The necessary presence of NHL players at the Olympics

With fewer than eight months until the puck drops on the Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia on February 8, 2014, it is still undecided whether or not NHL players will be making the trip to represent their home countries. The NHL along with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation have been making progress, but work still remains to be done, mainly hammering out details on travel and insurance, to see whether or not NHL players will participate as they have done since 1998.

It is imperative they come to an agreement because from a marketing standpoint, there really is no better way to grow and promote a game that is often seen as an afterthought among many sports fans.

Swimmer Michael Phelps is famous for being in the spotlight for one month every four years. It’s highly unlikely most of those who follow his performances can tell you what he’s up to the rest of the time and yet he receives dozens of endorsement deals. But hockey players are easy to find nine months out of every year, so any casual sports fans that tunes in and decides they like what they see can easily turn into a full-time fan.

Anyone who thinks it’s only those already into hockey who will tune in need only look at the ratings from the 2010 men’s gold medal game in which one in thee Americans tuned in; it was the highest rated hockey game since the 1980 Olympics. In that article, Puck Daddy editor Greg Wyshynski mentions how people who don’t even like sports were talking to him about hockey, a phenomenon not even the Stanley Cup can make happen.

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One of the best things is the Olympics takes place in February. Be honest, does anybody really care about the All-Star Game? The Skills Competition is intriguing and the draft has been a fun sideshow the past few years, but no one is going to miss All-Star Weekend when they can catch players actually putting forth a major effort to bring gold back to their respective countries. The Olympics is an entire All-Star Tournament featuring the best hockey anyone could wish for, even better than the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates doesn’t want his players going over for fear of injuries to his stars, but injuries can happen at any time on or off the ice. Dustin Penner threw out his back sneezing over a pile of pancakes, Erik Johnson missed a year due to a golf cart accident, Joe Sakic broke three fingers using a snow blower his last season and Brian Leetch missed most of the 1992-93 season with a broken ankle after he slipped on ice getting out of a taxi. Try as they might, NHL teams are never going to be able to fully protect their players from injuries, so it’s too bad insurance is one issue currently holding the league and IIHF from reaching an agreement right now. The IIHF paid for the insurance in 2010, but with many more players now on long-term contracts, that cost is going to be considerably higher.

Of course there are those in management positions who disagree with Oates and want to see NHL players participate once again in the Olympics. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman follows the notion this tournament is the best way to market the sport on a world-wide level. From Katie Carrera of The Washington Post:

“It’s the biggest stage in the world for us to market our players,” Yzerman told Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times. “I think the NHL has done a very good job of improving its brand and getting out there in the world, particularly Europe, and going and playing games over there. The Olympics is the one time the whole world is watching, and I believe we want our players there because we have the best players in the world.”

In that article, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Steven Stamkos all claim representing their countries is something everyone dreams of, even more than playing in the NHL in some cases with Stamkos saying it’s “above everything else”. So what if there’s a mid-season work stoppage if there’s a lot of good that can come from NHL participation and it’s something many clearly want to happen.

It’s a short tournament featuring the best players from every country leading to faster, more aggressive and more exciting competition than can be found at any other time. So here’s to hoping an agreement is reached and the best players in the world have a chance to shine in Sochi. The players are clearly geared up for the event and sports fans everywhere deserve to see the best action around.

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