There is a lot of talk regarding the NHL’s long-term commitment to the Olympics. It is uncertain if they will break off from the regular season when the Winter Olympics hit Korea in 2018. Unlike this year in Russia, when there were many NHL Russians saying they would play in the games regardless of fines, there may not be so many NHLers demanding a right to play in Korea (Richard Park excepted.) For the players, there are pros and cons on both sides of the decision. In owners’ minds, cons far outweigh the pros, while the opposite is true for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
· Patriotism. A chance to represent your country is sometimes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these guys. Many NHLers may not have had the chance to play in the Junior Worlds. As for the World Championships, most are happy to play, but I suspect they would rather be playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. An Olympic gold medal might have a bigger appeal to European players than those in North America, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian or American hockey player who’s never dreamed of playing on an Olympic Gold Medal team.
· Level of Play. The Olympics are an opportunity for the best players in the world to play against the best in a short and intense tournament. One and done in the medal rounds. Go big or go home. Pressure? Yep. The Olympics represent the pinnacle of your sport and it is a distinctly different honor than being part of a Stanley Cup winning team. Lidstrom’s seven Norris Trophies are super impressive, but score a cute shootout goal to win an Olympic gold medal and, better than a Wheaties Box, a picture of your goal lands a Swedish Postal Service deal and allows you to send a letter from PPiteå to VVästeras.
· Rink Size. Some like it, some don’t. The bigger ice leads to a game less like the NHL’s product and more like the European version. This could disrupt a player’s style either at the Olympics or upon return to the NHL. There are horses for courses, so some players (mostly North American I would venture) might not like playing at the European venues.
· Loyalties. Who the hell am I cheering for? Michigan born fan of a Canadian coached team stocked with Swedish players and one magical Russian. Does Kronwall leave his feet to level Tatar? Well no, since he’d fly right over him, but you get the picture. I guess I’ll cheer for the first team that gets an octopus thrown on the ice during their game.
· Recovery Time. It’s a long season, so a mid-term break is beneficial to most of your team to tend to injuries and to-do lists around the house. [Oh, that last one’s for me.]
· Exposure to their product. Look at the NBA’s world-wide appeal. Many countries have basketball leagues, but they all look to the NBA as the elite league. More exposure to the greatest sport can only lead to better things for the NHL, fans of ice hockey, and the wallets of the owners.
· Injuries. This is the first argument against, though I think it is one of the weakest. What’s to say someone would not have been injured during this three weeks time playing in the NHL against non-Olympians like John Scott, Matt Cooke, or John Tortorella? (Or dog sledding in the UP.) Actually, and I have no facts to back this up, I think a lockout would lead to more injuries. During the last lockout, you had a bunch of NHL players head over to Europe to play, despite not having a significant training camp. By the time the Olympics are played, it is mid-season and most (non-Red Wing) players are healthy and in game form.
· Extended Break. Was momentum lost during the break? Three weeks gives fans and viewership a chance to forget about their teams and focus on "Pitchers and Catchers Reporting" or the NBA All-Star Game. Is chemistry thrown off when players play with then against each other in a short time period? Sure, but a trade, injury, or player like Sean Avery can blow up chemistry as well.
· Citius - Altius – Fortius. You want the best? You’ve got ‘em! The genie is out of the bottle, so they will never go back to an Amateur format. So if professionals are allowed, then those in the NHL should be included. Having these athletes on display does nothing but augment the feeling that the Olympics truly does display the most elite of sport.
· Financial. There is a lot of interest in international hockey and it fills seats. It also merits lots of television time, even in hockey deserts like Florida and Phoenix Arizona. The IOC stands to earn a good amount of cash by drawing more viewers and actual visitors to the host city. The host cities also benefit greatly by having elite (and comparatively wealthy) athletes and their families in town.
· Chris Chelios. Okay, he was exonerated. But, hotel room trashing is not the best example that can be set by professionals of any sport. Highly paid athletes may claim affluenza for idiocy, but the IOC strives to maintain the veneer of civil competition, Marquis of Queensbury rules, and good sportsmanship.
So where do I stand? I want the NHL at the Olympics. Any sport that can take Olympic TV time away from figure skating is a good thing and needs to stick around and be promoted. But there is a change that I would make that would appease Owners, Players, and the IOC: institute an age restriction like the IOC has implemented for Soccer. As the Soccer rule stands, a country can field any team they like, but they cannot have more than three players older than 23 years old. [I would raise that to 25 for hockey and negotiate a limited NHL schedule. While it would not be a full break, perhaps no more than two games a week.]
· A country’s hands are then limited to how many oldsters they can select from the NHL, Elitsieren, KHL, or whichever league they choose. Teams will be less likely to have ten players from their team selected, at least not ten veterans who play the majority of the time. Edmonton may suffer because their best players are under 25. But I don’t care about a team that gets to draft first five years in a row. Owners? Happy. Their big boys are getting a quasi-holiday from back-to-backs and long road trips.
· Players still have an opportunity to play for their country, though the window of eligibility is limited. I’m sorry if you’re a late-bloomer, but life is unfair. Just ask Dan Marino or Marcel Dionne. Players? Happy. Sponsorship deals with United Airlines and Visa are still there. And you can always come back as a GM.
· The IOC gets to keep the sport relevant to the Winter Games. They still get the premier athletes available, albeit under the same restrictions they have for Soccer. No double standard. The quality of play will still be high and it may actually promote a more level rink. IOC? Happy.
Are you for or against NHL players in the Olympics? Do you think Ice Hockey in the Olympics would survive without the NHL? Are there parameters or rules that you would set to make this marriage survive for the future? Any other Pros and Cons? I will set up a KickStarter Campaign for you to fund my trip to Lausanne, Switzerland to present your thoughts to the IOC. [Small teaser: in return for a $100 donation, you get a Toblerone bar and a handwritten note from me!]
Bandy anyone? Titus