- Scott Burnside, NHL
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TORINO, Italy -- The World Cup of Hockey, the neglected offspring of the old Canada Cup tournament, is in danger of going the way of the wooden hockey stick, leaving the Olympics as the premier best-on-best tournament in the sport.
The NHL Players' Association implied Friday that having the World Cup of Hockey, alternating with the Olympics every two years, is simply too much to ask of players, and they aren't interested -- at least for 2008.
"We haven't right now started planning a World Cup in 2008. And frankly, I'm doubtful that's something we'll do. Although, we will evaluate everything after these Games," NHLPA executive director Ted Saskin said Friday. "If there's a young group of players who are enthusiastic about participating in '08, we could probably still pull one together on shorter notice. I don't want to say it's totally out, but I just want to say that it's something that hasn't been discussed yet.
"By participating in the World Cup, you're cutting into the summer period. Our sense is that every two years is frankly too much to be organizing these kinds of events in terms of the demands on the players."
Players are split on playing in the World Cup of Hockey.
Some, like Canadian forward Martin St. Louis, would miss a competition that gave the hockey world Wayne Gretzky's drop pass to Mario Lemieux to end the 1987 Canada Cup against the Russians and the Americans' seminal victory over Canada in 1996. Others believe it is too much to ask now that the Olympics appear to be a staple every four years.
"It's usually the same guys going every time, so it's tough to ask them to do that every two years when you're looking at Olympics. And [with] world championships, it adds up," Canadian defenseman Wade Redden said.
It's possible the two tournaments could continue to exist in perfect harmony, providing hockey fans with a regular dose of best-on-best hockey. But that harmony can only be achieved if the NHL, its players and the International Ice Hockey Federation can first and foremost keep its Olympic house in order. That house has already sprung a few leaks, and more are sure to appear in the coming weeks.
At the same time, while reporters were meeting with Saskin, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and IIHF president Rene Fasel, Senators netminder Dominik Hasek was limping home to Ottawa after injuring himself in the first period of the Czech Republic's Olympic opener.
He is lost for the balance of the Olympic tournament, and the bigger question for the Senators (and, frankly, the rest of the NHL) is how long he'll be lost when the regular season resumes Feb. 28.
Minutes before Hasek was injured, New Jersey Devils winger Patrik Elias pulled a muscle during his second shift of the game for the Czechs and is also lost for the balance of the Olympics. When the most important skater on the Devils' team might return to action is also unknown.
Those injuries were sustained in just the first two days of the Olympic tournament. More are certain to come, prompting renewed debate over the place of NHLers at the tournament. Saku Koivu, Finnish captain and captain of the Montreal Canadiens, told a Quebec reporter he didn't think NHLers would be back after 2010.
In the days leading up to the Olympics, a bevy of stars, including the Finns' two top netminders, Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen, and Swedish star Markus Naslund, withdrew from the tournament even though they are playing for their NHL teams in Calgary, Atlanta and Vancouver.
On Friday, Daly said clubs cannot instruct a player not to play in the Olympics, but their absences have diminished the Olympic tournament. It seems certain there will be similar withdrawals and assaults on the Olympic tournament's integrity unless there are changes to the NHL and Olympic schedules.
"I think there are a number of factors that come into play. And part of it is how long a break [the NHL takes] and whether that break is beneficial to the season we're trying to have in North America," Daly said. "And, obviously, injuries are an issue and a concern of our clubs, and certainly for the players I would think, as well. Location of the Olympics plays into that. Probably the most significant is the kind of our experience here and whether players are getting hurt."
Understand that this year is an anomaly, with the NHL agreeing very late in the going to attend the Torino Games. The travel schedule to Europe meant players were sometimes arriving just hours before their first games. It will be better in Vancouver, but what if future Games that will return to Europe or Asia?
In a perfect world, the NHL and its players, full partners now, would agree to shorten the NHL training camp every four years or, better yet, cut the 82-game schedule to, say, 76. But that very partnership, which sees the players' salaries tied to revenues, will make intentionally reducing those revenues, even just once every four years, a difficult sell.
"I can't say that that's been discussed at this point. But a lot of things haven't been discussed. We're going to look at everything, evaluate everything, try and make the best decisions possible," said Daly, who indicated the league would still like to consider a World Cup in 2008.
It's not just the NHL schedule that has made these Olympics a contentious issue among owners and GMs. The Olympic schedule in Torino is dramatically altered from the one employed in Salt Lake City, with teams playing two extra preliminary-round games as the tournament field expanded to 12 teams from eight.
The extra games mean that the final four medal teams will play eight games in Torino in 11 or 12 nights, depending on which medal they are contesting. In Salt Lake City, the field was narrowed thanks to a pretournament competition that excluded NHL players and thus saw a potentially strong team from Slovakia eliminated before the tournament began and weak sisters Germany and Belarus play in the main competition.
The play-in fiasco was a blight on the Salt Lake City Games and the IIHF cannot go back to a play-in scenario, where teams can't use their best players. But an eight-team field makes for a more compact schedule that will be preferable to NHL GMs and owners, so perhaps there's a way to hold a play-in competition late in the summer of every Olympic year to fill out the field and still be fair to competing nations.
"The Olympic Games are unique. I always say that it's a unique opportunity for our sport to be in front of ... we have expectations of 3 billion people watching the games, 200 countries," Fasel said. "It will be my goal to work day and night that we will keep the NHL and NHL players happy that they come and use that great opportunity to show up in front of the rest of the world."
Players, for the most part, are willing to accept whatever is thrown their way if it means playing in the Olympics.
"I think, just suck it up every four years. It's a privilege, an honor, to be here for every player, so you just adapt to whatever schedule there is," St. Louis said.
But if the Olympic partners can smooth out the wrinkles in their tapestry, they may not have to kiss the World Cup of Hockey good-bye. Not yet, at least.
"It's a great tournament when we have it. Speaking for the clubs and the NHL, we would like to have another World Cup of Hockey tournament, we would like to make it a more regular event," Daly said. "But, obviously, we need the players' participation and agreement on that point. So, that's something we'll discuss as times goes on."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
The NHL Players' Association implied that having the World Cup of Hockey, alternating with the Olympics every two years, is simply too much to ask of players, and they aren't interested -- at least for 2008.