased under-23 stars from the U.S. and Canada; and Team Europe, which featured players whose national teams weren't involved in the tournament. Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. rounded out the field.

NHL players have eagerly awaited the next "best on best" tournament. Stars like Connor McDavid, Cale Makar, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Jack Hughes have yet to represent their countries in a "best on best" international tournament.

"It would mean everything to me," said McDavid. "I feel like guys my age haven't had the chance to play hockey at the biggest stage. The Olympics, World Cup or any type of 'best on best.'"

Given the 2025 tournament's limited format, that "best on best" competition will have to wait. Along with the league's Russian stars, players like David Pastrnak (Czech Republic), Leon Draisaitl (Germany), Mo Seider (Germany), Kevin Fiala (Switzerland) and Roman Josi (Switzerland) wouldn't be able to compete in the showcase tournament with their national teams, either.

"Theoretically, that's important. As a practical matter, that may not be realistic," said Bettman of a 2025 "best on best" tournament. "We might get there over time. We may have to evolve into a more inclusive World Cup. It's a work in progress."

Sportsnet first reported about the potential tournament's format.