It's a difficult question to answer because everybody has a different idea.
When the Olympics were created by Baron de Coubertin, his vision of an amateur athlete was an athlete who was dedicated to his sport, but had a regular job. The idea was also that the BEST athletes in the world competed (i.e. he was pretty specific that the pastry baker down the road was NOT an athlete).
Over time, the world of sports has evolved. Sponsors have come on board, television has come on board, etc. The only difference between Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens was that Jesse Owen's prize money was $250/meet and Carl Lewis got $25,000. They both dedicated their spare time to being the best track and field athlete on the planet. Emil Zatopek was the top athlete earner in Europe in 1951, the year before he became an Olympic hero winning 3 gold medals. The IOC didn't care then.
In 1980, the US Olympic Hockey Team players had an average income of $4300. The Swedish team had an average annual income of $47,000K (from playing hockey).
Every player that represented Sweden, Finland, Soviet Union, Germany, etc from about 1960 onwards were professional players in the sense that they were payed to play hockey for their club teams. Part of the reason Canada walked away from the IIHF was because the IIHF and IOC considered the NHL as the ONLY professional league in the world.
- Finnish goaltender Hannu Lassila played in 2 Olympics AFTER playing in the WHA).
- Erich Kuhnhackl turned down an offer from the New York Rangers for $1MM a year in 1975 because he was making more playing in Germany..............he represented Germany after this revelation.
- Vladislav Tretiak wrote in his book he was paid $23,000 USD equivalent a year starting in 1971 to play hockey for CSKA (and by doing 2 weeks military exercizes a year the IOC would turn their head the other way).
- the great Sedish Hockey player Sven 'Tumba' Johansson was Sweden's highest paid athlete several times in the 1960s and 1970s, yet competed at several World Championships and Olympics during this time period
The great American IOC leader Avery Brundage addressed Clarence Campbell and the NHL on this issue in the early 70s
and these were part of the discussions that led to the creation of the Canada Cup (i.e. the world's best players would play for the right to be #1) because the talks gave no impression that the IOC would consider any other league pro.
For me, the Russians and the Europeans lost their anonymity and luster in the early 1970s. There was still some mystery however as we only saw these players on a rare occurrence.
One of the things that made the Miracle on Ice such a force in the hockey world was that it featured a bunch of young raw truly amateur players beating a team of seasoned professionals. The IOC doesn't broadcast that claim, but that is what it truly was. The Swedes..............professionals. The Finns...........professionals. The Soviets..............professionals. None of these teams beat the American amateurs.
One of the big things that Hitchcock said after the game on Sunday was that it was 'no big deal'....it was the Olympics that count. This actually took the NHLPA by surprise because the NHLPA thinks the World Cup of Hockey still has life left in it.
For me, the following tournaments have mattered
1981 Canada Cup (the Russians brought a subpar team in 1976 that while including the top 6-7 players, left the next 6-7 back home)
1984 Canada Cup
1987 Canada Cup
1991 Canada Cup
1996 World Cup
2004 World Cup
These are the only 9 tournaments where the hockey powers that be have sent their absolute best players available (sure, Ray Bourque declined 1996, Valery Kharlamov was left off 1981 (although he died a week before tournament began anyway prompting Tretiak to return to Moscow for the funeral).
For me, these are the tournaments with the most meaning. I agree that with so many Europeans in the NHL nowadays these meetings are more like glorified all-star games because we see them so often. But they are still a joy to watch.
1. So, I think if the NHLPA ever gets their act together, the World Cup of Hockey will be the most meaningful (this is an NHLPA sanctioned tournament with the IIHF's blessing).
2. As long as the NHL/NHLPA sees the benefits in it, the Olympics will be a close 2nd (This is an IIHF sanctioned tournament with the NHL/NHKPA's blessing)
3. The World Championships will always be a distant third because it lacks consistency. Prior to the European influx in the NHL, Canada and the US could not send their best teams due to the NHL playoffs and were at a huge disadvantage. Now with the NHL playoffs, not all countries have access to their best players (i.e. Sweden would have been a LOT better if Zetterberg and Lidtrsom weren't going for the Cup) so while it levels the playing field somewhat, it's not complete.
There are Canadians who feel that without Iginla, Lecavalier, etc that it isn't a National Team. Russian fans feel the same way without Malkin and Datsyuk. Swedish fans feel the same way without Zetterberg and Lidstrom.
So, only when the 'big guns' play does the tournament have any luster.