The original version of this post can be found on my blog site: http://bit.ly/ceBn3i
My original idea for this post was to show that as North American professional sports leagues became more worldly, the debate should be laid to rest as to whether or not it’s fair that pro athletes be allowed to compete for their country. After all, this isn’t 1992, when a Dream Team of NBA superstars traveled to Barcelona & wreaked havoc on the Basketball events of the summer games.
But an unofficial poll on such social networking sites as Twitter and Facebook has shown me that there are many people who are very much divided on the topic. And, I found that it wasn’t nessecarily about balance of competition, or even whether pros should be allowed to compete in what is usually an ametuer event. Rather, the biggest debate was about how the layoff will effect the league that the players regularly play in.
This has become a bit of a moot point for the NBA, since basketball is a summer event and the NBA plays during the fall and winter months. But, in hockey, it’s quite a hot topic, because the NHL is forced to take a two week hiatus. So who’s right and who’s wrong. I’ll give you both sides, then I’ll give you my opinion. After that, you can decide for yourself.
The NHL is no longer a North American league. It may be the most global of the four major sports on the continent. This influx of European and Russian athletes has infused a sort of Olympic feel in the league’s day to day operations (The NHL even experimented with a North America vs. The World All Star format). Allowing it’s players to compete on a world stage can only help grow a sport so desperately seeking real estate among it’s bigger, more popular brothers.
Piggy-backing on the above point; having NHL players guarantees world class competition. Each game in the tournament is a mini All Star game. Again, not a bad showcase for a sport trying to grow in popularity.
Olympic teams have competitive balance. Unlike the 1992 Dream Team, allowing NHL players to compete for their countries has leveled the playing field.
The stereotype regarding the desires of the athletes are no longer divided by region. It was always presumed that North American players grew up with dreams of winning a Stanley Cup over an Olympic Medal. Conversely, it was assumed that players who came from overseas to play in the NHL didn’t have the passion to strive for the Stanley Cup and were only here to collect a paycheck and showcase their talents. Now all players get to compete for both. North American players learned the value of playing for their country while European and Eastern Asian players developed a desire to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup. *NOTE* I stress that these are stereotypes. In no way am I disputing the validity of an athletes desire to compete. At any level, or for any trophy.
What about the NHL? Is a two week hiatus a good thing for a league trying to grow in popularity. Sure, hockey fans will be paying attention to the Olympic Games. And it doesn’t hurt that the host country is hockey crazed Canada. But, the lights will be turned off for two weeks. Any modest fan who was becoming a little more curious about the NHL might be turned off, especially since NBC hasn’t done much to put hockey at the forefront of its broadcasts. You have to do a little channel surfing to find the games. Will that mildly curious fan just stick to alpine skiing and figure skating? Even Snowboarding gets billing over hockey on the NBC network of Olympic channels. Does the NHL, and the game of hockey itself, need another sport to compete with? *NOTE* Hockey can be found on every channel in Canada, this argument only applies to the United States Markets.
Team momentum will no doubt be affected by the break. Teams like the Flyers, who had just seemed to find a positive rhythym, are stopped in their tracks. And who knows if they can find that groove again when play resumes. This works both ways. Teams on slides, the Devils and Penguins come to mind, could be aided by the break. It might allow them to regroup and come back with a new slate to work with. My point is, how is that fair to the competitive balance of a league which has obviously worked very hard to achieve such a balance in the first place.
Chemistry is another element bound to be affected. Most of the league’s players are home with family, while a small percentage rev up the concentration levels to compete for their countries. This may cause teammates and linemates to be on different pages when play resumes.
Injury and fatigue are probably the biggest points in the argument against NHL players in the Winter Games. Yes, we all have National Pride, even million dollar athletes. But these men collect paychecks from teams counting on them to produce revenue, excitement, and ultimately, a championship for their fan base. What if one of them is seriously injured during the Olympics? It would not only impact that player’s season, but quite possibly, the fate of his team. After all, we’re not talking about the Donald Brashears of the NHL playing in this tournament. It’s the Crosbys and Ovechkins. Players that the NHL depends on. Also, it is said that The Stanley Cup just might be the hardest trophy to win in all of sports. The NHL Playoffs are a grueling marathon. How will players respond after having already exhausted so much in pursuit of Olympic glory?
Despite the risk of losing the casual viewer, or even losing a player for the season due to injury. I like having NHL Players in the Olympics. I’ve long said, you’re either a fan of hockey, or you’re not. The NHL shouldn’t concern itself with chasing casual fans. It has one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports, and should play to that strength. As for injury; any one of us could get hurt walking down the street, that shouldn’t even be an argument.
The Olympics create a unique opportunity to showcase the many talented athletes who play in the NHL, and can provide hockey fans everywhere with an opportunity to witness the game played at it’s highest level. And if the casual fan wants to hop on board for the ride, so be it.
Lastly, as I mentioned above, we all have National Pride. It’s not the players fault that some smart business men decided to start leagues that allowed lots of people the opportunity to make lots of money. National pride knows no dollar sign. If my country has terrific players, I want them playing for my team to help my country gain international bragging rights.
- Mike Tursi