Whether you’re asking a typical NHL fan or a perennial superstar, the answer is likely the same. Are you serious? Is this even up for debate? Apparently, it is.
The argument rages on as the NHL continues to clue the world in that its players may not be able to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, set to take place Pyeongchang, South Korea. After all, commissioner Gary Bettman and Co. fought tooth and nail against Russian players alike to keep its players out of Sochi. Some all-stars even contested that they would leave their team in order to skate in the 2014 Games. Would the league have been able to continue without the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin? Although the simple answer is yes, it would not have been ideal for the fans, the teams, nor the league in whole.
Professional sports thrive off superstars. Imagine the 1993 Chicago Bulls taking the court without Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen.
The next Olympics will be different. The only South Korean to ever play in the NHL was center Richard Park, who has not suited up for a game in North America since April 7, 2012. Needless to say, the backlash from NHL players will not garner as much attention as before.
Is that the only reason that the NHL sent its players to Sochi? If so, the league has failed to see the big picture. Free advertisement and proof that the NHL is the greatest league in the world would go to the wayside.
Take the USA vs. Russia game from Saturday. At the forefront of the battle during regulation was Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk pumping in goal after goal while Chicago’s Patrick Kane was busy feeding San Jose’s Joe Pavelski for a thrilling tic-tac-toe goal. Then, it was Datsyuk and former NHLer Ilya Kovalchuk facing off against St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie in the shootout. Oshie won.
The NHL could have debuted a commercial at the Superbowl with live video of Sidney Crosby delivering twins while Alex Ovechkin sang and danced the hits from Grease and it wouldn’t have gone over as well as the epic Olympic battle.
The best players in the world come from the NHL. Of the 50 players on USA’s and Russia’s combined roster, only 10 came from outside of the NHL.
The Russian KHL is the NHL’s biggest competition in terms of providing its fans with the best players in the world. Does the NHL really think the KHL will follow suit and not send its players?
When a young, prolific Canadian or American hockey player rises above in the junior leagues or in the college ranks, what league does he aspire to join? The best begin skating in the NHL as early as the age of 18 (Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Calgary’s Sean Monahan), while others develop in their respective junior leagues in hopes of one day joining the team that drafted them.
Switch gears to a top-notch Russian player. After skating in the Russian developmental programs, a player has a choice: pursue a career in the NHL or stay in his homeland and play in front of his countrymen on a nightly basis. This is also the case for Czechs, Slovaks, Finns and Swedes as playing in Russia keeps the players, at the very least, on the same continent as where they grew up.
Simply put: opposing professional leagues (mostly the KHL) will use the Olympics as an opportunity to showcase their best players against the less-experienced Canadian and U.S. junior skaters.
Could Canada or the U.S. overcome this uphill battle? Just ask the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. Miracles do happen, just not as often as some may think.
When the Olympics changed the rules in 1988 to allow the best professionals to compete rather than the best amateurs, the U.S. and Canada did not finish with a gold medal until 2002 — the second tournament that the NHL allowed its players to compete — when the Canadians defeated the Americans in the gold medal game.
If professionals from other countries continued to participate while North American skaters did not, the NHL would be stunting the growth of the game in the very countries that the league is housed.
It doesn’t just affect North Americans, either. Men’s ice hockey will be deprived of a usually talented pool of players. Sweden’s superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Finland’s national hero Teemu Selanne and Czech Republic’s ageless wonder, Jaromir Jagr, would not be representing their countries on the world stage. What does that mean for the young Olympic hopeful who woke up in the wee hours of the morning to catch a glimpse of his favorite NHL player battling for his country?
Growing the sport begins in the most simplistic fashion. Bring on the Games.
I am a former NHL media member and reporter for the St. Louis Blues, working for various media outlets. Currently, I am an NHL News Writer and Editor for The Hockey Writers. I live in St. Louis and work as a freelance copywriter in numerous industries.