Want to save Olympic ice hockey? Move it to the summer
SOCHI, Russia -- Gary Bettman will hold a press conference here on Tuesday. Maybe he just wants to practice his new comedy routine. Hard to say. But Bettman (whose league wants to pull out of the Olympics) will appear (at the Olympics) with International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel (who wants NHL players to keep participating in the Olympics) and NHL union president Donald Fehr (whose constituents want to keep playing in the Olympics), so I’ll go out on a limb here and say the Olympics will come up.
I have a radical but simple solution for all of them:
Move hockey to the Summer Olympics.
That’s it. Solves the problem.
If hockey were a summer sport, NHL players would keep getting chances to represent their country in the Olympics, which is incredibly meaningful to them. The IIHF gets the best hockey players in the world at the Olympics, which is essential. This generation does not want to find out who the best amateur players in the world are. We’re past that. Casual fans would get to watch the fantastic Olympic hockey that they have watched since the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
And NHL owners, who have grown increasingly agitated by shutting down for three weeks in February while their players travel around the world to play (and possibly injure themselves) for somebody else, would get their schedules back.
It may sound crazy to think of hockey as a summer sport, though you would get used to it if you had walked around Olympic Park without a jacket this week, as I have. There is a historical precedent here. Ice hockey was a Summer Games sport in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920 before joining the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France.
I can’t say this is perfect. Hockey would not resonate quite as much at the Summer Olympics, which are much bigger, with many more athletes. The Summer Games already have their big team sport, basketball. But around the world, pro basketball is primarily a winter sport contested indoors, just like pro hockey.
As I wrote last week, and as I absolutely still believe, NHL owners have the right to pull their players out of the Olympics. They also have good reasons to do so. As much as we try to portray them as greedy, if your employer is paying you millions of dollars to play hockey, you owe that employer your best hockey, whenever your employer wants you to play.
This week Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg herniated a disc playing for Team Sweden, severely damaging Detroit's playoff hopes. Zetterberg could have done that in the NHL, but the fact is that he didn’t. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch can’t be happy. If Zetterberg injured himself in the Summer Games, he would have time to recover before the season.
The NHL gets some exposure from being in the Olympics, but the financial benefits of that are nebulous. The NHL has grown since 1998, but we can’t fairly point to the Olympics as the cause. There are many greater factors.
Still, as an Olympics-watcher and hockey fan, I’d love to see hockey stay in the Olympics. This is a fascinating two-week hockey tournament, even more compelling than Olympic men’s basketball because more teams can win gold. Who wouldn’t want to see it again?
Moving hockey to the Summer Games would allow teams to hold real training camps instead of jumping on the ice a few days before the games begin. It would also allow the NHL and NHLPA to host a World Cup of Hockey every fourth year, in between Summer Games, and cash in on it.
Maybe nobody would be completely happy with this. But that is what happens when you compromise. So move hockey to the Summer Olympics. Problem solved, right?