BOSTON (CBS) — The Olympics are over, and all of us here in North America are nearly unanimous in agreement: We want to see NHL players return to the world stage four years from now.
We just witnessed yet another captivating tournament, where the game’s best players competed for the better part of two weeks. Though it took place halfway around the world, we woke up early, brewed some coffee and tuned in to watch a tournament that surpassed expectations in terms of competitiveness and excitement.
Yet as much as we like to watch these games, and as much of an attention-boost the NHL receives from its players gaining this type of exposure, the tide seems to be turning among NHL owners with regard to the future of allowing players to participate in the Olympics. Specifically, it seems like they want it to end.
The most vocal opponent to NHL involvement in the Olympics has, understandably, been Islanders general manager Garth Snow. He watched as his star player, John Tavares, tore his knee against Latvia, costing him the rest of his season. Flyers owner Ed Snider hasn’t held back his distaste for the league shutting down for nearly three weeks to accommodate the Olympic schedule, and Bruins president Cam Neely has shared similar — if more restrained — sentiments during his weekly Felger & Mazz appearances.
They say the players take on risks playing in the games, they say the league shouldn’t cease operations for multiple weeks midseason, and they say there is no benefit to letting their players leave the country to play in the Olympics.
On those accounts, they are being disingenuous, hypocritical and downright blind.
Let’s take them one at a time. Is it risky for players to participate in the Olympics? Sure, but it’s a safer game than what they play here in North America. The IIHF enforces stronger rules against hits that contact the head, provides a safer environment near the crease for goalies and bans players from fighting, lest they want to be kicked out of the game. That wasn’t on Snow’s mind when he ranted against the NHL’s involvement in the Olympics to Newsday.
“Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now? It’s a joke,” Snow complained after the Tavares injury. “They want all the benefits from NHL players playing in the Olympics and don’t want to pay when our best player gets hurt.”
What happened to Tavares is a shame, as are Paul Martin’s and Mats Zuccarello’s hand injuries, but would they have been safer playing in the NHL over the past two weeks?
The NHL, mind you, is a league that only recently seemed to place any emphasis on protecting players, and even then, the league does very little to dissuade dangerous and reckless hits. When the league does hand out suspensions, they’re typically a joke and they do little to change the culture of the NHL, a place where the respect level among players isn’t nearly what it should be. If owners are truly concerned about player safety, they need to look at their own league before they wonder about international tournaments.
Now let’s tackle the owners’ dislike of the league shutting down and closing its doors to fans for nearly three weeks. Do we really need to address this one? These are the same owners who locked their doors last year and told their players to pound sand. These are owners who cost themselves nearly a half of a season last year due to CBA negotiations, and these are owners who effectively chose to shut down their league, costing themselves 17 home games each.
Did the owners care about the players back then? Any NHL player who wanted to further his career and stay in shape during the lockout went over to Europe to play, but to do so they had to take out massively expensive insurance policies so as to not void their NHL contracts (which weren’t being honored by the men who wrote them). The NHL had the audacity to ask insurance providers to cancel coverage of its players during the lockout. But yes, I’m sure the owners care very deeply about the health of their players.
This year, those same owners still have a full schedule of games, including 41 home games apiece. The Olympic break cost them time and nothing else, unlike their own negotiating tactics which cost them boatloads of cash last season. If the owners want to ban players from participating in the Olympics, it’s only fair that players ask for lockouts to be banned in the future.
And then there is the last bit, which is perhaps the most preposterous: The owners believe they gain nothing from having their players compete in the Olympics.
“I hate them. It’s ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous,” Snider, the owner of the Flyers, said. “There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.”
(We’ll ignore the inherent hypocrisy of Snider making this statement while at the same time arguing that Claude Giroux should have made the Canadian team.)
NHL owners are businessmen. They don’t deal in that which is not quantifiable, and in terms of dollars and cents, it might be hard for them to immediately see the impact that the past two-plus weeks have had on their game. But anyone who was paying attention saw what was clearly evident, and that was a nation collectively getting excited about hockey in a way that rarely happens.
Bars around the country were filled to capacity at 7 a.m., with fans waiting in line to get in to be a part of the experience. T.J. Oshie, who’s only been known among those who follow the game closely over the past five years, became a national superstar in a matter of minutes. Casual fans learned more about the NHL over the past two weeks than they had over the past two years.Young kids around the country, aka the next generation of fans who will keep the game alive, will remember that moment forever, and fans for life were made that day in Russia.
NHL arenas around the continent will celebrate these athletes this week for their accomplishments in Sochi, with teams like the Bruins proudly boasting winners of gold (Patrice Bergeron, Claude Julien, Peter Chiarelli), silver (Loui Eriksson) and bronze (Tuukka Rask) medals.
Hockey was celebrated over the past two weeks in Sochi, and now the best players in the world return to the league that employs them. Fans are excited about this. Owners are not.
If the owners and league executives decide to put their foot down and ban players from participating in the South Korea Olympics in 2018, it will be just another smack in the face to hockey fans, an act that has become the norm in recent years.