Sports

NHL players in the Olympics has always been better in theory than practice

Late last week, one of hockey’s more annoying fights seemed to have reached yet another conclusion, when the NHL, the NHLPA, and the IIHF reached an agreement on sending NHL players to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. As with everything these days, it’s COVID-dependent, but the NHL schedule has a three week gap in February to accommodate the Games.

While everyone talks about the honor and prestige of playing for one’s country in the Games, we know what’s really going on here. The NHL looks at the Chinese market and, like every other sports league, has a Pavlovian response to it. The players have always wanted this, as much for the party as competing. But when it comes to boosting the league here in North America, the Games don’t really do much.

Ask anyone what they remember about NHL players in the Olympics, and of course they’ll tell you about the 2010 Gold Medal game. Maybe they’ll even mention the preliminary round game between the U.S. and Canada earlier in that tournament. All fine and good. Both were classics. Ask any hockey fan what else beyond those, and you’ll get a pretty blank stare.

Does anyone remember Sweden topping Finland in 2006? It was maybe Henrik Lundqvist’s crowning achievement, but it doesn’t exactly rank in hockey lore. What do you remember about the 2014 games in Sochi? The semifinal between the U.S. and Canada again, where Canada smothered the US so thoroughly the 1-0 scoreline might as well have been 10-0? No, you probably don’t. Oh right, T.J. Oshie’s shootout heroics. A carnival ending to a preliminary round game that ended up not mattering, and at which the U.S. needed that shootout to beat a thoroughly mediocre Russian team. Oshie didn’t score the rest of the tournament, by the way. Certainly Canada’s continued steam-rollering of Sweden in the final doesn’t ring too many bells. Beyond that, the biggest Olympic hockey memory from the NHL era is the U.S. team throwing a temper tantrum and destroying their hotel in Nagano in 1998.

Most of all, which the NHL has been at pains to point out, the league doesn’t really get much from it. The league didn’t share in the revenues, they couldn’t even use the highlights, and didn’t see much of a bump in TV ratings or ticket sales in the immediate aftermath. After all, when the Olympics end, there’s six weeks before the NHL playoffs begin. March regular-season hockey isn’t usually all that much of a rush. Throw in the risk of injury to very important players, and you could see where owners wondered what the fuss was about. And it’s hard to see how games at 2 or 3 a.m. from Beijing are going to change that much.

And mostly, the actual hockey on display at the Olympics is sewer runoff. The Vancouver games were on an NHL ice surface, which helped greatly. But when not in an NHL city, the games are on an international ice surface, which is 15 feet wider. The first inclination is to salivate at the extra space players have and conclude it must be a faster game. It’s quite the opposite. Teams are even more inclined to collapse around their net and slot defensively, daring teams to try and get shots to the net from even farther away than they do in the NHL.

Trying to flip a wrister from the blue line on an international surface is akin to trying to hit a frying pan from across a national park. Everything becomes even more static. This is what Canada did in 2014, and no one could penetrate their defense.They simply waited for turnovers and mistakes to score on the rush. Which they did expertly, all credit to them. It just wasn’t an entertaining watch. Which is fine for Canadian fans, but doesn’t do much for the casual fan.

The specifics of the NHL’s agreement with the IIHF aren’t out yet, and hopefully the ice surface will be a part of it.

The NHL and the players missed out on the chance to create a better and more entertaining international tournament with their continued ignoring of the World Cup, which they’ve only had in 1996, 2004, and 2016. That tournament took place in the late summer or early fall, and actually allowed teams to get together for a few weeks before and develop systems and cohesion. Another issue Olympic hockey has faced is that teams get a practice or two before the tournament starts, and teams can look disjointed for a while. The World Cup could be held in North America every time in cities that would actively support it on a NHL ice surface. Or moved to Europe occasionally, as fans have proven they can deal with European start times for soccer tournaments.

Both sides have shied from that in deference to the Olympics, and to not compete with the fall sports calendar. But there is no such thing as pennant races in baseball anymore, and football is only on the weekends. There is a window for it. It’s probably too late now, and is yet another example of the lack of foresight both the league and players have always had. The NHL and its players could keep all the money from it, and use it as a charge into the start of the regular season just a couple weeks later. But alas…

Instead, we’ll get the Olympics, and the heated discussions over who should and shouldn’t make the U.S. and Canadian squads (with the added bonus this time around of watching the drama of whether or not one of the many MAGAs is vaccinated and can even go), which are fun. Then you’ll stay up to watch Finland trap the U.S. in a 2-1 game that only determines seeding and somewhere around 4 a.m. ask yourself just what the hell are you doing?

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