Sunday, July 23, 2017

On the NHL/Olympic thing.

Published by, 7-21-2017

Let's start by saying that I'm a big fan of the Olympics which dates back to my youth in the 70's. I remember Tommy Smith's black fist on the medal stand and being outraged at the end of the  USSR/USA basketball game in 1972 as well as being shocked at siege of Olympic Village in Munich that year. Names like Olga Korbut, Bruce Jenner, Dorothy Hamill, Mark Spitz and Teofilo Stevenson are all embedded in my brain and all because of their incredible achievements on the world stage during those years.

There were many other names and events that are etched in my brain from Carl Lewis to Greg Louganis, to the Atlanta bombing. I fondly remember the Sabres own Dominik Hasek thwarting the 1998 mighty Canadian Olympic team in the semi-final shootout which is right up there with some of my favorite Olympic moments. Tops amongst all of my memories, however, was the Miracle on Ice in 1980. I still get chills just as I did seeing it live (or what we thought was live at the time.)

Although none of this means I'm an authority on all things Olympics, it does provide a framework for where I'm about to go with this NHL/Olympic thing. The NHL announced today that they will allow players on AHL contracts to participate in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, but as of right now they're not allowing their players to compete in South Korea. And that includes AHL'ers on two-way contracts.

North American professional athletes began participating in the Olympics beginning in 1992 with the USA "Dream Team" basketball squad. The NHL began participation in the Olympics beginning in 1998 and after five Olympics, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at a press conference in April that the NHL players will not participate in 2018 and that they considered "the matter officially closed." According to Bettman, "the overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players" and he was also mentioned that the International Olympic Committee won't be picking up any of the cost, which includes travel and insurance, for any NHL players participating in the games, like they'd done in the past. And from this writer's standpoint, even if the break could be accommodated and the IOC footed the bill for players, I'd still have reservations about sending athletes to a city that's a stone's throw away from North Korea and an unbalanced leader in Kim Jong-un.

I get what the NHL Players Association said in that patriotism is a driving force behind players wanting to participate in the Olympics and I can somewhat buy into the belief that the sport will increase in popularity because the best players will create a highly competitive atmosphere. Vancouver 2010 was great hockey, and for Canadians great theater, but it's also best to keep in mind that the Games were in the birthplace of hockey with a friendly border-country as a hockey adversary.

For this NHL fan, the disruption to the season isn't worth it and for players where the NHL season already consists of too many games, a condensed schedule is brutal, especially for players who competed in the Olympics. In fact any add-on to the NHL season, which includes the World Cup, seems to put undue strain on players. However, if the NHL wants to continue with the World Cup, fine as it's not during the season. If players want to participate in the IIHF World Championships, fine as it's after the season.

Keeping NHL'ers out of the Olympics undoubtedly means lesser star power and a lesser product skills-wise, but the competitive nature of players playing for their country will not be lessened. For many of the players the Olympics represents an opportunity to reach for the gold or even immortality. Many won't ever get the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and even less won't make into the World Cup either so this is their shot, and as we saw in 1980, sometimes great things happen.

In fact, as an old-school type of guy, I have no problem going back to the time when only amateurs were allowed to play in the Olympics. I remember the late 80's when a semi-finals basketball loss by the U.S. furthered the case for inclusion of pro's in the Olympics leading to the ridiculously dominant "Dream Team." It was great watching them but the luster faded and apathy now rules basketball at the Olympics for me. I also remember how Team USA made asses of themselves by vandalizing Olympic Village after being ousted by Hasek and the Czech Republic in 1998.

For me, the meaning just isn't there any more. The U.S. proved that it can dominate when they put their best players on the court and Canada also proved that it's still the dominant force in the game right now. I'd rather watch the NHL's regular season, with all it's stars playing a regular schedule, and augment my hockey fixation by watching unknowns compete on a world stage.

However, those days are long gone but having the NHL allow lower-level pros and the best that college and junior have to offer seems like a good way to approach the Olympic dilemma. Having said this, I'm fully aware that if sound fiscal policy dictates NHL participation at some point down the road, I'll have no problem with that either.

It's hockey, and I'll watch it.

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