The World Baseball Classic ended in dramatic fashion after Japan beat the United States on a strikeout of Mike Trout by Shohei Ohtani. It was a storybook ending for an international tournament that continues to gain in popularity.
The dream matchup of a lifetime.
Shohei Ohtani strikes out Mike Trout for the final out of the WBC Final.
What a tournament 👏
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) March 22, 2023
Starting in 2006, the World Baseball Classic has at times been considered a glorified spring training session. Many of the best players in baseball had elected to sit out of the tournament for fear that they might suffer an injury that would impact the season for their major league clubs.
As the tournament has started to gain traction, it has increased in popularity and drama, with some of the games’ best players now choosing to forgo spring training with their clubs and instead represent their country.
Baseball has a great international presence to it and continues to grow across Latin America and Asia. As a result of this, it is no surprise that the World Baseball Classic is growing in popularity after its fifth occurrence in 2023.
Why Hockey Needs Its Own International Tournament Like the World Baseball Classic
Another sport that has a similar international appeal is hockey. The NHL is comprised of players not just from Canada and the United States, but also from several countries in Europe.
However, it is rare that hockey gets countries’ best players to face each other in an international tournament as we are starting to see for the World Baseball Classic. Occasionally the Olympics has hosted a tournament when the NHL has permitted an Olympic break. Though this hasn’t happened since the 2014 Winter Olympics.
It begs the question of why? With so much international history and representation in the NHL, why can’t that be embraced more in the sport of hockey?
Here are two reasons why the NHL should prioritize a “Best on Best” international tournament similar to the World Baseball Classic.
The Demand is There
Simply put, the demand from players and fans is there. The Winter Olympics, when allowed to have the best players in the NHL, continues to attract the best and get high ratings from fans.
Fans and players both appreciate the opportunity to put their local team’s sweater away for a chance to support their home country. Players such as Alex Ovechkin have threatened to play for their home country anyway if the NHL doesn’t allow an Olympic break.
Holding the best players in the league, the NHL has a responsibility to be good stewards of the game by looking beyond their own product and toward the health of the game. All genuine fans and players benefit from international play so to hold back the players from international competition is stunting the growth of the sport.
The Tournaments Already Exist
International play is engrained within hockey culture. From the World Junior Championships held in December to the World Championships that take place in the spring, the governing bodies that would be needed to implement an international tournament that showcases the sport’s best players are already in place.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) January 6, 2023
Unlike Baseball, which is no longer played during the summer Olympics, hockey has this platform available to them. Moreover, they have demonstrated that it does work, taking an Olympic break during the NHL season from 1998 through 2014.
If the NHL doesn’t want to utilize the Olympics there are also the World Championships that are played each year during the spring. Currently, the World Championships occur each spring, usually when the first round of the NHL playoffs has completed. As a result, the rosters will include some NHL players but many of the best players are still chasing the Stanley Cup.
This tournament provides the structure for an international tournament to take place. Everything is already there except for the timing. If this tournament could be moved to late summer, just ahead of most hockey seasons across the globe, it could provide a better chance for some of the games best to play.
While late summer isn’t typically considered “hockey season” it would still generate interest as fans gear up for their traditional seasons to start. Like the World Baseball Classic, which is played in March, the traditional seasons don’t matter as much when trying to host a unique sports tournament.