Saturday, February 25, 2006

Olympics Were Bettman's Nightmare

In Gary Bettman's world, the value of the Olympics is that they promote some good hockey to people who do not always watch NHL hockey. Ideally, some of these people can be captured as NHL fans. NHL participation is seen only as a potential financial benefit for the league. Participation interrupts the NHL season - and this is a negative - that might be made up by the benefit of the increased hockey exposure.

From the point of view of a fan, the Olympics are a high level tournament. They are high level hockey played by the best players in the world. It is clearly exciting hockey. I love to watch it. I don't care much if the gold medal game turns out to be Canada vs. USA (as in Salt Lake City) or Sweden vs. Finland (as in Torino) - just as long as its a good game. I just love to watch hockey.

However, this isn't a common opinion. Even hockey bloggers who presumably are big hockey fans (such as hockey country) do not feel this way. I guess I must accept that I am a minority who despairs to ever suggest there is too much hockey.

From an NHL standpoint, they want to see USA and Canada go deep into the Olympics. This is the best possible way to promote hockey to a large fanbase. The American team appearing in the gold medal game (and possibly winning it) would be a huge financial windfall for the NHL. Unfortunately, this year the medal round includes only European teams. There are few European hockey fans who are already in North America who are not already NHL fans. The NHL has little to gain from Sweden or Finland winning gold. Even if it causes hockey to grow in Scandinavia, this won't correspond to much money for the NHL. Its a long trip from Helsinki or Stockholm to attend an NHL game.

This leads to calls to make the Olympics for "amateur players" only. Of course they have never been for amateur players. Before the NHL season stopped for the Olympics, the Russian powerhouse teams were effectively professional teams. Even North American teams often had ex-NHL players and other guys with minor pro experience. I think the main motivation for this is that people feel upset that they invested interest in the Canadian or American Olympic hockey teams, but these teams failed on them. Its an unrequited emotional investment. Its much easier to claim that Canada is the best hockey nation in the world if that theory is never tested. If the best Canadian players never play against the best in the world, then they can never lose. So I can believe in Canadian supremacy regardless of reality. If the Canadian amateur team loses, that is OK, because I can believe that our pros would have won (and there is no evidence to prove me wrong). Its a bit of a chicken's approach. I think no self respecting hockey fan should be arguing against holding high level hockey tournaments. The more high level hockey to watch, the better.

The NHL may not have the results that they want. Europeans are the better teams in the 2006 Olympics. That may upset them. It may make the short term return to the NHL a bad one. However, it is always good to increase international exposure to hockey. The countries that win will have a hockey boom. They will produce more better hockey players. This is good for hockey worldwide. It raises the level of all the games in the world. The short sited outlook toward international hockey from the Bettman regime is troubling. They have never had a longterm plan to grow the number of players worldwide. The longterm plan is to squeeze ever dollar they can out of the NHL. In some cases, this leads to conflict. It leads to urges to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs - or at least have little interest in maintaining its longterm health. That is one of the things that trouble me most about the way the NHL is run today. Having pro players in the Olympics helps with the longterm health of hockey internationally, but the NHL seems willing to pass that up if it has any immediate negatives along with it. Their ideal is that the Olympics don't stop the NHL season at all and USA is guaranteed a good run. If something close to that doesn't happen on a regular basis, they are willing to kill off NHL participation in the Olympic games.

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