In 1998, the Olympics welcomed NHL players with open arms. Prior to ’98 Olympic, hockey was considered an ‘amateur’ game composed of college, senior and communist (supposed non-pro) players. The prospect of exposing the sporting world to the very best hockey players appeared to be a logical way to ‘grow the game’ in general and improve the standing of the NHL in particular.
What was the price? The NHL agreed to shut down the league for almost three weeks and ‘lend’ their players to the various national teams. The Olympics would get the benefit of a major, team sport involving the best in the business. In ’98 it seemed to be a fair cost for all involved.
Nagano, Japan presented the games flawlessly.
The US and Canadian teams failed to win a medal which defeated one of the major goals of the NHL. The Czechs won Gold, Russia took the Silver and Finland won Bronze. The greatest players of the era gave the games everything they had. Ratings were not what the NHL had hoped for. The dramatic difference in times zones was thought to be the reason.
In 2002, Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Games. A North American venue in the Mountain time zone gave the NHL high hopes. The Canadian team played an inspired hockey on their way to the Gold Medal. Team USA captured the Silver and Bronze went to the Russians.
2006 saw the Winter Games staged in Turin, Italy. Sweden, Finland and the Czechs won Gold, Silver and Bronze. Canada and the US failed to medal and many saw it as another missed opportunity.
Vancouver hosted in 2010 and Canada showed the world they know how to throw a party. But at the end of the day the NHL still failed to get the result they were hoping for. The games did not draw massive viewership. The games failed to drive interest in non-traditional US markets. The buzz the games brought was enjoyed mostly by long-time hockey fans; the same folks who watch attend and buy merchandise during the NHL season.
But after 16 years and 5 Olympic games (including Sochi, Russia next month), I feel it’s time to move on. It’s not a win-win for the NHL. What other industry would shut down their business and ‘give’ away their product without any guarantees? Not only that, there is a very real concern to club management that their high-priced assets (players) could be hurt which would damage their business significantly.
Recently more and more voices are questioning the NHL’s future participation. Another point that can be made is that the NHL’s condensed schedule to accommodate three weeks off in February hurts players, the competition and the quality of the games played.
For me there are two solutions to the problems of shutting down the NHL.
1.Move Ice Hockey to the summer games. It may be counter intuitive but basketball is featured in the summer games.
2.Resurrect the World Cup of Hockey which has been shelved since the league began playing in the Olympics. In the past the World Cup was staged in September to coincide in part with training camp. Games were played entirely in North America…in Canada and the US. In fact San Jose hosted a World Cup game back in 1996.
Rather than trying to get the world to ‘discover hockey’, let’s use the league, its venues and its players to offer the best hockey possible without shutting down the NHL during a key part of the season.
It’s time to just walk away from the Olympics. Give Olympic hockey to the college and amateurs players. Let the NHLers earn their money battling for the Stanley Cup and a revived World Cup.