The Mixed Bag

Yesterday, Commissioner Bettman commented on the 2014 Olympics. He said that the decision to go to the Olympics is a ‘mixed bag.’

The National Post reports:

“We haven’t said no,” Bettman said. “And anybody who says that we’ve made a decision or that I’m anti-Olympics doesn’t get it. What we’ve been saying is that it’s a mixed bag, and it has been all along.”

“The commotion, if you will, the elephant in the room, is simply that we haven’t made a decision yet, and I don’t think the fact that we haven’t made a decision yet is that big a deal.”

Someone raised a point yesterday at the World Hockey Summit: Why not participate in the summer Olympics so that it doesn’t affect the regular season?

I’m all for that.

But before I start confusing everyone on my opinion of going to the Olympics, this is what I think.

First, I’m not in favor of professional athletes participating in the Olympics.

Before pros were allowed into the Olympics, I had suitemates in college that were training to be in the Olympics. They worked very hard every single day to make it to the Olympics. They were the amateurs that busted tail just to make the qualifiers.

They invested a lot of their money, their time, their entire life to making it to the Olympics.

Watching professionals take over the open spots throws a lot of those amateurs out of the running for a spot on their country’s roster.

There was a time when hockey was played only by the amateurs. Many received NHL contracts after they appeared in the Olympics. The Olympics should be the stepping stone to the professional career, not a hindrance (i.e. now it seems you have to be a pro just to get a spot on the roster).

How many people can name 10 amateur athletes that have been working hard to make it to the Olympics? I bet the majority of you can’t. You can name 10 pros that played in the Olympics, but not 10 individuals trying to make a name for themselves.

Legends have been born from the Olympics long before the pros were allowed in. There were people we’ve never even heard of, but made their name, their talents, and their dream made known to the entire world. They were the dreamers that dreamed big, worked hard and won a gold medal.

Sponsorships, endorsements, professional contracts all came later, not before.

While it’s been fun to have the NHL and other pros compete in the Olympics, it’s time to give the rest of the athletes in the world that didn’t become pro a chance to make a name for themselves.

Second, I am not a big fan of the two-week break during the regular season. It is tiring, because it draws out the season even longer.

There are also major injuries that happen during the Olympics. Players will murder their own NHL teammate out on the ice if they could get away with it. National pride wins out over NHL rules and disciplinary actions.

If a team invested $9 million in a player and he goes to the Olympics only to be wiped out on the ice by someone from another team, what’s going to happen to the culprit? Well, he’ll be kicked out of the game, possibly the Olympics, but he’ll be back to work in the NHL in no time without any form of disciplinary action.

For that $9 million player, the NHL/KHL team would be without that player when the season re-commenced…it could even cost them the playoffs without that star player. Was allowing that player the opportunity to go to the Olympics a wise choice for the team?

I won’t even go into the piss poor medical trainer availability during the Olympics for these players. Even Jaromir Jagr remarked, after he had his head cut open at the 2006 Olympics by a massive hit from Jarkko Ruutu, that the medical availability to the players was not as good as what was available to the players in the NHL.

That, in itself, is a scary situation for teams in the NHL. What if their star player is injured and proper medical treatment was not available? That investment in the player for that season goes down the tubes.

It’s a dangerous gamble for any team to make, especially since these games happen 3/4 of the way through the season.

But the idea of having the Olympic hockey games occur during the summer Olympics makes more sense to the league as a whole. Players would be on their own if they decided to participate.

Now, I am a person of compromise, especially when it sounds like I’m contradicting myself. It’s just that I hear and support both opinions.

This is what I think the IOC should do in terms of hockey and the Olympics:

1. Winter Olympics: Only allow amateurs to play. No professional hockey players with a current paying contract for the season are allowed to play. This will allow college kids and players that dropped off of the radar to compete. This also gives professional leagues the opportunity to view this talent all at the same time. It allows the nobody to become a somebody on the international stage.

While some may compare that international competition to the World’s, the World’s doesn’t get as much attention as the Olympics do.

2. Summer Olympics: Professional hockey players may participate so long as the right insurance is put into place to guarantee club investments to those with professional contracts for the upcoming season. Also, extra medical insurance must be in place in case of injuries sustained during the Olympic period.

Players would have to understand that they are on their own if they choose to participate in the Olympics…just like they are on their own if they choose to participate in the Worlds.

It doesn’t mean that their home teams or the NHL will have no interest in promoting these players that do decide to go to the Olympics and provide coverage to the fans back at home…it’s just that if you play in the Olympics, it’s at your own risk.

Now, as far as the NHL’s involvement and how they could make money from this…airing the games and covering the games, both Winter and Summer Olympics, is an added bonus, and not an interruption into the season.

It’s hockey, so it will need its coverage. The Winter Olympics would be giving a lot of these unknowns a chance to be seen on the bigger stage. Let them prove they are worthy to be noticed. Let the world see the new talent and bring it to the NHL fans and let them see hockey beyond just the sphere of the NHL and AHL. This is how you grow hockey.

Even if kids don’t get a chance in the NHL, at least let them be given a chance in the Olympics. Someone at a USA game could see a young forward and think that kid has potential and sign him to a KHL team.

You can’t let the pros take over the Olympics. That is not what the spirit of the Olympics is about. It has always been about the amateurs making a name for themselves on an international stage. They worked hard for that moment. Let them be given their moment to shine.

HOCKEY IN THE WORLD

Getting back to Bettman’s comment on going to the Olympics being a ‘mixed bag,’ it is. You have to step outside of the box and look at the situation from all sides. Not everyone believes the NHL should be in the Olympics.

There are pros and cons to every venture. Do the pros outweigh the cons? No, they don’t. The scales are 50/50. That’s why going to the Olympics in 2014 is a mixed bag.

Now, I’ve been thinking about another way to grow the game of hockey in the world. Soccer is the #1 sport in the world. Over 1/3 of the world’s population watches soccer. Hockey doesn’t even break 0.50% of the entire world population. Did you see that number correctly? Not even 1% of the world’s population watches hockey, while 33% of the world’s population watches soccer.

For most hockey fans, that number is unreal. Seems like it would be a fictitious number, but it is real. When you think about growing the game of hockey, how many think it’s all about growing the NHL game or the KHL game?

Hockey is an expensive sport. It’s not as easy for kids to play as soccer is. All it takes is a ball and an imagination for kids in even the poorest countries of the world to take up the sport. With hockey, it’s not so easy.

Hockey isn’t just limited to ice hockey. There’s street hockey, field hockey, roller hockey, beach hockey, unicycle hockey, etc. If we want to make hockey a more popular sport, we have to embrace the other forms of hockey and start making it more easily available to the world.

A UNICEF trip by the NHL to countries in Africa to teach various non-ice forms of hockey to kids that only requires a small ball and a stick from off of a tree could help encourage the game in impoverished villages.

Take for instance the movie Invictus starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. The importance of South Africa’s rugby team and the success of Nelson Mandela’s campaign to eradicate apartheid in South Africa went hand and hand.

In one part of the movie, the national rugby team headed into the slums of South Africa to teach young kids how to play rugby. They were encouraging kids from the grassroots level to embrace their game. How many parents watched their kids with pride playing out on the field with the national rugby team? How many of those kids ended up embracing the game afterwards?

Those kids had no idea that the rugby team was going to visit them that day. They just showed up and started teaching the kids how to play the game, along with the rules of rugby. They taught them what it takes to become rugby players. They even got a chance to meet the star…the only black player on the national rugby team, Chester. That was a person the kids in the slums could look up to.

The NHLPA does a lot of work in bringing NHL players to these towns. Like now, former New Jersey Devil Mike Rupp is in Haiti working with kids and teaching them a thing or two about hockey (he reported on Twitter that he even got a black eye from playing basketball with the kids). Georges Laraque and Dan Hamhuis had also previously made the trip to Haiti for the NHLPA’s Hockey for Haiti campaign.

It takes a village to create new hockey fans. We can’t just sit around and complain that everything needs to change. You have to ask yourself, “What am I doing for the game of hockey?”

Reporting the game only goes so far, especially for me. Tampa Bay Lightning broadcaster Rick Peckham said to me in Prague during my rookie year as a hockey columnist, “You are the person that will change the face of the NHL.”

I don’t know if someone told him that, but it was an honor to be told that by a seasoned broadcaster in the NHL. I had no idea what he meant by it. Had someone told him that? OR Was that a prediction he was making about my future?

Going into year three as a credentialed hockey columnist, I see now what Rick was talking about. In the last couple of weeks some major changes have happened both in my career and for the NHL. From changes in women’s fashion available to the die-hard female fans, to the NHL and pop culture…change is happening.

I don’t want just the NHL to race to the forefront, I want hockey to be at the forefront. Pushing the NHL into pop culture is probably one of the most brilliant ideas I have seen in ages. Don’t think I won’t be trying my hand in pushing it directly into pop culture. Whether you want to admit it or not, you can thank Kevin Weekes and Justin Bieber for that change.

You have to start with the youth to build the grassroots foundation for pushing the game, because those kids have more of a say on mommy and daddy’s purse strings than you care to admit. Parents always feel the need to bend to their kids wishes just to make them happy. Why not make hockey their wish?

NHL vs. KHL

Another thought on growing the game of hockey internationally is having a best of best meet to see which league is better at the end of the season. KHL or NHL?

What do I mean?

How about taking the NHL’s Stanley Cup winners and matching them against the KHL’s Gagarin Cup winners every summer? Talk about a serious rivalry, right?

Not only would it grow both the NHL and the KHL viewership, but what greater league rivalry could there be in the entire world?

Both leagues could stand to make a lot of money in a matchup like this. The world loves rivalries and this could be the new Cold Wars. It would make for an interesting end of year hockey blowout bash between the two leagues.

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