Reluctance to embrace Olympics will only hurt NHL

By Joeri Loonen

In its policy towards the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the National Hockey League is doing the same mistake as the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he tried to implement “perestroika” and “glasnost” some 15 years ago. Gorbachev thought he would reach his objectives by giving the people a little of everything, a little of communism, a little of capitalism and a little freedom. The result was a bit of a mess.

The debate in North American sports media since the hockey season started shows, when one can read between the lines, that the NHL has the same kind of ambivalent feelings towards what should be the biggest show in hockey history. The league wants to be a big part of the show, but not too much. It wants the Olympics to be perceived as something great, but not too great. At least not to the point where it overshadows the NHL All Star game.

The NHL has paid serious money in order to have its logotype integrated with the Salt Lake 2002 logo. Almost every official NHL publication it boasts the Olympic “Hockey Rules” slogan. But when Slovak, German and Latvian players beg to be released for the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, instead of telling the team GM:s: “Let them go”, the league commissioner looks the other way.

The NHL loves to poach on Olympic ideals, but when a half-injured player declines All-Star game participation in order to be fully fit for the Olympics, a high ranked NHL-official threatens with a fine.

The NHL’s basic problem stems from the fact that North American team sports are not used to international competition. And when faced with it, the league executives simply don’t know how to handle the conflict. The reasons are obvious. The two most popular team sports in North America are baseball and American football, two sports which never have known international competition and that is why the winners of those leagues are called “World Champions” despite the fact that the world doesn’t take part.

This, of course, has had an historical influence on North American hockey where the Stanley Cup champions earlier also were labelled as “World Champions” despite the fact that the competition was exclusively North American. The absence of international dimension in North American team sports has suddenly emerged as a huge dilemma for the NHL in a year when the Olympics have totally overshadowed the leagues’ regular season.

The problem is clearly defined in a very interesting article posted on the some time ago. The headline reads: Club or country? Writer Rich Libero correctly describes North American sport fans as being “a little too caught up in regional matters”. The conclusion of the story is very predictable. Libero writes that, as far as the NHL is concerned, “…club will always take precedence over country.”

This is a North American, if not a purely an American, problem. For Europeans, who are familiar with international competition since the beginning of the century, a question like “Club or country” would never even be raised because it is totally irrelevant.

If it were raised anyway, the answer would be: “Both!” First you try to win your national championship with your club and then, providing you are good enough, you can try to win an Olympic medal with the national team.

In Canada, people discovered the beauty of international competition in September 1972. That was the first time in the history of that country that the whole nation was behind one team. When Canadians, at the turn of the Millennium, where asked to vote for “Canada’s team of the century” the fans didn’t select the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 50s or the 70s or the Toronto Maple Leaf teams of the 60s. They voted for a team that all in all played only eight games, the 1972 Team Canada. The biggest single sports happening in Canada’s national history was not a Stanley Cup winning goal, but Paul Henderson’s winner in the 1972 series with 34 seconds left of game 8 against the Soviets.

Stanley Cup goals come and go, but every Canadian who is old enough, remembers to the very inch where he or she stood when Henderson scored.

This portrays the very essence of the NHL’s Olympic dilemma. The league, with 24 out of 30 teams based in the USA, is nowadays an USA-run operation with its head offices in New York. Despite splendid victories in the Olympics in both 1960 and 1980 and in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, USA has never enjoyed a situation where Americans were united behind their hockey team.

The NHL has never had an experience that demonstrated to the league executives that great international competition does not take anything away from a domestic league. On the contrary, it makes the domestic league stronger. What is good for hockey is good for the NHL and for all other domestic leagues.

There has never been, and will never be, a contradiction between club and country in sports. If “club” is the smoked meat sandwich, then “country” is the dill pickle, coleslaw and the mustard, which makes the sandwich perfect.

Instead of seeing international hockey and the Olympics as a threat, the NHL should try to benefit from the huge potential of hockey’s international dimension, something that baseball and American football never will have. NHL’s biggest business problem is the lack of basic hockey interest in the USA. Just look at the dismal TV-ratings in the USA during the playoffs. The reason is simple. A New York Rangers fan is foremost a Rangers fan and a hockey fan secondly. This case is the same in almost all American NHL-cities, unlike the situation in Canada.

When a Stanley Cup final is played between Detroit and Colorado, fans in other American cities really don’t care to watch it because their team is not in it anymore. The NHL could try to put an end this parochialism by promoting the sport of ice hockey and increase the general level of hockey knowledge. And there is nothing that captures the imagination of sports fans more than a high quality international tournament where everybody (even the Slovaks, Latvians and Germans) takes part.

While listening to NHL officials or some North American based journalists, they try, in a subtle way, to get the message across that the Stanley Cup will always be bigger than the Olympics. Mr. Libero agrees, “At the end of the day, all North American players will choose winning the Stanley Cup over an Olympic gold medal 100 times out of 100.”

This is something that Mr. Libero of course must say as the Vice President of Content and Production of the, but he makes the basic mistake of comparing a domestic league with international competition. The answer is of course that players would like to win both. The problem with a statement like that, is that the question is irrelevant to 90 out of those random picked 100 NHLers. For them it’s not an issue because they would never be in a position to play for an Olympic gold.

Several former NHL-players, great ones and less great ones, have this season expressed their views regarding the Olympics and international hockey in general. In an Edmonton Sun interview, former NHL-superstars Bobby Orr and Mike Bossy said that not participating in an Olympic tournament is the only thing they regret from their careers. Bossy said that he holds the memories of four Stanley Cup wins in high regard with the Canada Cups further down the list, but he added: “It would have been a lot of different if it would have been the Olympics.”

Reed Larson, an NHL-journeyman in the 70s and 80s said this in a recent Calgary Sun interview regarding his participation on Team USA in the Canada Cup: “It was the best hockey I’ve ever seen and the best hockey that’s ever been played”.

Joe Thornton, the emerging superstar centre in Boston, was quoted as saying this the other day to the London Free Press: “I’d play fourth-line wing on the Olympic team if they asked. I’d go as waterboy.”

Just like the World Cup soccer is superior to any of the national leagues, the Olympics are, without a doubt, of higher quality than any other domestic league. And this is obvious to any serious observer. Club teams are stocked with players whose talents vary a lot, while Olympic teams are all star teams. It takes so much more talent and skill to win an Olympic gold medal than a league championship.

Take, as an example, Team Canada at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. Had they been a club team, they would have, in all likelihood, swept the Stanley Cup playoffs in 16 straight games. But they were not good enough to win a medal at the Olympics.

So, the best advice which can be given to the NHL is: show generosity, open up, embrace the whole tournament and not only the games where USA and Canada play, let everybody who is qualified join in and the game of hockey will be the winner. So will also the NHL.

Note: The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect the official view of the IIHF!!

Author: Szymon Szemberg, IIHF Public Relations Manager.

This story is copyrighted to and property of the IIHF