Sidney Crosby at the Olympics. Image by: Getty Images
There's no use in feeling sorry for the players, or the fans, and the Olympic hockey tournament will go on with or without the NHL's participation.
Alas, the sky has not fallen. The sun rose today, although you wouldn’t know it by the dreary, waterlogged day in Toronto, the center of the hockey universe. Perhaps God, if you believe in that kind of thing, is a hockey fan in mourning.
The NHL’s announcement it would not be sending its players to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang fell like a sledgehammer on a hockey world that widely believed the league’s participation was inevitable. We’d seen this negotiating dance previously, and it always ended in kisses and hugs. It’s what the fans want. It’s what the players want. And it’s probably what many of the owners, if they are being honest and are true hockey fans, want, too. Yet, unless there’s an aircraft carrier-sized turnaround in the next few months, the NHL-Olympic dream is sunk.
And I’m having a tough time feeling the outrage.
Without question, the five previous NHL-infused Winter Olympics have been wonderful; the hockey has been divine. It’s disappointing we won’t be treated to Part VI. But I don’t feel sorry for anyone, least of all myself.
OK, perhaps it’s a bummer for South Korea. They won the right to host the Games and were expecting hockey’s brightest stars to illuminate one of their showcases. But I attended an Olympic promotional event thrown by the Korean tourism board just hours after the NHL lowered the boom and I didn’t see any tears. Organizers expressed disappointment, and hoped a resolution could still be found, but…news flash: they aren’t going to cancel the Olympics. Ticket sales have been brisk, most of the venues are complete and operational, and the show, with its 102 events, will go on. They’ll be fine.
I don’t feel sorry for the players. The NHLers who would have dotted Olympic lineups have led lives of privilege, and have experienced winning and fame at the highest levels. Besides, if this truly heart-breaking for them, they’d have found a way to cover the insurance costs, the apparent back-breaking issue.
I don’t feel sorry for the fans. I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how to feel, so if you’re among the outraged I respect that. From my perspective, I’ve witnessed five Olympics, eight Canada/World Cups and decades of world junior tournaments and Stanley Cups. I’ve lived well. One Olympic gap – and that’s all it might be based on the NHL’s interest in China – is a shaving nick.
On the other hand, assuming this isn’t a tactic by Gary ‘Shut Down the Business for An Entire Year’ Bettman, it affords an opportunity to those who haven’t lived as charmed a life as the NHL elite. In the past, I’ve proposed that in lieu of NHL participation, the IIHF scrap the WJC in Olympic years and send the world’s best juniors to the Games. Imagine how joyous that could be. But with plans for the 2018 WJC in Buffalo already cemented, that doesn’t appear to be an option this time. Instead, we’re more likely to see veterans who had (still have?) the NHL dream getting an opportunity to live like kings for a day. And who knows what storylines could emerge from that pool?
At the same time, I’m not as cynical as some of my colleagues and fans about the World Cup of Hockey. If FIFA can make it work, why not hockey? Given time, and if nurtured properly, it could be a compelling brand on a vast scale. But that’s an argument for another day.
Don’t get me wrong. While I comprehend the owners’ perspective, I don’t share it. It’s a myopic strategy devised by men of enormous wealth who might not understand or care how petty this makes them look. But it’s also not the end of my hockey world.
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