As might be gathered from the headline, my belief is the NHL should not participate in future Winter Olympics because there is little to be gained and much to be lost with such involvement. Before suggesting that is an foolish idea, please consider these questions:
• Would you feel the same way if it were Sidney Crosby facing back surgery as a result of an injury in the Games instead of Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg?
• Would you feel the same way if it were Evgeni Malkin facing the prospect of missing the remainder of the season due to a torn MCL, which happened during the Games, instead of the New York Islanders John Tavares?
• Would you feel the same way if it were Chris Kunitz who suffered a non-displaced fracture of his hand instead of Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers?
But even if the hockey competition in the Olympics were injury free, NHL participation is just a bad idea.
For starters, the notion the Olympics help sell the sport of hockey, which is the primary reason for the NHL’s involvement, is not necessarily true. No question, the Olympics create a surge of excitement in the sport and fans thrill to what amount to all-star competition within a team format. The fact the Games are fight-free and played on a larger surface only makes the competition even better.
But there is scant indication this surge of interest carries over. People watching the U.S. play Russia or Canada are not likely to tune in San Jose and Phoenix on some Tuesday night in November unless they were previously inclined to do so.
Similar surges in other sports, such as those produced by gymnastics and swimming in the Summer Olympics, consistently have failed to be maintained. Despite all admiration directed at and excitement created by gymnasts like Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci and swimmers like Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps, neither sport has been significantly elevated over the decades of Olympics exposure.
The negatives to participation by the NHL are many.
First and foremost, the NHL looks like a garage league by closing down for more than two weeks just so a small percentage of its players can go off to compete for their respective countries. The NHL is either saying a gold medal is more important than the Stanley Cup or indicating it is so desperate it will do anything for a little attention
MLB never so much as considered shutting down to participate in the Summer Olympics, and not even the pettiness of the IOC in tossing baseball from the Games altered that stance.
By shutting the league down for 17 days, the NHL is forced to cramp the final 30 percent of its schedule into a ridiculously small time frame. The Penguins, for example, will play their final 24 games in 46 days. NHL hockey was not meant to be played on a less than every-other-day basis. In doing so, the league cheapens its product, increases the chances of injury and wears down its players for the long grind of the postseason.
Closing down the sport for that length of time is never a good idea, but it’s particularly not in mid-February, a time when the overall sports calendar is as light as at any time during the NHL season.
There’s nothing that makes sense about participating in the Olympics except for the rather large fact the players appear to love it and might balk at its discontinuation. Obviously, this is something that will require negotiation. The guess here is if the NHL tosses a large enough bone at the players union, the vast majority of whose members do not participate in the Olympics, the players will acquiesce to the league saying goodbye to the Olympics.
No decision appears to be imminent.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said, ''I don’t want to get into what the pros and cons are for participating. Everybody knows them, and they’ve been debated ad nauseam. We are here because we think it’s great to be here today at this tournament. What comes next we’ll all have to figure out, as we’ve done each of the other times that the NHL players have participated.''
Union president Don Fehr put this time frame on it: ''"We'll get a sense of what people are thinking over the next 12, 16 months.’’
There should be no rush to judgment, but in the end, the NHL and the union should come to the realization that participating in the Olympics is an idea whose time has passed.