NHL Players Don’t Belong in Olympics
Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 00:02
With all due respect to the other athletes who skate, slide and ski with incredible skill, the Winter Olympics are, for us, really about the men’s ice hockey tournament. The sheer volume of media attention and familiarity with the hockey players in both North America and Europe make it the most watched athletic event of any Winter Games.
The name recognition factor depends mostly upon the participation of NHL players. While NHL players will be competing in Sochi, it seems likely that this will be the last Olympics where that is the case for the foreseeable future. Although having NHL players at the Olympics is certainly novel and exciting, we are in favor of the NHL’s likely decision to ban professionals from participating in the 2018 games in South Korea for a number of reasons.
All told, there will be 148 NHL players competing at Sochi. Canada and the United States’ rosters are filled entirely by an elite core of the league’s best North American players. European contenders such as Russia, Sweden and Finland also draw a large percentage of their talent from the NHL ranks. As a result, none of the 30 NHL teams would be able to fill a roster and a stadium for two weeks, and so the league suspends play entirely for 16 days — the only North American professional league to consistently halt play for more than an All-Star break. This is devastating for the NHL and for the players.
Like all professional sports leagues, the NHL has a long season — playoffs usually end in May or June — that leaves little room for flexibility. Two weeks of empty space in February, right as teams are beginning their pushes for the playoffs, negatively affect the fairness of the NHL schedule, both before and after the games.
Prior to the Olympics, all teams are affected by a compressed and hectic schedule that may reward both the teams who draw the best travel itinerary and these teams that have to play the fewest back-to-back games. In a league where a single point in the standings has in the past cost teams a spot in the playoffs — see last year’s Columbus Blue Jackets — that is a complication few teams can handle in stride.
After the Olympics, teams are wounded — literally and figuratively — by fatigued stars who still have to play out the most competitive portion of an already grueling 82-game season. And once that regular season is over, the playoff teams go on to compete in a four-round, best-of-seven tournament.
The teams that are playing best are much more likely to have an increased number of Olympians make the trek overseas for the emotionally and physically draining two weeks of international competition. The Anaheim Ducks, the league’s best team to date, are case-in-point here, with seven Olympians on the roster. It seems unfair that the best teams would be punished for the international strength of their rosters by having half of their players lose out on two weeks of rest and recovery.
Yet in spite of these risks and challenges, the NHL and its teams grin and bear the Olympics because it is “good for the game.” We, however, believe that there is a case to be made that the presence of NHL players does not work to further the game. Unlike other sports in the games, there is little parity or chance for upset. In fact, the last time it happened was in 1980 at Lake Placid when the United States beat the heavily favored Soviet team on its way to gold.
That was 18 years before NHL players could compete in the games, and there was much more parity among the countries, since each had time to collect and cultivate their best amateurs, rather than hash together a roster of their best professional expatriates. Surely that moment, the so-called “Miracle on Ice,” inspired more growth for the game of hockey than when already famous Sidney Crosby and his four Hall of Fame linemates scored in overtime against five other NHL All-Stars to snatch the gold in 2010.
Moreover, the Olympics themselves have always been about athletic amateurism. Having one sport where the athletes’ experiences differs so markedly from all of the others seems rather discordant with the broader ethos that defines participation in the games.
The world of hockey needs to get smarter about its framework for international competition. Soccer already does a pretty good job of this, drawing more fans and viewers to the World Cup than any other event of any kind. Rather than impractically leaning on the Olympics every four years as a chance to bring hockey’s best together, the NHL and the top European leagues should get together and establish a bi- or quadrennial competition. Such a tournament could take place in the fall prior to the start of the NHL season and play host to the eight or 10 best teams in the world.
Having NHL players in the Olympics is certainly exciting, and we will be watching every game eagerly. However, it is a fairly impractical way to bring together hockey’s best when other options are readily available and less intrusive. The NHL doesn’t need the Olympics, and the Olympics shouldn’t need to rely on the NHL.
Ethan Chess and Drew Cunningham are seniors in the College. THE THIRD half appears every Tuesday.