The NHL Can't Handle The Winter Olympics

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- I don't think we were able to drive the point home when we took the diplomatic route with an earlier story titled The NHL Needs More Than A Miracle On Ice from the Olympics, so here it is more bluntly: The National Hockey League needs to stop sending its players to the Winter Olympics. Now.

It doesn't have to stop doing so indefinitely and this isn't a matter of amateurs vs. professionals -- especially not during games in which U.S. athletes need tons of sponsorship money to pay their own way. It has everything to do with the NHL's current state and the realities that its fans have to deal with.

Since the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the NHL has sent players to the Olympics with its blessing. During that same period, the NHL saw its ratings decline during the dark, defensive "trap" era, saw labor disputes erode any goodwill it had built up with fans and saw its game fall from respectable "fourth-sport" status on Fox and ESPN to esoteric fodder for hard-to-find channels like OLN and Versus.

It's a world in which NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is almost unanimously booed during Stanley Cup presentation ceremonies, sacrificed 2,100 games and a generation of future growth to work stoppages based largely around revenue and player compensation. It's a world in which the league's Southern migration has produced nearly as many trouble spots (Florida, Phoenix and Nashville) as success stories (Carolina, Anaheim, San Jose, Dallas). It's a world in which the NHL hitched itself to Olympic ice hockey history that awarded gold medals to only five nations since 1948. Only eight nations have won any medal in the sport during the last 17 winter games.

In an ideal world, the Winter Olympics would be an ideal time for the NHL to show off its goodwill and be rewarded with tons of new casual hockey fans and lots of international growth for its efforts. The world described above is not that world. In the NHL's hockey dystopia, every step forward is greeted with a huge shove backward.

Tampa Bay gives Florida a Stanley Cup? Cancel a season. The Winter Classic gains traction in the U.S., Sidney Crosby gets a cup and the Original Six teams return to form? Lockout. Sign a 10-year, $2 billion broadcast deal with NBC and finally have a calendar year in which the Stanley Cup Finals draw more eyes than they have in 20 years, the Winter Classic matches a viewership record and more cities embrace outdoor games? Shut it down for a few weeks for the Olympics.

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.

Not surprisingly, Bettman brought up the World Cup of Hockey again while brushing off questions about the NHL's future Olympic participation. It's been 10 years since the last World Cup of Hockey, with the first taking place eight years before that, but Bettman seems to think there's a chance of it returning in the near future.

"I believe in the not too distant future the NHL and NHLPA will be in a position to talk about other international initiatives that we're discussing, including bringing back the World Cup," Bettman said. "We see international competition on the horizon. It's really just a question of what the format will be."

Hockey fans are rightfully skeptical about any declarations that Bettman makes, but this would be the right call for everyone involved. It would give casual fans means of discovering the sport at various levels of play and it would give die-hard fans more hockey, which none of them would pass up. More importantly, it would give the NHL a chance to stabilize itself, fall into a regular routine and put forth a consistent product that won't rile the regulars or require detailed explanation for newcomers.

In a league largely defined by the wrong decisions Bettman has made, taking a step back from the Olympics is the right one. The NHL needs realistic solutions if it wants to stay relevant to U.S. hockey fans and become more relevant to U.S. sports as a whole.

Hockey fans may have to put up with medals being awarded to no-names and less-than-familiar faces, but it beats draping them over athletes at the peak of their sport while they're relatively anonymous to the country they're representing.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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