The past two weeks have been fantastic for hockey fans. Putting aside any disappointing results, we were treated to six consecutive days of triple headers (one day including the six best teams in the world all playing in Gold Medal game rematches from the past three Olympics), two straight quadruple headers (of elimination games, no less), and then a medal round of three phenomenal games and a U.S. blowout that was no doubt fun for many of us to watch. That said, there's been an elephant on the rink the entire time—the question as to whether or not NHL players would play in the Sochi Olympics and beyond. Though Commissioner Bettman and the owners generally rationalize their wariness of renewing NHL participation through financial arguments, I'm here to lay out what I hope is a compelling line of reasoning against going to Sochi on purely hockey terms. If you're willing to hear me out, read on…
First, remember: no NHL players in the Olympics doesn't mean no hockey at the Olympics. How quick are we to forget that the defining moment in USA hockey (if not USA sports) history happened in a tournament with no NHL players? Would a tournament of the best players that the AHL, NCAA, CHL, KHL, Swedish Elite League, etc. had to offer not be strongly compelling? Or, hell, why not go back to all amateur? Sure, it wouldn't be as cool as having NHL Olympians, but it'd be a unique event that every hockey fan would eagerly anticipate.
Next, let's get this out of the way—the Olympic break does have an undesirable impact on the NHL season. Teams go weeks without playing a game or practicing as a complete unit. Fatigue and injuries suffered during Olympic play have the potential to punish the teams with the most good players during the regular season stretch run and Stanley Cup playoffs. The 82 games played over the season have to be compressed into a lower number of available game days. And, as much fun as the past two weeks have been, I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that many of us miss our Caps. In a perfect world, we'd have clones of NHL players playing in the Olympics and leave the NHL season undisturbed, but I'm guessing that this won't be feasible until the 2026 Olympics at the earliest.
Of course, most of you would probably assert that the sheer hockey pandemonium provided by the Olympics offsets these concerns, and I agree with you. But what if we could have both?
The crux of the argument: revive the World Cup of Hockey as an every-four-years international best-on-best tournament, held before the start of the NHL regular season. As it stands, the World Cup is more or less a joke. It's played at irregular intervals (raise your hand if you know when the next WCoH is scheduled for without looking it up) and overshadowed by the Olympics in every single way. However, if we held the World Cup every four years and had no NHL players in the Olympics, I'd assert that the WCoH would become a prestigious event for players and a must-watch event for fans. Having regularly-played World Cups and Olympic tournaments would also increase the amount of international hockey being played, which can only be a good thing.
Now, you say: "But sixsevenfiftysix! Having NHL players on the Olympic stage is the greatest sales pitch that hockey has to offer! Think of all the people who tuned in to Sunday's Gold Medal game and were blown away by what they saw and will go on to be NHL fans in the future!", and I don't think this argument is without merit. That being said, 2010's tournament was an anomaly in many ways. For one, it was held in a time zone that's convenient for North Americans. Also, it featured uncharacteristic success for the United States, including two games against a bitter rival. Needless to say, not many non-hockey fans would watch a Gold Medal game featuring any two other teams held at noon in Sochi (4 AM in the Eastern United States). Also, let's say we do get another amazing tournament held in a relatable time zone with a USA team that captures the nation's excitement, but this time there are no NHL players. Is a non-hockey fan who sees a fantastic game really going to be less likely to watch hockey the rest of the year because they wouldn't have the opportunity to see those specific players again? Sure, I'll concede that some people latch on to certain players more than the game itself, but I'd guess that this is a small subset of a small subset (non-hockey fans who could be persuaded to watch hockey the rest of the year by a few good games) of the population.
Although I think these are some compelling arguments against sending NHL guys to future Olympics without considering financial arguments, I'm still not entirely sure where I stand—and all this is of course predicated on the revival of the World Cup of Hockey, which isn't guaranteed (though I think it would be something the owners would be willing to do if it meant no more NHL Olympics). There's also a huge wildcard in TV rights for future Olympics. From Sochi forward, US broadcasting rights are undetermined (NHL TV rights may also change hands in 2011). If (and this is pure speculation) ABC/ESPN could broadcast Winter Olympics, possibly in addition to having an NHL TV contract, I think the ESPN machine would promote men's hockey so heavily that it would be foolish not to have your best guys out there. NBC, meanwhile… not so much.
So, what do you guys think? Have I lost my mind?