Olympic hockey faces irrelevance without NHL involvement

Andrew Kitchener Roar Guru

By Andrew Kitchener, Andrew Kitchener is a Roar Guru & Live Blogger

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    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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    The Crowd Says (16)

    • February 13th 2014 @ 4:30am
      Bob Anderson said | February 13th 2014 @ 4:30am | ! Report

      You raise multiple issues, so first off, I have to disagree with you that everyone wants to see the “best athletes” in the Olympics. I want to see the best AMATEUR athletes in the world in the Olympics. I have lost much of my interest in the Olympics now that its professional. That might be a minority view, but I’m certainly not alone in that opinion. Baron Cubertin didn’t start the games for professionals.

      That said IF professionals are going to be in the Olympics, the NHL should take advantage of it and showcase their stars to the world. In particular, the Olympics is one time when casual and even non-hockey fans are watching.

      There’s no other forum where hockey in general, and the NHL in particular, can get this kind of free advertising. The hockey World Championship, and in the past the World Cup, are little known, basically irrelevant events even for most hockey fans. These events get no media coverage, and non-hockey fans don’t know they exist. Hockey has no equivalent to the soccer World Cup, or even the rugby World Cup. The Olympics are it, as far as important international competition. There are people who watch hockey ONLY during the Olympics. During the Vancouver games, there was a guy at work asking about penalties and why players were jumping on and off the ice all the time. He never watched a game before. Some of these people may become permanent fans.

      I can’t even imagine the NHL considering not wanting the free publicity, it seems nuts to me. They don’t lose any games, they fit them in during the rest of the season. There is no financial loss, but there’s massive free advertising for their product. As for a player getting hurt, so what? A player can get hurt during the 82 game regular season and not be available for the playoffs. Maybe the best players shouldn’t play at all until the playoffs.

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2014 @ 7:09am
        Andrew Kitchener said | February 13th 2014 @ 7:09am | ! Report

        I must disagree. The amateur age of the Olympics has come and gone. I want to see the best of the best – i.e. NHL-calibre pros.

        Apparently there is a financial loss – at least if you listen to Ed Snider and others.

      • February 13th 2014 @ 10:58am
        Jorji Costava said | February 13th 2014 @ 10:58am | ! Report

        What is ‘amateur’ in your definition of the word? You could argue a very strong case in court that anyone backed by an organisation such as the Australian Institute of Sport is a ‘professional’.

        When was it ever amateur anyhow? It is a joke. The Soviets and communist bloc nations were all full time athletes. They were employed by the ‘army’ but never wore the uniform.

        The New Zealand All Blacks are another great example of shamateurism. They were all full time players employed in mickey mouse jobs that they never attended. And we all wonder why they used to win all the time.

        Amateur, turn it up!

        • February 14th 2014 @ 6:08am
          Bob Anderson said | February 14th 2014 @ 6:08am | ! Report

          Yes, its possible to define amateur. Gaelic games in Ireland do a good job of it. NCAA sports in the US do a good job of it. Its possible, but its pretty much a moot point regarding the Olympics at this point.

          Just saying, to me the Olympics is like a bad sports buffet of unrelated and often obscure events that doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore in terms of its original purpose which was to promote sport for the sake of competition and building character rather than making money. That has nothing to do with whether the NHL should send players, yes it should, for the reasons I mentioned.

    • February 13th 2014 @ 6:28am
      Adam Julian said | February 13th 2014 @ 6:28am | ! Report

      Hockey is the showpiece sport at the Winter Games, sorry Curling fans. No NHL players at the Winter Games is like no Usain Bolt at the summer Olympics. Get rid of NHL players at the Olympics in this age of energy drinks and not just the hockey, but the whole games will suffer. People wants stars!

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2014 @ 7:08am
        Andrew Kitchener said | February 13th 2014 @ 7:08am | ! Report

        Well said, sir. My thoughts exactly. I love watching NCAA hockey, but not at an Olympic level. Besides, don’t you think we’ll end up with non-NHL pros still playing, probably opening the way to a USSR-like run of dominance for the Russians? ESPECIALLY if the NHL doesn’t sent it’s players, you know the KHL will. Another battleground between the two leagues.

    • February 13th 2014 @ 8:37am
      Gareth said | February 13th 2014 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      I remember reading a report after the Turin Olympics in relation the NHL-post the event and the television and attendance numbers actually increased – so the theory that it hurts the NHL isn’t really there. I’ve been in the US and watched hockey shortly after the Olympics and it does create a buzz and excitement. The chance to not only see NHL-stars in the flesh but also Olympians plying their trade.

      I understand the perspective of owners in that they don’t want their stock to be damaged (similar the club vs. country debate with football), but if you select the best players who happen to play for their country then that is the risk you take. You want the best you have to take the bad with it as well.

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2014 @ 11:12am
        Andrew Kitchener said | February 13th 2014 @ 11:12am | ! Report

        I’m pretty sure only the owners are hurt because they are losing some money. The League’s front office will, of course, back the owners to the hilt.

        There’s little doubt that the game’s profile in America was never higher than during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and for a month or so thereafter. The owners are just sore they’re not getting a cut.

    • February 13th 2014 @ 10:30am
      Jorji Costava said | February 13th 2014 @ 10:30am | ! Report

      Yep, pull out the NHL guys then the Russians will win gold every games from then on.

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2014 @ 1:07pm
        Andrew Kitchener said | February 13th 2014 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

        The NHL don’t care about the Olympics. They want their own international tournament so they make money. Too bad it won’t be anywhere near as globally-recognised as the Olympics.

    • February 13th 2014 @ 4:13pm
      Brian said | February 13th 2014 @ 4:13pm | ! Report

      The only time I watch Hockey is the Winter Olympics. As someone who grew up on Football World Cups I love the International aspect of it. Its also the only thing in the Winter Olympics I would care to watch.

      Surely the owners can realize that as long as its a fair playing field in that everyone loses their best players to the Olympics then it is an even field and whilst your best player can get injured so to your playoff opponent. So unlike Football with multiple leagues battling to be the best with NHL as long as all the top players do play Olympics when they can the owners are not being disadvantaged.

      After all NBA players play Summer Olympics. If the NHL does pursue this would be a very backwards move for Ice Hockey.

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2014 @ 4:31pm
        Andrew Kitchener said | February 13th 2014 @ 4:31pm | ! Report

        The NHL is famous for one step forward, two steps backward.

    • Roar Pro

      February 13th 2014 @ 5:47pm
      Eliot Bingham said | February 13th 2014 @ 5:47pm | ! Report

      Ed Snider shouldn’t have anything to worry about…No star players on Flyers were selected for the Olympics!

      • Roar Guru

        February 13th 2014 @ 6:16pm
        Andrew Kitchener said | February 13th 2014 @ 6:16pm | ! Report

        Touche. But he is surely emblematic of the other owners. I mean, this is a guy who owns Comcast, which is tied into NBC…who broadcast the NHL and the Olympics. It’s an interesting viewpoint coming from him of all people.

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