After witnessing the Women’s Olympic Gold Medal Game between the United States and Canada, it became even more evident that global spectacles still bring out the best in hockey, even if it is between two North American neighbours.
Sure, our favourite players from the National Hockey League were nowhere to be seen in Beijing, but new fans around the globe and casual fans across this continent still got to witness the best of the women’s game, including Hilary Knight, Marie Philip-Poulin, and Natalie Spooner. Further, hardcore fans got a glimpse of the next generation of men’s superstars that they may have missed during the World Junior Championship, such as top prospect Owen Power.
Though, the pandemic has without a doubt stifled such growth among new fans, whether it be through periodic attendance declines, shoddy scheduling, or canceled tournaments. However, no matter the level or class of hockey one chooses, perhaps nothing is more influential to expanding the game’s reach, even if it’s just within North America, than such international tournaments.
Take the 2010 Men’s Olympic Gold Medal game for example, which could arguably be the best game of all time. It was played in Vancouver between the U.S. and Canada, and included some of the most intense five-on-five play rememberable. Sidney Crosby scored the game-winner in overtime for the hosts, but not before Zach Parise had tied the game in the final twenty-five seconds. In fact, at the time, it was the most watched television event in Canadian history, and the most viewed hockey game in U.S. history.
While perhaps every international tournament will cease to compare to that one, it is worth noting that the U.S.-Canada rivalry in the men’s game, but also in the women’s game, is crucial to the development of the sport domestically on this side of the Atlantic. For better or for worse, it seems many casual hockey fans will be more likely to tune in to a game like that than even an NHL All-Star Game or Isobel Cup matchup. For perspective, last week’s women’s gold medal game was the second most-watched hockey telecast in the U.S. since the start of the 2019 NHL Season. The only one higher was last year’s Stanley Cup Final Game 5 between Montreal and Tampa Bay. The men’s USA-Canada preliminary game was third, despite late start times, and no NHL participants.
Maybe a return of the World Cup of Hockey every two or four years could sweeten the pot more for casual American fans who might not be as die hard as their friends North of the border. Matt Larkin of The Hockey News floated some possibilities of a best-on-best format on the men’s side, similar to what we saw in 2016, so it’s definitely on people’s minds.
Hockey fans certainly lost out when the World Junior Championships were nixed and when it was announced that NHL’ers wouldn’t compete in Beijing, but if we learned anything from the past couple years, including from the success of a makeshift men’s tournament and lopsided women’s field, it’s that some international competition is better than no international competition. Whether that’s within the Olympic movement or not is still to be determined. Vancouver could get the games back as soon as 2030, but that’s too long to wait.
So, if NHL stakeholders want to rekindle the 2010 and 2014 magic, pay a debt to some disappointed fans, and capitalize on growth opportunities for new followers of the sport. Now is the time. As for investing in and growing women’s game, we’ll leave that for another column. It’s equally as imperative.