Olympic hockey is best showcase for the sport; don't ruin it, Gary
Olympic hockey has been compelling theatre, especially with success of U.S. team
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is considering not allowing NHL players in 2014
That would be a bad move; Bettman should captialize while hockey is hot
The NHL is supposedly thinking about skipping the 2014 Olympics. Now, this is a brilliant idea. On Wednesday night, as I watched Canada's Dan Boyle thread a gorgeous backhanded pass to Ryan Getzlaf for a goal, kick-starting a 7-3 victory over Russia and making Viagra unnecessary in Canada, I thought, "Dammit, I should be watching Predators-Blue Jackets right now."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cannot be serious about this. These Olympics are the best show hockey has put on in years. Why would he want to stop that?
The NHL should not just commit to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia -- Bettman should offer to grab two hockey sticks and paddle his way across the Atlantic.
This is a no-brainer. And to really understand why, you have to understand the internal squabble in this sport for the last few decades between two groups: purists and marketers.
The purists and marketers have been elbowing each other in the corner of the rink for years; meanwhile, the rest of America is watching them and saying "Where is the puck? I can't see it."
Almost everything that has happened in hockey in the last 20 years has been part of this battle.
Shootouts? Purists hate them but marketers love them. The constantly changing standings? All that tweaking has been done to help casual fans understand what happened last night. The NHL radically changed its rules after the 2004-05 lockout at least partly to make the game more appealing to casual fans. The league went to an unbalanced schedule to build up rivalries and sell the game, even though it kept purists from seeing some of the best players in the league.
You can now watch an NHL game in Florida with no chance of seeing a brawl but a decent chance of seeing it end in a shootout. That sentence just raised the average blood pressure in Canada by 20 percent.
Sending NHL players to the Olympics was part of this struggle, too. No other sport hits the pause button on its season to hold an international event. So this Olympic experiment falls into the same category as Gary Bettman's southern strategy and cutting down on fighting and messing with important components of the game ...
Except for one thing:
EVERYBODY LIKES THIS.
Well, maybe not everybody. You can't get everybody to like anything in this world, not even pizza or the Rolling Stones or sunshine. But damn near everybody of consequence likes having NHL players in the Olympics.
The diehards who claim they own the sport and understand it better than anybody else love it. I have coined a term for these people -- "Canadians." They love the chance to show they produce the best hockey players in the world. They love watching so much talent on the ice at once. In a country of 34 million people, I believe only one guy opposes NHL participation in the Olympics. They took that guy ice fishing. He was the fish.
Players love it because the concept of competing for your country, against the best athletes in the world, is almost made for them. On average, NHL players are more down-to-earth than any baseball, football or basketball players. The culture demands sacrifice for a greater cause -- the best players sit on the bench for at least half the game and are expected to use their bodies to block shots. Hockey players eat up the Olympics.
Casual fans like it because they get to see the best players shoehorned into a short tournament where every game is crucial. The Olympics eliminate everything that casual fans hate about the game, like the interminable regular season, hundreds of seemingly faceless and nameless players, and Sean Avery. If you don't like watching Olympic hockey, you will never enjoy watching hockey.
And the league should love it, because let's face it: if there were no NHL players in the Olympics right now, Sidney Crosby could score eight goals in one period, then walk out of the arena with Jessica Biel, and the average American would say "Hey, who is that guy with Jeter's ex-girlfriend?"
International play is the one thing that the hockey does better than the other three big North American sports. I love baseball, but I'd rather pay a fine than watch the World Baseball Classic. Olympic basketball can be fun, but the Americans are such overwhelming favorites that it feels like the medal ceremony should be held before the games. And when the NFL goes overseas, it is just a reminder that the league owns the U.S. and nothing else.
Every four years, the Olympics are the hockey's best marketing opportunity. Yeah, I know, many games are on CNBC or MSNBC, not NBC. But people are talking about hockey. The U.S.-Canada game last weekend became water-cooler conversation. People are excited about the possibility of the U.S. winning gold -- this is a rare time when Americans can really feel like underdogs. If the U.S. makes the gold-medal game, it will quintuple the buzz of any Stanley Cup Finals matchup.
The Olympics are also hockey's most entertaining spectacle. Think of how perfect this is: the NHL gets to sell its sport at the precise moment when the sport is most appealing.
Once again: EVERYBODY LOVES THIS. Only a remarkable sourpuss, a man who almost seems to try to be loathed, could ruin this.
Commish? Is that you?
Bettman is the one who might stop all this. He is apparently worried about licensing, scheduling, TV time, and blah, blah, blah. I hope Bettman is just posturing. He must be, right? Why on earth would he ruin the best idea he has ever had?
Bettman needs to realize that worms have crawled out of the can. Alex Ovechkin, the best player in the world, has said that he will play for Russia in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi whether the NHL stops its season or not.
Maybe Ovechkin is bluffing. But if he ditches the Washington Capitals to go play for Russia for two weeks, it would be a debacle on every level. At that point, even Gary Bettman would want to fire Gary Bettman.
Bettman can't possibly be this shortsighted. He must be bluffing. The Olympics want your league, Gary. Don't push it by asking how much.