World Cup a tease of global proportions


Oh, the irony. If there were any justice, everyone involved will draw gross misconduct penalties for taunting.

A year from now, the eight-team 2004 World Cup of Hockey will be in its early stages, in Europe and North America, building momentum and interest for a one-shot, Sept. 14 championship game in Toronto's Air Canada Centre.

And it will be a joint production of the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, which at that very moment will be engaging in a stare-down as a deadline looms.

"You blinked!" "No, you blinked!" "No fair, Mr. Jacobs, Mr. Wirtz! You can't sleep through a stare-down!"

The next day, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and its Players' Association will lapse.

Unless the negotiators pull off an upset of Miracle-at-the-Bargaining-Table magnitude, the sport will shut down. At the very least, given the realities of the negotiating process, or even the mentality that had us taking No-Doz, beginning term papers hours before they were due and staying up all night, the bargaining won't be completed by Sept. 15. The best-case scenario, it seems, will be that an agreement is reached quickly and preserves an 82-game regular season. But don't bet on that either.

Unofficially, the over-under betting line on the length of the 2004-05 season is 41 games, or seven fewer than the NHL squeezed in after the 1995 New Year following the 1994 work stoppage.

This time, owners, in their plaintive quest to legislate means of saving themselves from themselves, figuratively will place padlocks on the NHL operation and lock out players, fans and interest.

When the first puck finally is dropped, the sport will be picking at the scars left from a lockout and acrimony. And the fans will be appropriately disgusted, at least going through the motions of holding a grudge before the affinity for the sport draws them back. As it always does.

But the World Cup will tantalize.

The 1996 tournament, which culminated in the United States' victory over Canada in the best-of-three final staged in Philadelphia (Game 1) and Montreal (Games 2 and 3), was exciting, if not particularly memorable.

It wasn't particularly memorable in the sense that it doesn't evoke instant recognition, along the lines of some of the great Canada Cups, plus the 1972 Summit Series and the 1979 Challenge Cup.

The next hit by Canada's terrific Barenaked Ladies, who are neither naked nor ladies, will include a line, "Where have you gone, Paul Henderson, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Few in the United States, even among hockey fans, instantly recall the Americans' 1996 victory. It helped hockey interest in the United States, including at the youth level, but that was more a matter of a continuation of momentum rather than a huge bump. And even if Adam Foote's tie-breaking third-period goal had stood up for a Canadian victory, it wasn't as if it was going to be viewed as a fireworks moment in sports history north of the border.

It still was a blast, including little things along the lines of Brett Hull being booed for being an alleged turncoat and the Russians still trying to get their act together following the breakup of the Soviet bloc. The deciding third game of the final was a wild affair, with Foote seemingly destined to be an unlikely goal-scoring hero before the Americans
stormed back in the final minutes to win.

As we've seen in recent Olympics and other world events, it's impossible to replicate the atmosphere of the Canada Cup in the years when the political ramifications couldn't be hauled down in a corner and then ignored. As silly as it seems now, the series -- whether Canada Cup or Challenge Cup in New York -- could seem to be virtual referenda.

It's not like that anymore.

Thank goodness.

And the internationalization of the NHL talent pool has turned events such as these into virtual intramural all-star tournaments, with team loyalties temporarily suspended and the national flags stitched on shoulders.

It will be no different next year. The World Cup again will be a display of elite talent that mocks the concept of a Tuesday night, mid-November, $96-a-seat NHL regular-season game, often with entertainment value diminished by a lack of urgency and novelty, plus the clogging and grabbing that plague the product. It won't match the intensity of NHL
playoff hockey, and that's where the divisions drawn by the paychecks have it all over this sort of tournament. But in its own way, it will be a terrific show.

And it will almost be as if they need to make sure to enforce the hurry-up faceoffs and get the game over my midnight, because then all the lights will go off.

Literally and figuratively.

That's the problem the NHL faces this season. As we look ahead, we can't help but frame everything within the context of the looming end of the CBA and the almost certain lockout.

Rather than complain about the negativism of that approach, both sides should understand that in a backhanded way, it's a compliment. We will be talking about what seems likely to go away, at least for a short time, and likely for a long period. The NHL's position will be, fine, but if the financial structure of the game isn't overhauled, a brief lockout will look great compared to the alternative of long-range disaster. The Players' Association's position will continue to be that the present system is the most fair in all of major-league sports, and that the marketplace should rule.

And while the positions are being hardened, the World Cup -- and the Canada vs. Sweden final, produced in part because Belarus won't be in the field to take shots at Tommy Salo -- will serve as the going-away party.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."