The 'Silver' Lining: How Team USA Could Save Hockey

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The 'Silver' Lining: How Team USA Could Save Hockey
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Unlike 30 years ago, midnight came a few minutes too early for the 2010 Cinderella in Red, White, and Blue.

Granted it would have been far less a surprise to knowledgeable hockey authorities and fans to see this incarnation of Team USA vanquish the Canadian Beast than it was for the Cold-War-Era nation to watch a group of college-aged amateurs defeat the aptly named Red Army squad at Lake Placid; in a game that was likely more politically than athletically important. Still it's more than fair to say that this year's Team USA went much farther than most people—including this author—expected they could.

While the US and Canada are not locked in a nuclear staring contest (at least not that they're letting on), the 2010 Gold Medal game shares an interesting parallel with the 1980 semi-final showdown with the Soviet Union.

Fans tuning in hoping to see a well-played and tantalizing battle between gold medal contenders had to be disappointed for long stretches of the game. In actuality the majority of the game resembled more of an NHL pre-season tune up than an Olympic Gold Medal Bout, with action concentrated in the neutral zone, bevies of turnovers, healed shots, broken sticks, and little end-to-end action or dazzling play in any facet.

But like in 1980, the action on the ice pales in comparison to the implications the game has off the ice. The 1980 victory represented a victory for Capitalism over Communism as much as it was for one hockey team over another.

Despite the fresh sting of defeat gripping the backers of Team USA, the mere match-up of the 2010 Gold Medal Game could mean everything to the sport of hockey in America, and even the long-term international well-being of this great game.

America's unexpected strong play in the early stages of the tournament, particularly their preliminary round victory over this same Canadian squad—less Roberto Luongo— generated a ground swell of national pride and interest in this relatively young upstart team who was never expected to be able to compete with the skill and discipline of such hockey powerhouses as Canada, Sweden, and Russia.

People who as recently as Valentine's Day may never have watched a hockey game, suddenly found themselves caught up in the powerful surge of a national dream. The sport of hockey probably got more positive publicity around the United States in the past two weeks than it has since the euphoria surrounding the Miracle on Ice subsided in the early 1980's. The question is, once the symptoms of the 2010 version of the Red White and Blue Flu die out, where will hockey stand in a country in which it has always been subjugated to secondary status at best?

Of course it's beyond even the far-reaching stretches of the wildest pipe dream to think that Team USA's run could vault American hockey past the popularity levels enjoyed by our national pastime or the even more-popular behemoth of the NFL, especially after Sidney Crosby's overtime heroics put a swift and piercing end to what seemed to be developing into a true Hollywood ending to this whimsical quest.

However, in a country which prizes NASCAR more highly than professional hockey, a country where just half a decade ago greedy NHL executives alienated and lost much of their small fan base they had by locking out their own players, and a country where the primary television affiliate for the best hockey league on earth is an obscure cable outfit which certain satellite packages don't even carry.

Could this impressive showing by the national team on the world's biggest stage help elevate the importance of this great game, at least to some extent? Here's to hoping it can. 

Perhaps more important are the potential ramifications for future Olympic tournaments. It's already clear from the 2004-2005 season that never was that NHL owners and executives are motivated only by the money flowing into their pockets—short-sightedly enough—regardless of the cost to the game that makes that money for them.

For no other reason than profit and greed, they have seriously been exploring pulling their players out of competition at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. Hopefully the North American excitement generated by this gold-medal match-up can bolster NHL popularity and convince them to do the right thing.

NHL hockey players are the very best in the world, and they have every right to represent their nations once every four years in the greatest hockey tournament on earth. The risk of injury will always be present, and the complications associated with a multiple-week shutdown in the second half of the season, a compressed schedule, and the lack of an All-Star Game are admittedly detrimental to the NHL.

This is complicated when the Olympic Games are played outside the local confines of North America, requiring longer travel allotments, and pushing game times into less-than-optimal time slots for the bulk of NHL audiences.

Nonetheless, even if the NHL needs a four-week shutdown to accommodate the Sochi Games, that's what they should do. The Olympics are a once-in-four-years spectacle and the overall effect on the NHL will be minimal. To deny these athletes the chance to compete on such a stage simply because they choose to play in the best hockey league there is is simultaneously insulting and disgusting. It's unfair to the players, the fans, and the world.

If the NHL pulls out of the Olympics, the talent pool in the Olympic tournament will see a huge shift in power. The men's tournament will likely begin to resemble the women's tournament, except instead of Canada beating the US for gold every fourth year, it will likely be Sweden over Russia, as the SEL and KHL will become the banner of professional leagues participating in the games.

As a die-hard supporter of Tre Kronor, I would not necessarily be devastated by such an outcome, but even I would still like to see the Olympics remain a showdown of the best players in the world. It's partially up to America's new-found hockey fans to make that happen. 

So cheer up USA. You may have lost the chance at a gold medal, but hopefully you have gained an appreciation for a wonderful sport. Turn this silver medal into a silver lining by starting to enjoy the greatest hockey league on earth and help convince the NHL that the Olympics need them and they need the Olympics.

If you want the US to get a shot at redemption, you owe it to your country. 

 

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