On the Radar: The Olympic Debate
I have to admit, I love the NHL sending players to the Winter Olympics. Yes, I am well aware of the negatives. Most notably is the possibility of injury or fatigue to premier guys, affecting the stretch run of the NHL season. Like all of you, I held my breath when Jamie Benn got rocked from behind into the boards late in the Canada-Finland game. I also am well aware of the problems that a two and a half week break causes the NHL schedule. Not only does it kill momentum for teams like the Stars and their pre-Olympic dominance and compacts games closer together, but it also takes away the PR/marketing momentum that had been gained through tight playoff races, the Winter Classic, Stadium Series, and 55 or so games of storylines. Stopping for three weeks creates a break that seems like an off-season when three to four games per week is the norm.
I understand that from a spectator standpoint, trying to watch games when the Olympics are outside of North America creates an additional obstacle. Between work, school, kids, and the inconvenience of having to sleep at some point, catching games that start between midnight and 9 a.m. isn’t always the easiest thing to do. It makes being a Stars fan when the club was in the Pacific Division seem like a tailor-made schedule. I get it. I really do. I completely understand the movement against sending NHL players to participate, and am realistic in knowing that this could be the last time they’re going.
But for all of the downsides, I believe there are so many more positives for the sport of hockey when the best players in the world are there. Every four years the globe stops to watch the Winter Olympics. And since the NHL has started sending players, each time hockey has become the signature event. And that simply doesn’t happen if the NHL isn’t there. Long gone are the ‘Miracle on Ice’ days where amateurs can top pros in an upset that captures the hearts of the world. It’s either all amateurs or all pros. And amateurs can’t move the needle in this country the way NHLers can. Just look at the World Junior Championships from a nationwide standpoint. Most casual sports fans don’t know what they are, or when they are.
Also gone are the days that the U.S. is a global underdog in the sport, and a bunch of college kids can revive a nation. The 1980 Gold Medal victory by the U.S. Hockey Team wasn’t just one of the best moments in U.S. Sports History. It was an iconic moment in U.S. History – period. But it can never set up like that again.
Instead, what can happen now is the Americans can contend in – and possibly win – a tournament of the world’s best players and continue to help the sport continue to take steps forward in this country. And even if the Americans don’t win, they still give a nation a reason to watch. More importantly, they give them a reason to care.
Growing up and spending the majority of my life in non-traditional hockey markets, I’ve often pondered the question, “Why isn’t hockey more popular in the U.S.?” Everyone who goes to a hockey game has a great time. It’s the best in-person spectator sport by a mile. It involves all of the elements that American sports fans crave. It’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s physical, it’s high-energy, the games are usually close so there’s drama, it’s skillful, it’s graceful. And most of all, it is fun to watch. So the question is a puzzling one. Why isn’t it more popular?
The answer I have come up with is that most people who don’t like hockey simply don’t have a team to root for. They didn’t grow up playing or following a team, and hockey has always been there, but they aren’t emotionally invested in any outcomes. Sports are emotional – whether you play or cheer. They are more fun when you care who wins. That’s why sportsbook betting and fantasy football have taken the NFL to a different stratosphere. If you’re a fan of a 4-12 team, you still have something invested in a season that basically became a write-off in Week 7. That’s why the U.S. can react the way they did when the U.S. Soccer team advanced with a late goal in the 2010 World Cup, but most Americans couldn’t name you three players in the MLS. And that’s why a sport that can rarely squeeze a highlight into the first 40 minutes of SportsCenter can offer up memorable moments during the Winter Olympics.
If you’re reading this, the odds are you’re already a pretty big hockey fan. But the reality is that we’re still a minority in this country. And the more times that hockey becomes a front-page story, the better. The Olympics provide that in a way that nothing else can. Not even the Stanley Cup playoffs. From a publicity standpoint, nothing can match countries joining together to watch the game played at its highest level, and giving everyone a team to cheer for.
And that leads to another point. Even if you already are a big fan of hockey and don’t need a manufactured allegiance to get into the sport, you are getting to see the best hockey players in the world play in the most emotional, high-speed tournament that exists. Picture the intensity of a two-month playoff and jam it into less than two weeks and you’ve got hockey in the Winter Olympics. The single elimination aspect essentially creates a Game-7 scenario for 11 straight games from Qualification to Gold Medal.
The group stage game between the United States and Russia was the most recent example of how good Olympic hockey can be. It was amazing. Through the morning crust in your eyes, you saw everything that was great about hockey. People at the game are still talking about the energy in the building. And those of us who were watching experienced it through the TV. Team Canada’s Matt Duchene was in attendance and called it the best hockey game he had ever seen in person. The fact that T.J. Oshie was trending on Twitter and became a household name among U.S. sports fans proved just how possible it is for the U.S. to get a case of hockey-fever. It happened back in 2010 in Vancouver, too. Even in a heartbreaking American loss. Win or lose, hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike are being exposed to a talent-level, tournament, and atmosphere that is infectiously enjoyable. Simply put, it makes you want to see more hockey.
As I sat there with the sun not even up during the U.S. – Russia game, I wondered how hockey could do away with this. And then I remembered that it will not come at the expense of a flawed final two months and playoffs when the NHL resumes. Players undoubtedly will be impacted one way or another, but the NHL will still have a terrific close to the season, and continued with the best postseason that exists in sports. It doesn’t have to be one or another. Every four years, the NHL has both. As a hockey fan who knows what the rest of the country is missing most of the time, I hope I can say the same thing again in 2018.
In the meantime, enjoy a few more days of world-class hockey with everything on the line. Whether it’s the last time or not, it promises to be one heck of a show.
As you set your alarms to watch the conclusion of the medal round, here are a few things to keep ‘On the Radar’ regarding the upcoming Olympic games. We’ll return next week with more info on the Stars as they come out of the break.
This season the Stars have surprised a lot of people. They are a team on the rise, and most of their players have flown largely under the radar because they have never been spotlighted on the largest stage. That’s what made the first half of the Olympic tournament so rewarding for Stars fans. It has been an introduction of sorts of Stars players to the rest of the hockey world. Team Canada forward Jamie Benn scored in his Olympic debut and has been one of the most consistent players for the pre-tournament Gold Medal favorites. Head Coach Mike Babcock recently paired him with Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in practice, and said he was doing it in an attempt to use Benn to spark Getzlaf. Benn’s play has been applauded during each game by teammates, coaches, and media members. For a man who was not invited Team Canada’s orientation camp, and thought to possibly be a healthy scratch in these games, Benn has come a long way and shown the rest of the world what Stars fans already knew.
Additionally, Val Nichushkin has had a similar week. The youngest player in the Olympic hockey tournament was also thought to possibly be a scratch, but scored in his debut and was the early talk of Team Russia. The experience has been somewhat tempered by his lack of ice time in Tuesday’s Qualification game vs. Norway, but for a man who was nowhere near the preliminary radar to make Team Russia, he is already playing with the house’s money for these Olympics in his home country. There’s no telling what his role will be going forward, but the rest of the world has now seen what he’s capable of. Not only has Val not looked out of place in a tournament of the world’s best players. At times, he’s stood out as elite. It’s remarkable to think about how far he has come this quickly, and is still just 18 years old.
Kari Lehtonen has also gotten into these games and made the most of his opportunity. At the start of the year, the Stars starting netminder was thought to be on the bubble of making Team Finland. Once the rosters were announced, most people figured him to be the third netminder on the team. Lehtonen, however, has emerged as the #2 guy behind Boston’s Tukka Rask, and excelled in his first Olympic game. He made 20 saves on 21 shots in a 6-1 win over Norway and also chipped in with two assists, giving him as many points so far in these Olympics as Sidney Crosby. It appears that Finland may run with Rask the rest of the way, but regardless Kari and the rest of the Stars have proven that they can compete and excel on the world’s biggest stage, against the world’s toughest competition. If nothing else, Sochi has provided a few more reasons to be excited about the future of Stars hockey.
For as much as I love the talent and competition of hockey in the Olympics, the tournament itself has a bevy of flaws. First off, IIHF rules are not always the best (see: the U.S. break on Russia’s disallowed goal that already is projected to change immediately
The Finnish Finish
Trivia time: Which team has won the most medals since the Olympics started using NHL Players in 1998? Canada? Russia? The United States? Actually, you might be surprised to find out that the answer is Finland. Finland has medaled in three of the four tournaments involving NHLers, claiming bronze in 1998 and 2010, and silver in 2006. Canada, the U.S. and Russia each have two medals. So far the Finns, featuring Lehtonen, have been heralded as playing the best style of game on international ice. They gave Canada all they could take in the opening round, and secured a bye as the #4 ranked team. The most anticipated match of the Quarterfinals is Finland vs. Russia. One of the teams will be eliminated without any chance for a medal on Wednesday morning. It will either be the host nation, or the one with the most medals over the last four games. Let the drama begin.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.