"Best-on-best" is a term describing a competition that involves the most elite level of players possible. Usually it refers to an international men's tournament that both allows professional players and is being held at such a time that it does not conflict with the schedules of the major professional ice hockey leagues, especially the North American-based National Hockey League (NHL).
Best-on-best play is a relatively recent phenomenon in international ice hockey. Until the 1980s professionals were excluded from the Olympic tournament, and until 1970s NHL players did not take part in the world championships.
The first best-on-best competition of the modern era was the 1972 Summit Series, although this only involved two nations, Canada and the Soviet Union. While the Canadian side included only NHL players and not those of the rival World Hockey Association (WHA), commentators do not believe this was a major handicap for Canada. Players from the WHA competed in the subsequent 1974 Summit Series against the Soviet team, but this is rarely considered an example of best-on-best play, as no NHL players were allowed to take part.
After the success of the Summit Series, the NHL and its players' association were interested in being involved in more international play, but were excluded from the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee's rules, and from the International Ice Hockey Federation's world championships because of scheduling conflicts. In response they created the Canada Cup as an alternative. The IIHF responded by moving the world championships to later in the year so that NHL players not in the Stanley Cup playoffs could take part and endorsing the Canada Cup.
The Canada Cup was a six-team tournament held every three to five years from 1976 to 1991 in Canada and the United States that always featured the most elite level of talent available, both from the NHL and from the European elite leagues. In its five runnings, the tournament was won by Canada four times and by the Soviet Union once. The IIHF describes the initial 1976 tournament as "the first truly international tournament featuring 'best on best' from the best countries in the world".
In 1996 the Canada Cup was replaced by the World Cup of Hockey, in which some games were played outside of North America. The World Cup was promoted by the NHL and NHLPA specifically as a "best-on-best" tournament: NHL Vice President Bill Daly said that the 2004 world cup would "provide the international hockey community with a rare best-on-best tournament format featuring the world's foremost hockey stars from the NHL". NHLPA Senior Director Ted Saskin said that NHLPA members were looking forward "to the opportunity of playing for their country in this best-on-best tournament."  Only two world cups have been contested, in 1996 (won by the United States) and 2004 (won by Canada). The next installment of the World Cup of Hockey will take place in 2011.
Although professional hockey players were first eligible to compete in the Winter Olympics at the 1988 Calgary Games, the NHL did not stop its season to allow its players to participate until the 1998 Nagano Games. The league once again stopped play during the 2002 season for the Salt Lake games and in 2006 for the Turin games. These three tournaments are considered to have been best-on-best, and were won by the Czech Republic (1998), Canada (2002), and Sweden (2006). Once Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Olympics, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to participate again, but no commitment has been made beyond that date.
Ice hockey's annual world championships have allowed NHL players since the 1970s. However, since the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs are scheduled at the same time, many elite players are not able to take part. For example during the 2008 gold medal game Canada faced Russia. However Canada was without superstar Sidney Crosby and Russia did not have Evgeni Malkin because both were playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup final. Both Canada and Russia's teams featured many talented NHL players, but because not all elite players were available, many commentators do not consider this to be best-on-best play.
|Year||Competition Name||Winner / Gold Medalist:||Runner-Up / Silver Medalist:|
|1981||Canada Cup||Soviet Union||Canada|
|1987||Canada Cup||Canada||Soviet Union|
|1991||Canada Cup||Canada||United States|
|1996||World Cup of Hockey||United States||Canada|
|2004||World Cup of Hockey||Canada||Finland|
|2016||World Cup of Hockey||Canada||Team Europe|