What NHL stars want the next World Cup of Hockey to look like


STOCKHOLM – Nikolaj Ehlers remembers his eyes welling up with pride as he walked into a cramped dressing room in the Jordal Amfi Arena in Oslo.
It was August 2021 and the Winnipeg Jets forward had every right to be relaxing after his fifth-straight 20-goal NHL season. But Ehlers chose to represent Denmark in the final round of qualification for the 2022 Winter Olympics. It was a tournament Ehlers and his fellow NHL players wouldn’t even play in. But surrounded by teammates, that was the furthest thing from Ehlers’ mind after Denmark beat a higher-ranked Norway team to qualify for the Olympics.
“We had guys crying,” Ehlers said. “That’s what I want to feel again.”
Ehlers believes representing your country is supposed to elicit those emotions.
And many of those players remain skeptical the next World Cup of Hockey will be able to do that.
“I would much rather go to the Olympics, and I think (the NHL) should make that happen before they make the World Cup happen,” Ehlers said. “So as of right now, I’m not a big fan of the World Cup. Obviously, I want to represent my country…. but I would much rather be doing that at the Olympics than the World Cup.”
Whenever NHL players gather abroad, the prospect of a best-on-best tournament — something the league, the NHLPA and the IIHF have failed to get right since the 2014 Winter Olympics — is often front of mind. And the 2023 NHL Global Series in Stockholm is no different. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on Thursday the league is “hopeful to have an international tournament in February 2025.”
What’s notable? Some of the league’s best players currently in Stockholm might not represent their own country in the NHL’s next iteration of a best-on-best tournament if it follows the model of the 2016 World Cup when the smaller European countries were combined into one Team Europe.
They might not even be involved at all.
“Theoretically that’s important. As a practical matter, that may not be realistic,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said about having a bigger tournament with individual country teams. “We might not get there over time. But we may have to evolve into a more inclusive World Cup.”
Does that mean Ottawa Senators forward Tim Stützle and Detroit Red Wings defenceman Moritz Seider, both German and two of the biggest stars at the Global Series, could be left in the cold in the next World Cup? At best, if the NHL revisits a Team Europe, some of the NHL’s best players will again be robbed of the chance to represent their country. And if the NHL abandons the idea of a Team Europe altogether, the league will miss out on the chance to market those stars.
“Every time you think of a World Cup, you just think best-on-best,” Seider said. “You hopefully have a lot of countries bringing their best players. It’s something I think fans would like, and especially we would like.”
What happens with Team Europe is just one of the questions surrounding the prospect of a true international tournament that NHL players and fans have been robbed of for nearly 10 years.
If the league intends to grow the game, it will be the players taking part in the next tournament tasked to do that. The Athletic surveyed multiple high-profile players from across the NHL, including players participating in the NHL’s Global Series, to gauge their thoughts on what the next World Cup of Hockey should look like.
Nathan MacKinnon was 21 and one of the younger members on a makeshift Team North America comprised of players under 23 from Canada and the United States at the 2016 World Cup. The tournament was enjoyable for MacKinnon, sure, because why would playing alongside Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews be anything but fun?
But now, MacKinnon can count himself as one of the best players in the world and a no-brainer choice for the next Team Canada. And as he’s matured, MacKinnon has come to better appreciate the quality of talent across hockey. His view is one many players share: If the NHL is going to stage a best-on-best tournament, they should avoid gimmicks and involve as many players as possible.
“I would like to have (the next World Cup) look like the World Championships. Even if there aren’t strong teams, the more countries, the better,” MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon has earned the right to be a prominent voice in the league. And as such, you wonder if other star players who care about the quality of the game as a product — which the league will be selling — agree with him.
“It’s more interesting than just having four or six teams,” MacKinnon said. “That could get stale. You don’t want to make it too repetitive, I don’t think. It should be a big deal when countries play each other.”
Should the NHL run headfirst into a purposefully smaller World Cup, MacKinnon believes they’d be limiting exposure of the league’s best talent. The idea of the “Big Six” — the six most popular hockey-playing nations in the world in Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Russia and Czechia comprising the majority of international players — is forlorn. The continued growth of the game throughout Europe means marketable and influential talent has risen to the surface.
“Look at Germany,” MacKinnon said. “They might not be as deep but (Leon) Draisaitl, Stützle, (Philipp) Grubauer, they can win you a game.”
Nathan MacKinnon celebrates scoring an overtime goal against Sweden during the 2016 World Cup. (Andre Ringuette / Getty Images)
By not including smaller nations such as Germany, would the NHL be doing its fans and players a disservice?
“All the fans want to see best-on-best… For me, everybody has to be included,” Stützle said. “It’s definitely hard for the smaller nations. But I don’t think it would be a World Cup of Hockey, for example, without Leon Draisaitl there. You have to get everyone included.”
Stützle admits he’d play in the tournament in any form and that it would be difficult to form a Team Germany if the NHL plans to rely solely on its own players. So too would Seider, though he would prefer playing for a German team.
“It’s something I think fans would like, and especially we would like. It’s always cool playing in your national colors,” Seider said. “There are just a lot more players on the North American continent than in the smaller countries in Europe, so you always have to consider that. But I think either way we’ve shown in the past that we have a competitive team.”
But a smaller World Cup built less on players representing their countries and more on a convoluted, exhibition-style tournament means less of the inherent drama that comes with smaller nations playing established ones. That’s partly what makes the FIFA World Cup, unquestionably the most-watched sports tournament in the world, a must-see event every four years. It’s what made the 2023 World Baseball Classic, which saw some of the best American players taking part after years of doing the opposite, an intriguing event.
“Ideally, in world hockey, you want every country to have a chance to put together a team,” Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews said. “It gives (smaller countries) a purpose and intent to be the best in the world. A lot of those teams would play harder knowing they’re the underdogs.”
And those underdogs welcome the challenge.
“Switzerland would have a competitive team,” Nashville Predators Swiss defenceman Roman Josi said. “That’s how you grow the game and make people from those countries attached to it. I felt like (the 2016 World Cup) didn’t gain that much traction in Switzerland.”
Why not? Little chance for genuine upsets.
“People in Switzerland love the world championships, and when we beat a bigger team, it’s huge,” Josi said.
Josi was part of Team Europe in 2016 and said he’d be fine with doing it again but would “definitely” rather play for Switzerland.
He’s not alone.
What the NHL may come to understand is that a condensed international tournament might not land in the exact places they should be trying to increase their reach.
“Having a Team Europe, nobody in Switzerland is really going to be cheering for that team. They might follow it, but it’s obviously not the same thing for fans in those smaller countries,” Josi said.
Ditto for Slovakia, according to Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak.
“Imagine how many people from Slovakia would watch those games,” he said of a tournament that included smaller nations like his.
He doesn’t think any tournament that includes a Team Europe will resonate the way the World Championships in Slovakia in 2019 did when he helped his home country upset the United States 4-1 in their opening game.
“People were going crazy,” Cernak said.
So is the league prepared to hold a tournament with a European team that might not resonate with fans, or worse, one without some of the best players in the league?
Not every player was in favor of a bigger tournament, of course.
“I think eight teams with two groups is a good format,” Toronto Maple Leafs Czech centre David Kampf said. He’s perfectly fine with the NHL rolling out a similarly structured tournament to the 2016 World Cup. “You could get the best players from all those countries.”
Toews also found the idea of an under-23 North American team intriguing.
“There’s just so many good players in this league under the age of 23, for them to get an opportunity to showcase themselves, they should be in that kind of competition,” Toews said.
But the majority of players interviewed believe the way for the league to increase viewership around the world and, in essence, continue to grow the game is to increase the size of the World Cup.
“People are talking about Germany not being a hockey country, but when you see the players they have and you see the way they play, people would be very impressed. So I’d like for (smaller countries) to have their own teams,” Washington Capitals Swedish defenceman Rasmus Sandin said. “That would keep growing the sport in Europe, and globally, too.”
That growth seems to be front of mind for the NHL, given their visits for regular season games to smaller hockey nations such as Slovakia, Switzerland and Germany since 2008. So why approach a best-on-best tournament without similar ambition?
It’s one of the many questions facing a league that seemingly wants to promote its players from around the world, but can’t figure out how.
The NHL will have to address the prospect of an international tournament possibly without Russian players. They’ll also have to determine how to involve players who have serious pull in their home countries and are set on playing in the 2026 Winter Olympics. Involving countries that cannot comprise a team strictly of NHL players may be wishful thinking.
When you add up the possibility of an international tournament not featuring the players quoted above, as well as Russian players, would a smaller World Cup feel any different than the NHL All-Star Game, an event that saw its TV ratings in the United States sink to a new low recently?
Both the league and its players have an appetite for international hockey. Whether they can figure out how to make a World Cup representative of the growth of the game, and do so independent of Olympic participation, remains one of the many challenges the league faces.
“I’m not trying to bury the World Cup because I think it’s a cool thing. But your childhood dream is to win a Stanley Cup, represent your country and go to the Olympics,” Ehlers said. “When you take that away from players, it’s hard.”
With reporting from Ian Mendes and Max Bultman.
(Top photo of Roman Josi: Andre Ringuette / Getty Images)


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