Olympic hockey faces irrelevance without NHL involvement

16 Have your say

If rumours are to be believed, this will be the final year – at least for the foreseeable future –where we see NHL players taking part in the Winter Olympics.

On the eve of what might be the greatest international tournament ever, we are greeted with news that it might also be the last.

If we do witness the demise of professionals (at least, those playing in the NHL) at the Olympics, we may also witness the death of Olympic hockey’s relevance.

Yes, we know the NHL owners and Commissioner do not like the idea of their superstars competing at the Olympics every four years.

Indeed, it was a major battleground in the lockout war of 2012-13, and perhaps a part of the reason why the negotiations between the NHL Players Association and the NHL itself took so long to be resolved.

Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, has been particularly vociferous in his opposition to the idea of letting his players go and play in the Olympics.

It’s a tournament that doesn’t help the NHL in a financial sense – but surely does focus more eyes than normal on the sport, which is never a bad thing – and in some ways you can understand his qualms and those of other owners in the same situation.

Not only must the NHL roll down the shutters on its operations at a time when they’re just about the only show in town aside from the NBA, but owners face the disastrous scenario of one of their superstars being injured in a tournament that offers them no financial incentive, thus hampering an NHL franchise for weeks or months.

The best illustration of this would probably be Pittsburgh.

It’s not hard to imagine the Penguins brains trust worrying about seeing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin taking to the ice over in Sochi, doing a serious, long-term injury, and pretty much blowing up the franchise’s Stanley Cup dreams.

The same could be said of Alexander Ovechkin or the Washington Capitals, or the New York Rangers, with Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash.

Even so, to deprive the Olympics of the National Hockey League superstars – and, at the same time, denying NHL superstars the chance to travel to the Olympics every four years – is a bad idea, for there is no greater showcase for the sport than the one it is now upon.

The Olympics is special, sacred, important; a part of the sporting history and legacy of every country who competes. Legends are born, heroes and villains unearthed, magic moments almost daily joining the annals of Olympic lore.

The men’s tournament in Vancouver four years ago was the best international hockey we’ve ever seen, featuring some epic contests between all-star teams without the hands-off approach to NHL All-Star Games.

Two weeks of brilliant hockey culminated with one of the more memorable gold medal games in history. It went into overtime and was won off the stick of Sidney Crosby (with a pretty big assist from Jarome Iginla), further strengthening the Canadian superstar’s legend.

It was a tournament fashioned by the gods of hockey, but the NHL wishes to take all of that away.

Their push for the rebirth of the World Cup of Hockey concept appears, on the surface, to be more about being able to take a slice of the earnings from international hockey than any real desire to promote the international game.

If both aims can be achieved at the same time it will doubtless it suit Commissioner Bettman down to the ground, but we should be under no illusions that this is all about money.

Namely, that the IIHF gets plenty out of the Olympics and the NHL (and its owners) get nothing.

No matter how good a potential World Cup of Hockey might be, it simply won’t match the history, pageantry and worldwide appeal of the Olympics.

Not only do players from the NHL appreciate the chance to play for an Olympic gold medal – pretty much the Holy Grail of sport – but they are also appreciative of being able to be a part of the Olympic feel.

That includes mingling with other superstars, living in the athlete’s village and, if not always being present for the Opening Ceremony (which must be one of the greatest thrills of the entire Olympic experience) then certainly being a part of the Closing Ceremony.

Honestly, NHL owners, we’re talking about a two- or three-week shutdown once every four years. I understand you’re running a business, but surely you can trade off the additional exposure Olympic hockey brings – particularly if it translates to butts on seats in your home arena – after shutting down your operations for a short period of time.

With the increased popularity, surely they would recoup most of whatever is lost during the stoppage? And anyway, the owners have never had a qualm about locking players out for partial or whole seasons – isn’t it effectively the same thing?

Interestingly, you don’t seem to hear too much complaint from the KHL, the Swedish Elite League or any of the other top-flight European leagues who shut down for a longer period during the Olympics than the NHL.

Perhaps they understand the necessity of allowing the best players in the world the chance to play at the biggest and most important tournament in the world.

Back to good business, and isn’t one of the so-called pillars of successful business activities ensuring you have happy employees?

I couldn’t imagine the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Lundqvist and Nash being particularly happy were they denied the chance to represent their country at the absolute pinnacle of sport, regardless of the presence of a World Cup of Hockey on the international calendar.

There is another issue here. The prospect of 2018’s Winter Olympics men’s hockey tournament in South Korea being an all-amateur affair effectively cheapens the Olympic brand, which has, for a long time in this era of professional sport,  been about the best athletes in any given sporting discipline competing against each other for the highest awards obtainable.

Yes, football is a notable exception to the rule. But until the National Hockey League can elevate their proposed World Cup of Hockey to the heights that FIFA’s World Cup scales every four years –the biggest sporting event on the planet not named the Summer Olympic Games – the league and its players should focus on the Olympics as the be-all-and-end-all of international hockey competition.

Anything else is honestly but a pipe dream.

Aside from players, fans are the other real losers if the NHL decrees that its players will not be allowed to represent their country at the Olympics. As fans, and patriotic supporters of our given countries, we always want to know that our best athletes are the ones representing our nation and our flag at the Olympics.

Were most of them sitting at home, watching the Games on TV like the rest of us, there’s every chance that the fan disillusionment would backfire on the NHL. I would personally be disappointed and annoyed with Commissioner Bettman if he took the NHL players out of contention for their country’s Olympic teams.

For those reasons, and more, there should be a concerted push to have the NHL compete at the next Olympics and those into the foreseeable future. Of course, the IIHF will make every effort to ensure this happens – their president has said exactly that.

It will ultimately come down to a battle between owners and players – and you get the bad feeling that, ultimately, the owners will flex their muscle and win the fight.

That would be a backward step for hockey.

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