NHL might end its relationship with Olympics
It is undeniably great hockey. The best players in the world — playing a fast, highly skilled game on a more spacious ice surface and fueled by the pride and passion of representing their countries — make for a momentous 12-day run in the Olympic hockey tournament.
But fans had better enjoy these games in Sochi, Russia. The NHL has not committed to sending its players to any more games, and from talking to people in and close to the game, it seems unlikely it will be part of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
During the course of the past five Olympics — from Nagano, Japan, in 1998 to Sochi — the benefits of participation have become less clear for the NHL.
The league’s desire for global exposure two decades ago has been largely achieved, so now the games seem less like a benevolent cause and more like a nuisance, one that damages clubs financially, fractures relationships between executives and players, and erodes the glamour of not only the NHL regular season but the Stanley Cup playoffs.
‘See you in March’
Just as the NHL reaches its stretch drive — playoff races are coming into focus, the trade deadline is nearing — the league shutters its doors and goes dormant for almost three weeks.
“It’s ridiculous; the whole thing is ridiculous,” Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider told the Philadelphia Daily News. “It’s ridiculous to take three weeks off in the middle of the season. How can anybody be happy breaking up the season? No other league does it; why should we? There’s no benefit whatsoever.”
February is a relatively light month on the sports calendar. Football goes quiet after the Super Bowl, and the college basketball postseason doesn’t start until mid-March. Yet some NHL rinks will sit quiet for the entire month, while the players — still being paid by NHL owners — are half a world away.
The moonlighting by NHL executives and coaches has created many awkward moments, and they seem to get less avoidable each cycle.
Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards and defenseman Jack Johnson have maintained a professional relationship, but it was strained during the process by which Johnson was left off Team USA, which was revealed in an ESPN article. Johnson did not feel that Richards, as a Team USA assistant coach, had his back during the selection process.
A similar situation occurred in Tampa Bay, where Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman — also Canada’s GM — revealed a roster that did not include Lightning captain Martin St. Louis. (St. Louis was later added as an injury replacement.)
And now, thanks to an ESPN article detailing the U.S. selection process, fans know how Brian Burke, the Calgary Flames president and senior advisor for Team USA, feels about Ottawa Senators star Bobby Ryan: “He’s not intense; he can’t spell the word intense.”
Ryan was left off the American roster.
Such player evaluations go on almost daily among NHL hockey operations staffs, but they are never revealed in so public a manner.
Gold vs. Stanley
For years, it was surmised that European players cared more about winning an Olympic gold medal than the Stanley Cup. North American players aren’t there yet, but to many the gold medal is now held in the same regard as the Cup.
“It’s like asking a mother to pick between two kids,” said St. Louis Blues center David Backes, who is playing for Team USA.
Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild, also on Team USA, was asked which one he wants most. “I can’t answer that. I want them both. I’ll take either of them.”
Before 1998, the Olympics were seen as the height of amateur hockey in the United States and Canada, but hoisting the Stanley Cup was the highest achievement in the game.
But for this generation of players, participation in the Olympics is the norm, and so with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, among other NHL stars, going for gold has become a big deal.
“The Cup and the medal mean the same to them,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, an assistant for Team Canada. “The tournaments are so different that I think they put them in different places, emotionally. But the kid that grew up dreaming of holding the Stanley Cup over his head … now he wants to wear a gold medal just as badly. It’s changed, absolutely.”
The NHL rink is 200 feet by 85 feet. The Olympic sheet is the same length, but 100 feet wide, and that extra 15 feet makes a world of difference.
“It’s harder to defend,” Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin said. “In the NHL, as a defenseman, you always have a wall right there to your right or your left. In Olympics, it’s like you’re always on an island.”
This is good news for fans.
Skilled players — who might get clubbed in the NHL for dangling the puck and carrying it through the middle — now have room to get creative, and it’s harder for defensemen to step up physically for fear that the play could get behind them. It’s the perfect blend: the skill, creativity and scoring chances of the 1980s NHL, and the pace and ferocity of the current game.
But after Olympic competition, the return of the NHL often lands with a thud.
In the 1990s, the NHL had drifted so far down the pecking order that some called NASCAR the fourth major sport in the U.S. Looking for a way to increase its global footprint, the NHL signed up for the Olympics. In that sense, it has been a success, albeit one that is hard to measure.
In the U.S., the Olympics helped the NHL reach new fans, but the introduction and development in recent years of the Winter Classic outdoor games has allowed the league to reach new fans like never before.
“I think the league is in a much different spot today than it was in 1998, quite frankly,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “It’s a much higher profile. As a business, we’re much more successful. We’re more visible on the worldwide stage. We’re in a different stage of our evolution.”
Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk is playing for Russia even though he’s not completely healthy. He missed 13 games because of a leg injury, then played the last two for the Red Wings before the break.
“Am I worried? Of course I’m worried,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press. “But I understand what an opportunity this is for every Russian and every other player.”
But how might Holland feel if Datsyuk, 35, is further injured, such that he missed the rest of the season? The Red Wings are in a fight for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and losing Datsyuk would be a crushing blow.
So far, the NHL has been fortunate to not lose a player to catastrophic injury during the past five Olympic Games. But hockey is a dangerous sport. An injury to one of the NHL’s top players could — for once and for all — end the practice of sending players to the games.
But then, it may be ending, anyway.