"I don't know that the league has really figured out a way to leverage the Olympic platform." -- NHL COO John Collins
No, the Olympics haven't transformed casual sports fans into hockey fanatics. Which is why there's been serious talk about the NHL opting out of the Winter Games after the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
But extracting the NHL from the Winter Olympics, to which it has provided talent since 1998, is a messy proposition. Fans have witnessed how good the hockey is when you have de facto all-star teams, divided by geography and heritage, defending their honor for a medal. The fantasy line combinations, the thrilling skill on display, the incredible physical play (kidding, of course) ... it may not be worth shutting down the NHL regular season every four years, but it's damn close.
So perhaps the only way to wean us off this hockey crack-rock is to replace it with something comparable, if completely lacking in relatable prestige: An NHL/NHLPA World Cup tournament that wouldn't interrupt the season but would allow players an international stage. From David Goetzl of Media Daily News:
Collins reiterated suggestions that in lieu of the Olympics, the league and its players' union might instead opt for a World Cup every four years, which would be co-owned by the two.
A World Cup would take place in the fall before the season began. The Olympics start in the middle of the season, which causes the league to shut down for multiple weeks. Both Bettman and the head of the union, John Kelly, confirmed that discussions were ongoing.
There are some serious challenges in swapping a World Cup for the Olympics; but there are also palpable benefits for the NHL. Like, for example, the way the Winter Olympics can create new hockey stars even without the NHL's participation.
Let's start with the most obvious challenge: Good luck telling Alexander Ovechkin that he can't represent Russia during the 2014 Games in Sochi. As he told us earlier this season, he wants to play there, and it's hard to imagine a Russian player in the NHL that wouldn't.
The fact is that there's an enormous amount of national pride for many European players in Olympic participation, and it will be difficult for the NHL to close the door on that once again. Perhaps the NHL can make one-time exemptions for younger players, even at the absurd risk of injury and reducing the NHL to an MLS-level surrogate for more important international tournaments.
But then that wouldn't exactly be a discontinuation of participation, would it?
No, the NHL would have to quit cold turkey and attempt to turn its World Cup into an international sensation and (in theory) a thrilling kick-off to the season. It can keep the revenues, promote the product anyway it sees fit and bring the best players in the world to different parts of the globe to sell the League. You think Prague was jacked up for the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers? How about a game featuring the Czech Republic all-stars?
The World Cup could work, although the television challenge in the U.S. is daunting. From Media Daily News:
It's uncertain what impact the NHL dropping the Olympics would have on negotiations by NBC, ESPN and Fox to acquire rights to future Games--although probably slim to none. With figure skating, speed skating and snowboarding taking center stage in NBC coverage recently, hockey has been essentially relegated to a much lower tier.
Hockey may be a second-tier sport in the Olympics, but it's still bigger than ... well, the biathlon, right? So when the Winter Olympics begin, will anyone care about the NHL? Alan Adams of AOL Sports wondered the same thing:
It's a known fact that sports enthusiasts get glued to the tube when the Olympic Games are on. People like best-on-best competitions. If they will watch Olympic sailing and the men's and women's marathons - as they did in droves last summer - they will watch anything.
It is also been proven that the American couch potato, suffering a food-induced coma from eating chicken wings and fries, will sprawl on the sofa and watch a sacred cow participate in the Olympic Games, especially if Bessie is wearing the Stars and Stripes.
In other words, no one south of the Canada-United States border is going to pay any attention to the NHL while the Olympic Games are underway. Might as well be part of the biggest sporting event in the world than compete against it.
This theory might hold up if not for the fact that the Olympics haven't benefitted the NHL in any measurable way. And even if more fans do pay more attention to Olympic hockey than the NHL during the Games, it could end up being more beneficial to the League than the current model.
For example, Peter Forsberg was a superstar before he played a single minute in the NHL.
His shootout goal in 1994 against Team Canada goalie Corey Hirsch, on a move "borrowed" from countryman Kent Nilsson, gave Sweden its first Winter Olympic men's ice hockey gold medal in Lillehammer and landed him on a postage stamp.
His gravitas followed him to the NHL and the Quebec Nordiques, whose general manager compared Forsberg to Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. He was an instant legend; thanks in no small part to his Olympic glory, which came without a flood of NHL stars in the tournament.
The point is that stripped away of the massive and familiar star power, new legends can be born in the Winter Olympics. Can you imagine some lights-out goalie leading his team into medal contention, and then joining the NHL club that owns his rights for a thrilling run to the postseason? Oh, that's right, of course you can: His name was Sean Burke, and like Forsberg he was already a burgeoning star after the 1988 Games, before he joined the New Jersey Devils for their historic 1988 playoff run.
The Olympics themselves might not boost the NHL's profile; but they can boost the profile of future NHL players, catapulting them into the spotlight for the most important stretch of the League's regular season. That's more important than a few extra eyes on Team Canada's all stars every four years.