As the 2010 Winter Olympics draw closer, discussions will continue to pop up all over the place.
There will be the standard “who’s the favorite to take home the gold argument,” which will—no matter the circumstances—always seem to involve Canada.
There’s also the much more fun “who’s going to surprise at this tournament” (my pick: Germany), which team’s jerseys are going to present the biggest colour/design catastrophe or victory, and which country or player will offer us the most memorable scene.
The other argument that gets brought up, though, is whether the NHL should or shouldn’t participate in the 2014 Olympics in Russia.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge seems to think that it'd be in the NHL's best interests to be in Sochi four years from now.
And he’s right.
With professional players participating in the Olympics now, there are the obvious drawbacks. The two-week layoff right in the prime of hockey season not only hurts the crunching in extra hockey over the course of the season, but it’s two weeks of extra hockey that could burn out key players for playoff-hungry teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, and Calgary Flames.
In addition, while the players are on display in a true “best on best” competition, it’s not under the NHL shield or team logos, letting any playoff excitement that was built before the break go stale for a two-week period until the fans can get back into it.
You’re also left with the odd circumstances that arise from time to time, like the jet lag from the trip to Nagano in 1998 or the 14-game road trip that the Vancouver Canucks will have to go on starting Jan. 30.
Once you’re able to get past those hindrances, however, the positives come in droves.
For one, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wants to follow the NFL in making his game a worldwide phenomenon, correct? Well, what better way to do that than the Olympics?
Although the current “expansion” (and expansion is only under the belief that the game is expanding, not the league) plan calls for a handful of NHL teams to miss their home openers while playing in Sweden and Finland, the Olympics go beyond that.
While Salt Lake, Vancouver, and Sochi are by no means hockey deathbeds, places like Turin in 2006 and Nagano in 1998 were exposed to a game and players they have had a very limited opportunity to view.
When these countries get exposed to the higher level of the game, they also see their program improve by a large margin. While it does take time and money to compete with the international hockey superpowers, some of these countries want to be able to and are willing to do whatever it takes.
A perfect example is the Chinese national women’s hockey team, who, after opening competition in 1992, have taken pride in the sport and put forth plenty of hard work to achieve a program they’re proud of.
Returning to the NHL impact of things, the Olympics occur roughly around the same time as the All-Star break normally would, which is the reason (along with the two-week break where a majority of the NHL’s premier talent is off at the Games) there is no All-Star game.
But for the spectacle that All-Star weekend has become to the NHL, which do you think the players take more seriously: a weekend where, despite the family aspect of things they participate in a largely meaningless slew of competitions and a dulled-down game, or the opportunity to carry a nation, their nation, on their chests and backs?
Unlike the All-Star game, no one is going to be handing out one-game suspensions to Nik Lidstrom or Pavel Datsyuk for missing out on the Olympics. In fact, players like Mikael Samuelsson of the Vancouver Canucks publicly criticized (and F-bombed) his country after he was left off of the roster.
The last player to have that kind of reaction to missing an All-Star game may have been Jeremy Roenick—but only because he wasn’t going to see any hitting if he missed the game.
The Olympics are no spectacle to these players. Every opportunity they get to represent their country is one they take to heart, because just handfuls are fortunate enough to do so every four years.
The competition is taken seriously, the players put their skills on full display, and it offers the biggest showcase for Bettman’s product.
If proof is in numbers, than look no further than the business side of things to get them. The media consortium broadcasting the Olympics in Canada has sold ad space for the gold medal game in anticipation of 15 million viewers if the final happened to include Canada and one of either the United States or Russia.
Try getting that kind of exposure for any single game in the NHL.
While there are no "NHL" logos anywhere, everyone will know where the Joe Thorntons, Sidney Crosbys, Alexander Ovechkins, and Bobby Ryans are coming from both nationality-wise and league-wise.
The Olympics can be Gary Bettman’s greatest platform to promote the game. He just needs to let Jacques Rogge do so.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and the NHL Community Coordinator for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile or you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure to check out all of his previous work in his archives and at Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game!