Olympics a big loss for the NHL

Posted: January 31, 2014

The Flyers close out their January schedule in Anaheim on Thursday with their 14th game in 29 days. It has been a slog through the icy wastelands of North America that included two sets of back-to-back games and a standard of play that ranged from solid to sluggish to something approaching narcolepsy.

Hockey is hard enough under the best conditions, particularly for a starless team that needs everyone playing well in order to compete, but it is almost ridiculously difficult given the schedule mandated by the NHL this season.

The league had to find a way to stay within the rough boundaries of its regular season while still making room for a 16-day February break to accommodate the Winter Olympics in Russia. It was the equivalent of clearing room on a refrigerator shelf to shove in another loaf of bread, which leads to a lot of clanging together of the pickles and the mustard.

Not to pick on the NHL, which isn't crazy about the situation, either, but the league has compromised its level of play, put its players at greater risk of injury, and turned itself nearly inside out in order to shut itself down at the worst possible time.

There isn't another sport out there that would do such a thing. (Of course, there isn't another sport that thinks it's a good idea to award points for losses, either. That stupidity can be the subject for another day, however.)

It isn't as if hockey is football in this country and is popular enough and rich enough to do whatever it pleases. Hockey needs to develop and hold onto casual fans, although the NHL has no idea how to do so. The league office became so enamored with the attention it got from the first few Winter Classic games that it scheduled six (six!) outdoor games this season, proving there is no innovation so good that it can't be run into the ground by men with little imagination and a lack of other ideas.

It is downright silly for the NHL to stop playing in the middle of its season, to disappear just as the NFL monster has finally relinquished the stage and before the basketball tournaments and baseball season get going. That is when the NHL could catch the attention of fans looking for something to watch. Instead, it will be Duke vs. Somebody Else and Arizona vs. Another Team, and if you don't like that, there will be curling and the bobsled.

The Olympic hockey tournament? Well, it's usually very good, but it doesn't have any coattails for the NHL. When it is held in North America - as it was in 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2010 in Vancouver - the Americans and Canadians do well. When it is held elsewhere, and Sochi might be the dictionary definition of "elsewhere," the results haven't been that rewarding.

Also when it is held in North America, it turns out that North Americans are able to watch it. There will be a lot of hockey televised from Sochi, too, but the time difference will turn it into a tape-delay or tape-ignore event for all but the possessed. When the puck drops for the gold medal game on Feb. 23, for instance, it will be broadcast live across the United States. Game time will be 7 a.m. in Philadelphia and 4 a.m. on the West Coast. Now there's a boost for the sport!

Beyond that, the message being sent out by the NHL is that its own chase for the Stanley Cup is of secondary importance to the Olympics. That's the wrong message. Soccer is also run by dopes, but soccer insists that the men's Olympic tournament is an under-23 tournament so that the stature of its World Cup is never challenged.

It might be an interesting survey to ask every NHL player if he could do only one thing in his career - lift the Stanley Cup or win an Olympic gold - which he would choose. My guess is all the North Americans would opt for the Stanley Cup and many of the international players would, too. But the NHL, in stepping aside for the Olympics, makes itself secondary to a tournament that does absolutely nothing for it.

The league office has said that it might not permit its players to take part in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, where the time difference is even more brutal. The players, of course, can make their own choice, but it might mean forfeiting a lot of money to take part. Then we'll really see how loyal they are to flag and country.

"There are potential negative impacts with participating midseason in the Olympics," deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly told the Associated Press, "and that factors into the overall analysis of whether it's a good idea for us to go or not."

If hockey was being run smartly on a global level, the International Ice Hockey Federation would hold its world championship once every four years instead of annually and hold it so it didn't interfere with the NHL season. Then, either pull out of the Olympics program or manage the rosters there in a different way. Don't force the best league in the world to look like a donkey being led by the nose.

The NHL, which can't seem to ever get its strategy quite right, has made itself the fool again. The Winter Olympics is a big, fat loss for the league, and it won't even get a point out of the deal.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports


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