Don't get me wrong: For both casual and die-hard fans alike, the NHL Olympics have been a great thing. That they haven't converted the former into the latter in any discernible numbers, however, is a bad sign for a league that's been short on both stability and growth in its recent history.
The NHL shouldn't pull players because the fans can't handle it -- the 27.6 million U.S. viewers who watched the men's hockey gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada in 2010 make clear that they can -- but because the league can't. Flyers owner Ed Snider's comments about hating the Olympics and pulling players from future games aren't off-base or even out of line with the rest of the league. In fact, in the middle of the Sochi games, Bettman came out and told reporters directly that the NHL's involvement at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea was "not anything we're focused on dealing with right now."
After New York Islanders star John Tavares tore his MCL and meniscus in his left knee during Canada's quarterfinal win over Latvia, he will miss the rest of the NHL season. That made Islanders General Manager Garth Snow livid.
"This is probably the biggest reason why NHL players shouldn't be in the Olympics, it should just be amateurs," Snow told Newsday. "And it could have happened to anyone; it just happened to be us that lost our best player." Bettman knows the players want it, but he also knows that the NHL is only recently making positive steps toward cleaning up the mess he had a large role in making. All of that becomes a lot more difficult when the league has to break up its season during a point when it faces no competition from baseball or football and minimal overlap with the NBA and college basketball.
What about the competition from the Olympics, you ask? The NBA and college basketball both absorb that just fine, while the NHL has a long history of running a season concurrent with the Winter Olympics. In 1994, it not only produced one of the most exciting seasons in NHL history -- one that landed it a TV deal with Fox -- but a brilliant Olympic gold medal game between Sweden and Canada best remembered for future NHL great Peter Forsberg's game-winner for Sweden on a deke now known simple as a "Forsberg."But what about growing the game internationally? Well, Olympic hockey doesn't stop existing just because the NHL backs out of it. In fact, the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" game had an unparalleled impact on both NHL and U.S. hockey and didn't feature a single NHL roster player. The Olympics could still be a showcase of college players, junior hockey talent and under-23 minor league prospects that could deliver a product every bit as exciting as the NHL-approved Olympic matchups. However, we realize that all fans still love seeing the pros represent their country. The NHL once had a solution for this, too. Under various names including the Summit Series, Challenge Cup, Rendez-Vous, NHL players competed for national sides in one-off events that either took the place of the all-star game or fell outside the NHL calendar. A far better idea, however, was the Canada Cup that later became the World Cup of Hockey. In each NHL-sanctioned event, national teams of professional players squared off in a format similar to that of soccer's World Cup or, later, Major League Baseball's World Baseball Classic. The event ran from the end of August through early September -- a soft spot in Major League Baseball's calendar and the earliest point of the National Football League season -- and avoided overlap with the NHL season.