I can already hear the objections to my argument. “B-b-b-but…the 20 best Americans will never play the 20 best Canadians who never play the 20 best Swedes who never play the 20 best Russians!”
And while that may be true, there are a handful of very good reasons to have NHL players abstain from the Olympics after the 2014 Sochi Games.
It’d be unfair to pull the players back now. Alexander Ovechkin has already been named an ambassador for the Games in Russia; and it would be less-than-cool to take the players away from the Sochi committee that have been counting on this kind of competition.
But since we’re over a year away from an announcement regarding the host city for the 2018 Games – and since the NHL’s role in the Olympics has become a hot-button issue lately – it’s a good time for this discussion.
And, hey, just to make it fair…I won’t even mention the injury risk that’s posed by playing high-energy championship-style games. Dominik Hasek took care of that argument in Torino.
Make no mistake, I understand the rationale that fans and viewers of an international hockey event want to see the best players on the planet. That makes total sense – but we already have a chance to see the greatest players on Earth collected in one place. It’s called the National Hockey League.
THE SPIRIT OF THE OLYMPICS
Let’s start with the most obvious reason, shall we? The Olympic Games themselves are built upon the ideal of competition among the best amateur athletes in the world. And while the Olympics have been slowly phasing out amateurism (the only true example of amateurs left in the Games is in the boxing competition), I still hold on to the romantic ideal that there’s something very exciting about seeing “the next wave” on that grand stage.
It’s very true that you may never see another Miracle on Ice – but that’s precisely what made 1980 so special: the long odds of a ragtag collection of kids beating what was correctly considered to be the strongest and most skilled group of players anywhere.
Under no other circumstances would you have known Mike Eruzione’s name.
For the next couple of minutes, please keep in mind that the NHL will still be the pinnacle of hockey achievement – regardless of your country of origin. Therefore, the best Swedes, Russians, and Finns will still be playing in it. If professionals were removed from the Olympics, it wouldn’t become NHL-level Euros against kids that play in Cedar Rapids, North Dakota, and in the OHL.
With the Olympics restricted to non-NHLers, we’ll have an opportunity to become familiar with the Ovechkins, Zetterbergs, and Crosbys of tomorrow, instead of seeing the same ones we’re graced with every day – just in different jerseys.
I hate to agree with anything the NBA or NFL does, but a small part of me believes they may be onto something delaying draft eligibility. While forcing a year or two of college wouldn’t work exactly the same for hockey (because of the prevalence of European players and those from junior) – and it’s not something I would ever, in a million years suggest – it does introduce an interesting situation.
Would 18- and 19-year old players hold off on pressing forward to the pro ranks if the possibility of representing their country in the Olympics existed?
It’s almost not worth bringing up because so few teenagers actually make the jump to the NHL, but it does raise an interesting conversation – at least internally – for the kids who hope to one day play for their nation.
Evgeni Malkin would have gone pro in 2006-07 no matter what. He was three years removed from an Olympic Games, and asking someone of that magnitude to hold off on going pro for three years is asking a lot.
But would Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf have gone pro the year before – or is there a possibility that could have been enticed to remain in junior leagues knowing that they won’t get the chance to represent their country in the future (at the Olympic level, anyway)?
How about Patrick Kane? Steve Mason? Giving up a year or two of entry-level money for the chance to be an Olympic medalist? What about the non-Calder winners? Zach Bogosian? Josh Bailey? Zach Parise?
Fans of the Red Wings understand the importance of developing prospects slowly, and Holland & Co would have no issue with their players putting off their professional careers while competing against the world’s best amateurs – like a very select few get to do in the World Juniors Championship.
One thing that would definitely need to be changed – given my scenario – is the signing deadlines conundrum. Pro teams only get two years to sign their North American draft picks, and that’s potentially not enough time to have players keep their “amateur” status, depending on the draft year. Perhaps the “professional” tag is designated for those in the NHL only? But that would cause the stir of NHL vs. the KHL vs. other European leagues. Eh…That’s a debate for another day.
NOT EVERYONE PLAYS IN THE OLYMPICS
With the way things are right now, the NHL must cease operations for two weeks in the winter to allow select members to participate in the Games. And while I’m sure everyone that’s selected is beyond honored for the opportunity to play for their flag, there are hundreds of others who come to a jolting standstill in the middle of the season.
I only mildly believe in momentum throughout a season, but something should be said about the dead stop the regular season comes to at one of the more important parts of the season. Can the NHL – which is already teetering on second-class citizenship – afford to void February for the sake of a glorified tournament? Is enough interest in hockey generated by the Olympic Games to make it worth the League’s while?
If you can tell me the exposure is beneficial to the NHL and to hockey as a whole, then – yeah – I would keep the pros in the Olympics. But you can’t.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS…
The best professional athletes belong in the NHL, the NBA, and at Soccer’s World Cup – but not at the Olympics. It was recently brought up, perhaps ironically, that hockey would be better at the Summer Games – as it wouldn’t interrupt the NHL season and the threat of season-ending injury would be less worrisome. As ridiculous as it sounds – hockey wedged between Track & Field and Swimming – it makes a bit more sense than the way things are right now.