Last spring, amid the tumult of the National Hockey League playoffs, Ithe league's players as-
sociation sent letters to its best and highest-paid members asking them to take a month out of their summer holidays and work for far less than their usual pay. The carrot? To play in the first-ever World Cup of Hockey, an eight-team tournament that begins this week in Stockholm and winds up in midSeptember in Montreal. Brendan Shanahan, a Hartford Whalers forward from Mimico,
Ont., was the first to write back.
He was soon followed by German goalie Olaf Kolzig of the Washington Capitals, who faxed in his response at 7 a.m. the morning after playing a tripleovertime game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Keith Primeau, a hulking Detroit Red Wings forward from Toronto, notified the players association on the day of Game 7 in the Wings’ series against the St.
Louis Blues. They all said yes.
“It’s the whole atmosphere, the chance to play with the best, to play for your country,” says Philadelphia Flyers forward Eric Lindros. “When you come here, you better have your A game.”
The Canada Cup is gone, a victim of hockey’s growth, but longtime fans will be comforted by the fact that the new Cup looks a lot like the old
one. The late-summer schedule and the traditional rivalries remain intact. And except for Pittsburgh superstar Mario Lemieux and Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek, who chose to sit out, the world’s best players are all in uniform. Such Canadian veterans as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens will be energized by the younger legs of Lindros, Scott Niedermayer and Ed Jovanovski. The Czech Republic boasts Petr Nedved and Jaromir Jagr, Finland will be led by Teppo Numminen and Teemu Selanne, Russia can summon Pavel
Bure, Alex Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, and Sweden is powered by Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin.
Still, the organizers—the league, the
Ice Hockey Federation—decided nearly two years ago that the event could no longer be confined to North American boundaries. The notion, true or false, was that no one outside the Great White North really cared about something called the Canada Cup. Moreover, the league wanted to create a European appetite for licensed products such as hats, T-shirts and jerseys. To promote those aims, one of two fourteam divisions—comprising Sweden, Germany, Finland and the Czech Republic—
will play its first-round games in Europe. The North American quartet, with Russia and Slovakia joining Canada and the United States, will play in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, New York and Philadelphia. Three teams in each division will advance to the next rounds, which will be played solely in North America. The tournament also acts as a dry run for the 1998 Olympics, when NHL stars will be freed by their teams to play for their countries. ‘We are not expecting the Cup to change the fortunes of hockey overnight,” league commissioner Gary Bettman said, “but it is a step in the right direction.” The bloodlines of the World Cup run deeply in Canada. It is a direct descendant of the 1972 Summit Series, when Canada and the Soviet Union battled to the last seconds of an eightgame set before Paul Henderson so narrowly, and indelibly, gave Canada the victory. That series begat the 1976 Canada Cup, which included the top European teams and the United States. For fans, the format was an immediate hit. The first Cup, for instance, saw gimpy-kneed Bobby Orr, the era’s dominant player, play his last meaningful games, and established Czechoslovakia as a world hockey power—Canada’s 1-0 loss to the Czechs in the opening round was widely acclaimed as one of
the greatest games ever played. And the 1987 Cup paired Gretzky and Lemieux, a prolific tandem that proved too much for the Soviets in Canada’s rivetting final-game victory.
Media interest for the current
Cup was slow to build. “We were hurt in the United States by the Olympics—no one wanted to talk to us for awhile,” says
Bernadette Mansur, the NHL’s
vice-president of corporate communications. But that changed once training camps opened. “In virtually every market,” says Susie Mathieu, the Cup’s managing director, “it has created an interest in hockey much earlier than in normal seasons.” Some players have expressed concern about the tournament’s timing. Hockey already has the longest season of the four major North American professional sports, and such members of the Stanley Cup finalists as Colorado’s Joe Sakic (Canada), Forsberg and Uwe Krupp (Germany) had less than two months to nurse battered bodies back to health. But the players insist that the Cup is not a series of glorified all-star games. And if last week’s hotly contested exhibition games are an indication, no one is taking the tournament lightly.
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