Return of World Cup puts Olympics in spotlight
By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - With the return this week of the World Cup of Hockey, the National Hockey League could be set to wave goodbye to the Winter Olympics and end a tumultuous relationship that for a decade seemed on the brink of divorce.
After a 12-year hiatus, the NHL and NHL Players Association have rebooted the World Cup along with plans to make the showcase an every-four-year event, positioning it to become the league's prime global property while lessening the need for the spotlight the Olympics can provide.
The eight-team tournament, which will be staged in Toronto and begins on Saturday, has both excited and annoyed hockey purists with a quirky format that includes a Team North America, of under 23-year-old players from Canada and the United States and Team Europe, comprising skaters from outside the four hockey powers of Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland.
Gimmicks aside, the World Cup has hockey fans giddy with anticipation with the best-of-the-best set to face off against each other for the first time outside the Olympics since 2004.
The World Cup and the Canada Cup from which it morphed have had a rich but sporadic history with ice hockey greats Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and the former Soviet Union's 'Big Red Machine' all adding to their illustrious resumes.
Long before NHL players were allowed to participate in the Olympics, the Canada Cup, staged irregularly five times between 1976 and 1991, represented the only opportunity for fans to watch the sport's elite go up against each other.
In an effort to add some global cachet, the Canada Cup was rebranded the World Cup and staged twice - in 1996 and 2004.