There has been some talk about the National Hockey League not participating in the Olympics after this year. The National Hockey League has only agreed to provide players through the Vancouver Games. And, according to numerous sources like the CBC, the league hasn’t committed to future tournaments.
As a fan, the Olympic tournament offers many more pluses for the sport of hockey, the NHL, the players and for the fans.
If it wasn’t for the Olympics, I may not be interested in hockey until the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in mid-April. I think the NHL season is already too long to sustain a general fan’s interest — it lasts three-quarters of a year, for crying out loud. A relatively short, two-week tournament is a great tonic to a 82-game slog.
The Games are a great showcase for hockey. I’ve watched more games in the past three days of the Games than I have in the past three months. In the early rounds, there are lots of games on the air (and they don’t air at 9 a.m. on Sunday, iike many of NBC’s weekly NHL games). Some of them turned into nail biters, like Thursday’s Canada-Switzerland squeaker.
The players also seem to enjoy playing in the tournament. There seems to be a much different attitude now than when the professionals were first introduced during the 1998 Nagano Games when Team USA players trashed their rooms after an early exit. At least, I hope there is a better attitude.
The benefits to the NHL seem less direct. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says the league’s presence in the Games is primarily because it helps “our game.” I would definitely think it helps build the global audience for hockey. Building such an audience is something the NHL has been working on for years — at least that’s why I think the league opened its season in Europe for the third year in a row.
The NHL does have some valid concerns — including the possibility of player injuries affecting a team’s playoff prospects — and they are putting a lot on the line in the form of the players. The worries about injury also concern columnists in Chicago and Sacramento.
Some of the possible discussion points — such as a greater say in the tangled web of Olympic broadcasting rights — may create complications that may make the Gordian knot seem like a Sudoku puzzle on Monday.
While some of these concerns may be daunting, I hope the league and the international hockey federation find a way to work together to keep the players in future tournaments.