X

2010 Olympics Should Be The Last Time the NHL Participates

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst IJanuary 7, 2010

TURIN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 26:  Team Finland huddles around the net before the final of the men's ice hockey match between Finland and Sweden during Day 16 of the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games on February 26, 2006 at the Palasport Olimpico in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

My father, a lifelong basketball fan born and raised in California, had gone ice skating once or twice at a local indoor rink as a kid.

Upon seeing the surface, he thought the lines and circles on the ice were used by figure skaters to practice their moves.

He grew up 30 miles from Los Angeles but, as a kid, there were no Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks to follow, and very few games ever televised on the seven channels he had access to.

Hockey in California was about as familiar as surfing in Siberia.

My dad still knew nothing of hockey years later in 1980.

However, he did have a mild interest in the group of 20 young college kids that were set to take on perhaps the most dominating team in any sport ever, the Red Army Ice Hockey Team.

I was three years old at the time, so I have no recollection of sitting on his lap (apparently forcibly so) and watching the game.

But, as he recalls vividly even now, at the end of that game this man who had served his country in the Air Force never felt more proud of being an American.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

To see this group of punk kids beat the equivalent of deathly skilled cyborgs on ice skates made him, as he puts it, "believe in the American dream again."

While basketball would remain his first sports love, from that point on, hockey occupied a very special place in my dad's heart.

The Miracle on Ice will never be repeated again.

The Soviet Union has long since dissolved, and unless Al-Qaeda decides to seek a national sponsor and assemble a team, the USA is devoid of mortal enemies to challenge in an Olympic ice hockey match.

However, as of now, seeing a young group of amateur players, some rich, some poor, take on all comers in defense of the stars and stripes is also an impossibility.

Since the NHL began participating in the Winter Olympic Games in 1998, we've seen the equivalent of national all-star teams take each other on during a break in their regular, NHL season.

This has produced some entertaining hockey, but hardly the type of white knuckle action and desperate hope produced from watching a group of amateur kids play their hearts out for national pride.

Rather, many NHL fans end up following the players from their NHL team when watching the tournament.

In 2006, when the Swedish National Team won gold, many of my fellow Red Wings fans were elated as they'd been rooting for Sweden the entire time.

Really?

You're born and raised in the US, don't have a drop of Swedish blood in your veins and that's the team you're pulling for?

In this way, having NHL players represent their countries makes the games less about national pride and more about seeing your favorite players exhibit their talents.

While this is partly the reason the NHL should refrain from future Olympic participation, it is hardly a paramount concern.

No, the primary reason the NHL should no longer engage in league-wide Olympic involvement isn't problems of split loyalties, but the fact that NHL players aren't playing for their teams out of pride or loyalty, but because they get paid millions of dollars to do so.

Teams, and by extension, fans, spend tens of millions of dollars on player's salaries.

With this money, NHL clubs buy the promise of years of loyal service from their players; service that comes with the possibility of interrupted play due to injuries, possible trade requests, and decreasing effectiveness with age.

The point is, there are enough hazards facing NHL players and teams that make any contract a calculated gamble.

However, when a player under contract with an NHL team participates in the Olympics, he's playing for a national team.  

A team that faces no long-term risks as the result of the player getting injured, invests no money and has a fan base that exists for about two weeks.

Now, referencing my father's story, the fanbase assembled in two weeks in 1980 has yielded lifetime fans.

However, if Patrick Kane tore his ACL playing for team USA, thus ending his season in Chicago, would the Blackhawks fans accept "national pride" as a reasonable excuse for being without him the rest of the year?

I doubt it.

Pride and loyalty are commodities with a price tag and NHL clubs pay a hefty sum to retain these commodities from players. 

When Alex Ovechkin or Ryan Miller signed contracts with their respective clubs, the idea that they'd play a spate of games with the Toronto Maple Leafs or Los Angeles Kings would be patently absurd.

However, both of these players are loaning their talent and health, free of charge, to Russia and USA respectively.

Though this is a league-sanctioned act, the result of leaving the teams that pay their salaries to play for another is no less troubling.

The NHL is very publicly on the fence with regard to 2014 Olympic participation, for some of the reasons listed here.

However, players such as Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have said that, regardless of the league's decision, they will be representing Russia once again in four year's time.

Clearly, the league needs to make some decision as to how to deal with this.

They could simply employ a confederate model, allowing each team to decide whether or not they will afford their players the opportunity to represent their countries.

They could go a much less flexible route and threaten sanctions against any player who leaves their team to play for any other, national or otherwise.

This point brings up the issue of the KHL, a league that is quickly giving the NHL a run for its money.

More and more NHL players are opting for larger salaries overseas, in lieu of playing for, at least for the time being, the best hockey league in the world.

If the NHL decided to prohibit players from participating in the Olympics, those players who may be UFA's the summer before an Olympic year may chose to sign a one-year deal in the KHL so that they may represent their countries on the national team.

However the NHL decides to deal with the ins and outs of Olympic participation or consequences thereof, the best way to protect the assets of NHL teams and fans (something the league does through the CBA and on ice officiating) is to abstain from any further Olympic participation.

This would also help restore some of the purity once taken for granted in the Olympic games: young, no-name hopefuls getting a chance to play on the world's biggest stage, and maybe even build a professional career.

No one really knew who Peter Forsberg (then a 1991 first-round draft pick of the Flyers) was in 1994, but once NHL fans saw that shootout goal against Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch that became the gold medal winner for Sweden, people couldn't wait for that kid to come stateside and dazzle the NHL.

Watching millionaires, some with well established, Hall of Fame careers, represent your country is neat, but not exactly the type of thing that fills your heart with hope and pride.

Since that first experience with hockey in 1980, my dad never missed the Winter Olympics.

Sometime in January of 1998, he said he wanted to make sure we carved out sometime to watch a few games together.

I told him, "Sure, you know the NHL players are playing this year."  Silence over the phone.

"What? Really? So it's basically an All-Star game now? Huh."

We didn't watch a game.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.


X