Who Needs The Olympics?

One of the interesting negotiable issues in this summer’s collective bargaining negotiations is that of the NHL’s participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as well as subsequent Olympic participation.

There is likely some middle ground with respect to this particular issue.  Specifically, both sides, that being the NHL owners and the NHL players wish to have something to show, monetarily speak, for their time and effort.

The Olympics are without doubt a life experience; one that all participants cherish.  It also, however, comes with significant risk for each player and the team that owns that player’s rights.   Injuries in these unpaid games could cost a player his next contract and could correspondingly cost a team the services of their most dynamic player.

With respect to the term “unpaid games,” the Olympics are an “amateur” event, meaning that the players do not receive any remuneration for their participation.  Granted, it is not all about the money—especially for the fans at home watching some of the best hockey in the world.  Nonetheless, the NHL owners have to agree to assume the risk of injury to their star players, breaking for just over two weeks from the NHL season, playing a compressed 82 game schedule.  The owners have to do all of this and not receive a dime in return.

Gary Suter does battle at SLC in 2002 (picture courtesy wikipedia.org)

Conversely, fans may rebut, the game is growing when it is on display at the Olympic Games.  The viewership is higher than for any NHL games, so new fans are bound to emerge from such exposure.   Does that exposure (the big ratings benefit the corporations producing the television broadcast but teams do not directly benefit from that) result in more money in the owners’ pockets?  It is likely that the owners likely have data to determine the answer to that very question but remember that the players now earn a portion of the owners’ revenue, so they have a vested interest in this as well.

That brings up to our next question: What benefit do the players get from this?  With exposure as it is today with Twitter, Facebook, online newspapers, blogs and television; are there any unrecognizable players?  Likely not.

Players already garner a lot of attention—and rightfully so.   But how do we quantify the financial benefit a player receives from participating in the Olympics?

There is a solution to all of this—one that is not simply, “IT IS NOT ALWAYS ABOUT THE MONEY.”   As an aside, ask the International Olympic Committee (IOC) if it is all about the money.  If the IOC was more generous in sharing its profits from the Olympics, maybe the NHL and its players would have little hesitation in participating for the foreseeable future, but alas, we digress.

Perhaps the solution to this problem is the return of the now defunct Canada/World Cup.   Notwithstanding its apparent lack of cache to some, as compared to the Olympics, can someone honestly say that the 1987 Canada/Russia best-of-three final was not some of the best hockey ever played?

It is the aforementioned best of three that is the key to this article.

One of the issues with the Olympic Games is the one-and-out nature of the tournament.   Sometimes the best teams have poor games—see Sweden against Belarus in 2002.  That probably was one of the most significant choke jobs in the past few decades but would the tournament have been better off with a best-of-three format?  It is a question worth asking.

What about a 2014 World Cup with the following format:

  • Eight Teams
    • The Big Seven: Canada, United States, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland; and one of
    • Latvia, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Belarus
  • Two Divisions
    • For example:
      • Division One: Canada, Russia, Czech Republic and Switzerland
      • Division Two: United States, Sweden, Finland and Slovakia
  • Three Intra-Division Games:
    • Each team plays every team in its division once and then is seeded accordingly
    • The bottom team in each division is eliminated from competition

To interject, up until this point the format may seem fairly similar to that of the Olympics, but it is at this point where it differs.

  • The top teams in each division receive a bye to the semi-finals
  • Teams ranked two and three in each division play a one game elimination (with no shootouts)
    • For example:
      • Division One: Russia (2) plays Czech Republic (3)
      • Division Two: Finland (2) plays Sweden (3)
  • The winners of the two seed versus three seed series would then play a best-of-three series against the one seed (with no shootouts)
    • For example:
      • Division One: Canada (1) plays Russia (2) in a best-of-three series
      • Division Two: United States (1) plays Finland (2) in a best-of-three series.
  • The finalists then play a best-of-five series (with no shootouts)
    • For example:
      • Canada (1) plays United States (1) in a best-of-five series

Sample size is the biggest benefit here.  In any one game anything can happen—although the better team usually prevails.  But in a series, we really have a better idea of the superior team.  Moreover, the matchups become interesting, the hatred between the teams becomes evident and the desperation and passion is on display for over one week.

Brodeur – Surrounded By Greatness But NO GOAL! {Photo: Christopher Ralph}

The players and owners would run this tournament, resulting in it being profitable for all sides.  It could be governed by NHL rules and have insurance policies applied just the same.

Most importantly, however, it would allow the best players in the world to go at it for approximately one month—the tournament would be in September just as the Canada Cup was.  This would allow NHL training camps to take place simultaneously and would not extend the season from its usual parameters.

One may raise the concern of too many games being played, especially prior to the season.  Well, if the 1980’s players, some of whom used beer as Gatorade, were able to reach their peak performance in September, there should be little concern that today’s physically obsessed athletes cannot do the same.

Never mind the fact that the most games one team could play would be 12 (3, 1, 3, and 5).  While that is not insignificant, if the tournament runs in September, it eliminates the need to participate in training camp practices and exhibition games.

The tournament could take place ever four years and could take place in one city or multiple cities.

All in all this would allow the best players in the hockey world to play extensively against the best competition in the hockey world.  Most fans argue that the first round of the NHL playoffs is the most enjoyable time of the hockey year.  The basis of this belief is that the players are fresh at the onset of the playoffs (which they would be in September) motivated to perform and develop rivalries.

Let’s replicate that first round series; just make it every four years and improve the talent by a few echelons.

Any takers?

One Comment

  1. I would support this idea. A lot of the classic games from the ’70s and ’80s are from the Summit Series or the Canada Cup. It would be a blast to watch and could be kind of like how they do the European Championship every four years in soccer.

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