Stubborn IOC must move men's hockey to Summer Olympics
The Olympics have a men's hockey problem.
It isn't very good.
That is said with all due respect to the former NHLers, career Euro leaguers and college kids who play as hard and as well as they possibly can to represent their countries.
This isn't even their fault. Part of the low quality of play stems from the fact these guys were thrown together on makeshift teams, given about three practices and told to hit the global stage.
The IOC, true to its well-established arrogance, has always taken the position that the National Hockey League needs the Olympics and thus must bend to its schedule.
In truth, the IOC needs the NHL. What should be one of the marquee events of the Games — and has been a breathtaking exhibition of skill and passion — is an afterthought, even as it enters the semifinal rounds in Beijing, when the best in the world aren't there.
The IOC should listen to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and move the men's tournament to the Summer Olympics during the league's offseason, when participation will be assured and preparation maximized. Bettman has reportedly lobbied the IOC for this since the 1990s only to be rebuffed.
That should change.
The NHL first allowed its players to participate in the Olympics in 1998. It continued through 2014, offering some of the most compelling and exciting hockey ever played.
Not only are the talent levels high (stars on all four lines) but the spacious Olympic rink (2,600 square feet larger than the NHL) is ideal for speed and skill. There is hockey and then there is Pavel Datsyuk in the open ice at the Olympics. We can only imagine what Conor McDavid would do.
The NHL skipped in 2018 due to time and scheduling constraints associated with the location in South Korea. It initially was headed to the 2022 Beijing Games, but pulled out citing restrictive COVID policies and other scheduling issues.
It is, as of now, committed to the 2026 Olympics in Italy, but who really knows? The NHL makes an enormous sacrifice to suspend its season so it can participate. It remains forever hesitant.
It's the players who push for this. A number, most vocally the Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand, railed about not getting to go to Beijing, even with the protocols and isolation risk.
The desire of the best in the world to compete in this tournament has always translated to the ice. The Olympics are the dream, not just a marketing or branding opportunity. The intensity of play has been incredible. The knockout round is a series of Game 7s. The blood, sweat and tears of this tournament are second to none.
Seeing the best of the best paired off and full of nationalistic pride is what the Olympics are supposed to represent. So make it so for men's hockey.
Hockey is, obviously, a winter sport and the Winter Olympics are about competitions played on some form of frozen water — be it ice or snowflakes. However, this is about the realities of scheduling, not philosophy. The women's tournament should remain in the Winter Olympics where, due to the absence of the men, it can get even more attention and perhaps add more games or teams.
Putting men's hockey in the summer allows for everyone to be available to play, often rested and ready. It also lets national teams run training camps and exhibition tours to get into top shape. The level of play and the hype heading into the Olympics should increase.
Right now, even when the NHLers are involved, everyone jets in and competes in an 11-day event. It's a fun frenzy, but a little more time to jell and breathe would make it even better.
There is an argument that hockey would get lost in the crowded Summer Games — especially competing with the NBA-rich men's basketball tournament. But overall audiences are bigger in the summer and hockey should never shy away from competition when it comes to showcasing itself.
It's a more balanced tournament — three different countries (Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic) won gold and six have played in the finals — when the NHLers were involved. And the best players are literally from everywhere, so every game is something to see.
McDavid, Nathan McKinnon and Sidney Crosby of Canada. Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane of the U.S. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Alex Ovechkin and Artemi Panarin of Russia. Victor Hedman of Sweden, David Pastrnak of the Czech Republic, Victor Hedman of Sweden, Leon Draisaitl of Germany, Aleksander Barkov and Mikko Rantanen of Finland.
That's what we could have had last summer in Japan.
That's the kind of tournament the players want, the fans covet and the sport deserves.
And it is what the Olympics – currently bleeding television viewers amidst weakening relevance, especially in North America – needs as well.
Bettman is correct on this: men's hockey in the summer is a good deal. For the IOC. For the NHL. So let's make it happen.