World Cup is hockey at its best

In the end it seems only the hockey itself, the game broken down to its raw essence, skating, hitting, passion, will save the World Cup of Hockey from being swallowed by the darkness surrounding the game.

Plagued by defections of top players, marred by tragedy, scheduled to end just hours before an expected lockout of NHL players by the owners is expected to scrap much if not all of the 2004-05 NHL season, the World Cup of Hockey is the Little Orphan Annie of international hockey events -- rich in tradition and excitement but cast adrift by circumstances entirely beyond its control.

With fans in North America -- and especially the United States -- focusing on the Summer Olympics, college football and the start of the NFL season, the World Cup of Hockey, which opens Monday in Europe and Tuesday in Montreal, has a narrow appeal that reflects the game's tenuous foothold in much of America.

Many of the game's top players have answered the rhetorical question about the value, the worth, of this tournament by pulling out, sometimes at the last minute, providing only the flimsiest of excuses for not representing their countries and supporting their union brethren.

For a group of players who boast of universal solidarity in the coming labor war, the decisions by Chris Pronger, Derian Hatcher, Sergei Fedorov, Nikolai Khabibulin and others to turn their backs on this tournament because they feel more loyalty to their NHL teams offers a curious, seemingly misguided contradiction.

The fact the NHLPA and the NHL have formed a symbiotic relationship in hosting this lucrative eight-country tournament, but cannot agree on an economic system that will save the coming NHL season, merely adds to a pulsing vein of cynicism surrounding the tournament.

"It's all intertwined," the politics, the CBA, the television, "which makes you wonder whether this is too much or where it fits in the lexicon of hockey," said Tim Taylor, longtime hockey coach at Yale who took over for the ailing Bob Johnson at the 1991 Canada Cup when the Americans advanced to their first-ever berth in the final.

"I think (the tournament) was really important, especially in the pre-Perestroika days," said Joe Pelletier, co-author of The World Cup of Hockey, A History of Hockey's Greatest Tournament, a retrospective of the tournament dating back to its days as the Canada Cup in the mid-1970s and written with international hockey expert Patrick Houda.

"I think it's taken a bit of a backseat to the Olympics with its aura. I think it's lost some of its luster."

Eight years ago, the inaugural World Cup of Hockey was greeted with much the same indifference or skepticism (it was available on television in the United States only on Fox's cable arm, FX). Yet in the end, the tournament provided terrific hockey on both sides of the Atlantic and compelling story lines throughout the Americans' stunning win over Canada in Montreal.

But that was before the NHL took over the Olympic tournament in 1998 and again in 2002, giving hockey its grandest stage even if that experiment has proven to be flawed in significant ways.

The paradox is that the World Cup of Hockey and its predecessor, the Canada Cup, is and always has been, the truest test of hockey's finest.

"It was the top level of hockey. It was the true world championships," Pelletier said.

Unlike the Olympics, which in 1998 and 2002 allowed teams one or two days' preparation before throwing them into competition (or in the case of the shameful treatment of the Slovaks in 2002, no chance to compete), the World Cup of Hockey gives teams 10 days to prepare, to work on line combinations and schemes, to create teams.

True, the teams aren't at midseason form, but longtime U.S. goaltender Mike Richter recently recalled how quickly teams shook off training camp rust to produce elite hockey in a matter of days.

"This tournament has its own kind of separate value," said American coach Ron Wilson, whose involvement with international hockey goes back to the mid-1970s. "The Olympics are one thing, but I think this is more of a true test. It's equal footing for all the teams. I think it's going to be a terrific tournament."

The World Championships, held every spring during the NHL playoffs and hence featuring teams cobbled together from non-playoff teams and club players, aren't even in the same class in terms of evaluating world hockey talent.

"I don't know if you necessarily need them both (the World Cup and the Olympics)," offered veteran Team USA forward Steve Konowalchuk. "But it's definitely the most exciting hockey in the world."

If, as expected, the Olympic experiment is put on hold through the 2006 Olympics, then this tournament will once again become the benchmark against which hockey nations will measure themselves.

Taylor, like many hockey enthusiasts, looks beyond the extraneous elements and sees the endless possibilities of classic hockey games.

"I feel like it's a wonderful tournament," he said.

The tournament, which began in 1976 as the Canada Cup, has created many signposts along the hockey highway, including the evolution of the Czech and American international games.

Another significant signpost will be reached about 26 hours after the championship game, when the lockout is expected to begin. What hockey will look like on the other side of this impasse, no one knows, although both sides will tell you it won't be pretty.

All of which gives the World Cup of Hockey a bittersweet flavor, a tantalizing look at the game at the highest level with the understanding for both fans and players that this will be it, perhaps for a long time.

"I think for the players in the tournament, it kind of takes your mind off of it for a while," said German netminder Olaf Kolzig.

For the guys not playing, "they're going to be wondering, 'When am I going to strap on the skates again?'"

Still, it'll be strange, the former Vezina Trophy winner conceded.

"Most of the guys will walk out of the tournament feeling pretty good about themselves, their performances, and then there'll be nothing."

"It might be the only time this year" to see hockey at this level, Konowalchuk added. "I hope it creates enough excitement between the players and the fans and all the media that it makes it hard to shut things down."

And so, then, here's the final word on the eve of the tournament to the players and coaches and general managers, the ones who have committed to being here, essentially without pay, for the clichéd notion of the love of the game: To be in the World Cup isn't just a commitment of time in an already short offseason, or money (the profits go to the players' association pension fund, not some labor "war chest," as some have reported), but of blood, too.

Jordan Leopold, Michal Handzus, Hal Gill and Ivan Majesky didn't make it out of their respective "straining camps" without suffering injuries that may cost them playing time if there is an NHL season.

And then there's Czech coach Ivan Hlinka, who was killed in a car crash days before the start of training camp, returning from a meeting to ensure his most important player, Jaromir Jagr, was going to play.

Don't tell Hlinka's family, or Jagr or anyone else connected to the Czech team that this tournament means nothing.

"I'll go in this every year if you ask me," U.S. veteran Doug Weight said. "It's fun to me. I've never played hockey like I did in 1996, and that's including the Olympics. Every year I'd come. I don't care. To mem it's the Stanley Cup and then it's the World Cup or the Canada Cup. That's the order of it."

Game on.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.