Professional Hockey Needs The Olympics

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Professional Hockey Needs The Olympics
Harry How/Getty Images

To say the gold medal hockey game between Canada and the U.S.A. was the most thrilling part of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics is probably an understatement.

In fact, the whole tournament carried story lines of anticipation, roster decisions, and potential grudge matches, even before Wayne Gretzky’s nervous looking trip to the Olympic cauldron to light the official flame.

Not to mention the excitement of the tournament itself—the strong performance of the United States to knock off the host-country favourites in the round robin and Canada's defeat of arch-rivals Russia  in the semi-finals before a hotly anticipated rematch between the North American neighbours was riveting.

So, forgive me for being just a little surprised that there are actually a whole lot of people out there who think professional hockey players should no longer be able to compete in the 2014 games when they’re hosted, somewhat ironically, by the Russians.

What a shame it would be, not just for passionate hockey fans who have only been shown brief glimpses of greatness from superstar scoring lines consisting of players like Ovechkin, Malkin and Semin, but for the game in general. Professional hockey desperately needs the Olympic hype every four years if it hopes to stay relevant in the international arena.

The issue of tainting the purity of the Olympics with professional athletes frankly went away a long time ago. Try convincing me that Shaun White is an “amateur” snowboarder.

The guy pulls in around $10 million a year to do what he does. And the same can apply to a host of other Olympic sports which would be pretty terrible if it weren’t for athletes who were being paid to compete year round from endorsements or otherwise.

Having a repeat of the World Junior Championships every fourth February, an event that happens annually in December and January anyways, is not an option.

The WJCs are already hosted by Canada every second year because nobody else puts as much weight into the Christmas/New Year’s event as we do.

Competition wise, Canada’s dominance, while amusing, has only recently been ended by the Americans. The tournament’s finals will never average the nearly 27 million viewers the United States does—which is how many tuned into NBC’s coverage of the Olympic gold medal game (The most to watch a hockey game there in 30 years).

The real issue though is the recent moaning of NHL owners and some pundits who are saying a two week break in the middle of the season is bad for business and the sport.

To say the games have a negative effect on the athletes is laughable. If the NHL’s best hockey players can’t handle a minimum of four extra games and a maximum of seven every four years to represent their country at the Olympics, they might as well be considered amateurs.

So a two-week break once every four years is a little bit uncomfortable for NHL owners, but until the NHL and the IIHF can come up with a viable international tournament that actually means something, taking pro players out of the Olympics could only damage a sport that is actually further along internationally than every other major sport in North America.

Despite the fact that some of the greatest players to ever lace up skates have come from across the big pond, international hockey tournaments are a joke.

Since having its name changed from the Canada Cup to the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, the NHL-run tournament has only happened twice.

The only thing the World Cup has right is scheduling the tournaments in August and September, before the NHL regular season. The next is supposed to happen in 2011.

The IIHF World Hockey Championships offer a glimpse of international competition but can never be considered a preeminent tournament when the world’s best players are, for the most part, playing for the greatest hockey teams in the NHL.

It’s really just a sideshow to the Stanley Cup.

So if the owners get their way and NHL players don’t make the trip to Russia in 2014 what happens? We pray the NHL can organize a summer tournament sooner than every eight years? We base our hockey pride on teams that in most cases won’t include guys like Crosby, Ovechkin, and Miller?

Not good enough.

Right now, the Olympics offers the only place we can watch hockey at its absolute best, and if that means putting the NHL season on hold for two weeks every four years, then for the game, it should be worth the sacrifice.

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