Burke's idea is no Cup of fertilizer
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke wrote in The National Post about growing the game
Reviving the World Cup for summer will attract few stars and only die-hard fans
The Olympics are worth the NHL's expense for the excitement and exposure
I swear I don't wake up in the morning looking for reasons to snip at Brian Burke. I like the guy. I think he's one of the best general managers in the game. But geez, it's hard to look the other way after his Tomas Kaberle fumble and now this silliness about using the World Cup to grow the sport.
Oh, you didn't hear about that?
Burke this week utilized a cross-Canada stage provided by The National Post ostensibly to promote The Game (his caps, not mine) and to sell his belief that a revival of the World Cup -- not the Olympics -- is the ideal approach to spread the good news to the great unwashed.
"Staging a late-summer World Cup gives the best opportunity to grow the game in the 24/7, 365-day era of competing entertainment options," Burke writes. "Fresh, local hockey news will come to fans with a patriotic flavor right when football and soccer seasons are just gearing up. NHL owners will not shut down their businesses mid-season; teams, fans and players do not have to shoulder in-season injury risks and post-tournament slumps; and players can earn some additional income and use the tournament to prepare for the upcoming season."
Burke, who built the American squad that surprised with a silver medal performance in Vancouver, isn't anti-Olympic. What he is, however, is opposed to other organizations like the IIHF and the IOC making bank on these events while the tap is turned off for the NHL's owners during the quadrennial three-week shutdown.
His stand then isn't really about hockey. It's about business. He wants his side to make more of the money.
Not an unexpected position from someone who is being paid by those same owners and who might have to deal with the impact of losing a star player down the stretch. So, hey, it's fine that he feels this way. Just don't expect anyone else to buy into the notion that a summer tournament is hockey's best shot at the big time.
Honestly, I'm right there with him as far as reviving the World/Canada Cup format. That shouldn't come as a surprise, either. Do I want a chance to watch some high-level hockey instead of having to deal with dull pennant races and NFL training camp? That's like asking Mel Gibson if he'd like to share a few personal thoughts on his ex-wife.
Sure, let's bring the World Cup back for the first time since 2004, and the sooner, the better. But before we do, let's recognize that, in practical terms, a summer best-on-best tournament is good for one thing only.
Preaching to the choir.
I remember flipping on The Tonight Show back in February and Hugh Jackman, who isn't a Canadian but plays one in the movies, was talking about how he'd been completely enthralled by the Olympic gold medal match. You could tell the guy understood as much about the sport as I do about Australian beach cricket, but having been drawn in by the hype of the Games, he'd been thoroughly captivated by the intensity of the drama.
But even after that experience, do you think Wolverine is stopping down on an early September day to catch another Canada-US game on ESPN 8, The Ocho? You think he would even know it was on?
Sure seems unlikely, but Burke doesn't see it that way.
"As a kickoff to NHL and European league schedules, a World Cup allows a host of good results -- all of which allow for growth beyond the current schedule and fan base."
Uh-huh. I just don't see how the summer is the best time to grow the game. First, you run a very real risk of not attracting the best possible players. Remember that 1996 tournament won by the Americans over Team Canada? Lost in the celebration of that historic victory is that Canada's best forward (Mario Lemieux), best defender (Raymond Bourque), and best goalie (Patrick Roy) were all too busy washing their hair to take part. And honestly, who could blame them?
It's one thing to ask the employees to sprinkle in a couple extra games mid-season. It's like working through their lunch break. It's another thing entirely to expect them to come in early. Imagine asking Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa to report for national team duty just six or eight weeks after the three-month death march that culminated in a Stanley Cup. Think about all the other players nursing wounds suffered during the postseason. How motivated would they be to expedite their recoveries...and how thrilled would their teams be to allow them to play?
Consider the World Baseball Classic, a similar event just prior to the regular MLB season. No doubt an interesting event, but there were two problems with the 2009 tournament. Even middling baseball fans couldn't be bothered to watch it, so it's hard to believe it tapped into any new veins of support. And look at all the top players (Albert Pujols, Joe Mauer, Jonathan Papelbon) who begged out of participation -- or were held out by their teams? That's probably a decent indication of what we could expect from a revived summer showdown.
Is there more money to be made short-term in an NHL/NHLPA controlled summer event? No doubt. The Olympic tournament, on the other hand, is a rare marketing and advertising opportunity. It's not a profit center. It's an expense. And a worthwhile one at that. Do other people reap the immediate dividends? Of course. But if the game has a future on the world stage, it's all about taking risks to maximize exposure. Ask any hockey fan about their post-Olympic days and he or she will have a story about talking with some non-fan who caught the action like Jackman did and was amazed.
And that's why the bucks lining the IOC's pockets should be considered small change. In exchange for those profits, the Olympics give the NHL fresh eyes. The league then has a chance to hold the hands of these novitiates, guide them from the Winter Games down the stretch run to the true spectacle of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They might not hook everyone, but chances are anyone with an inclination to give the sport a chance will be captivated. And after they've experienced that emotion, then there's a shot to get 'em to watch Columbus vs. Minnesota the following October.
Look, I'm all for staging another World Cup. Just recognize it for what it is: an entertainment option for the die-hards and a chance for the NHL and its players to generate an immediate financial return.
Fertilizer to grow the game, it ain't.
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