NHL’s Olympic disappearing act

By banning their players from next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, NHL owners basically are going to spite their noses right off of their faces. They will not participate on international sport’s biggest stage, bypassing the added bonus of furthering the league’s desire to spread the NHL gospel to Asia, because—commissioner Gary Bettman somehow reasoned—the Olympics will cause the NHL to “disappear” for more than two weeks.

In fact, the Olympics has been a boon to NHL visibility since the league first signed onto the Winter Games 19 years ago, even in the face of shameful conduct by U.S. players at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. (More on that in a minute.)

The 2010 Olympic gold-medal final was the most-watched hockey game in North American television history—the NHL’s primary turf—seen by 27.6 million Americans and 22 million Canadians. Compare that to the measly 7.9 million who tuned in for Game Seven of the previous season’s Stanley Cup final on U.S. TV, or even the all-time largest Stanley Cup single-game TV audience of 13-plus million in 1972.

Prior to the 2010 Games, the highest rated hockey game featuring NHL players also was at the Olympics, in the 2002 gold-medal final. Donnie Kwak, writing for The Ringer web site, sensibly argued last week that “even the worst Olympic hockey game is more compelling than a regular-season NHL matchup in February.”

Especially, I contend, because the skating and puck-handling skills of he NHL’s best are magnified by Olympic rules that do not tolerate the NHL’s counterproductive acceptance of fighting. No other major professional sport puts up with—in fact, markets—such side-shows.

Yet Bettman brings an odd logic to that as well, accepting fighting as a pre-existing condition in his league. “It’s been there from the start,” he has said, “and what is done at other levels isn’t necessarily what’s appropriate at the professional level.”

Bettman has concluded that fighting “is part of the game” because NHL hockey is “intense and emotional.” A similarly timid reluctance to enforce good behavior is what gave the NHL a figurative black eye in its 1998 Olympic debut, when some (still unidentified) members of the U.S. team destroyed $3,000 worth of property in their rooms at the Nagano Games athletes’ village, then made matters worse by dismissing the incident as “blown out of proportion.”

Supposedly there were only three troublemakers who caused that damage, spitting in the face of overwhelming Japanese courtesy to the world’s visiting athletes, yet all 23 members of the team banded together to steadfastly refuse cooperation in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s subsequent investigation. The excuse was “team solidarity”—not ratting on the perpetrators of embarrassment to them and the entire U.S. Olympic delegation.

Not until a month later, under pressure from the U.S. Hockey Federation and the NHL Players Association, did the 1988 U.S. team captain, Chris Chelios, at last write a letter of apology to the Japanese people and the Olympic organizers, with a check of $3,000 included.

Somehow, Chelios and 13 of the disgraced Nagano veterans were allowed to represent the United States again at the 2002 Winter Games, possibly because a repeat of the Yanks’ roguish actions wouldn’t cause a similar international incident for Salt Lake City’s hosts. “We kept [the 1998 culprits] to ourselves for a reason,” Chelios claimed, without giving a reason. “People who needed to know what happened, they knew what happened.” He included Bettman among those people.

So the NHL establishment simply moved on with a boys-will-be-boys shrug, just as Bettman and league owners justify occasional, though persistent, goonery on the ice. But if a tradition of fisticuffs is OK in NHL games, what’s the common-sense argument by Bettman and the league owners that player injury is a major reason for skipping the 2018 Olympics?

With NHL rosters becoming more and more geographically diversified—more than one quarter of active NHL players come from outside North America—there is overwhelming sentiment among players to participate in the South Korea Games. Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs not only like the idea of wearing their national colors but also understand that their past presence in the Olympics has cultivated new fans for the NHL.

Even the American players, unlike those few ingrates in Nagano, have come to appreciate that the global exposure and competitive buzz of the Olympics far outpace the mucking in the corners of NHL rinks in mid-February. Without them in South Korea, the TV-ratings winners will be figure skating and snowboarding. And the NHL indeed will disappear for a couple of weeks.


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