It is an age-old question that is amped up a bit because of recent developments close to home, but now is as good a time as any debate this:
Is it time to go back to not allowing NHL players to play in the Olympic Games?
Yes, the Olympics is a rich tapestry and the pageantry of the games goes beyond rivalries. After all, it allows us to root for Ryan Callahan with a clear conscience. But, right in the middle of a playoff race for a lot of teams, everyone stops what they are doing and goes into hibernation for two weeks. It is a lot to ask for the NHL to shut down at a time when football and baseball are dormant.
I like the Olympics and I am at an age where I remember when amateurs ruled the roost at the Games, but not old enough to remember where I was when Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig walked on water. In 1992, I remember Ray LeBlanc standing on his head and making 50 saves against Germany in Albertville. LeBlanc was a journeyman goaltender, a "Crash Davis" of sorts in the NHL, playing one NHL game for the Blackhawks in 1991-92 but last another 14 years in various minor league stops.
We get to share our best players with the world
This makes the Olympic tournament must-watch TV. The top-tier teams are stacked all-star teams that play with the "battle level" of a playoff game. T.J. Oshie and Jonathan Quick get their close-ups on the Today Show and those sports talk show hosts who talk about hockey five minutes every year talk about how wonderful a sport hockey is. Next to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is hockey's greatest showcase.
Players play for the love of the game
All you have to do is watch Teemu Selanne at the end of the Bronze Medal Game today. He is 43. He has won a Stanley Cup. 76 goals in his rookie season. And, his two-goal Olympic swan song is as happy and emotional as you will ever see him.
We get to measure ourselves against the Canadians and Russians
Like many, I thought the Russians would be a lot more successful at these Games and one bad tournament does not make them an also-ran. Our shootout victory in the preliminary round made a household name out of T.J. Oshie, but it also proved that as a hockey nation, we have depth beyond our big stars. We also have solid goaltending. Ryan Miller was fantastic at the Vancouver Games, but he did not even sniff the ice because Jonathan Quick was downright filthy. As for Canada, Quick played a great game and perhaps the Americans forgot where the net was, but they were in it all the way and a deflection stood between overtime and a tough-luck loss. We did not measure up to the Finns, but that could have been a carryover from the loss to Canada and the back-end of back-to-backs.
We get a break from this awful season (Isles-centric reason)
Selfish reason here, I know. The season was going downhill before the Olympics, so losing our Captain just makes the final six weeks academic. It was nice rooting for a team with top-notch goaltending, though. I almost forgot what that felt like.
Mats Zuccarello and Paul Martin were injured during the tournament, but if either of them meant to their teams what John Tavares means to the Islanders, there would be an immediate investigation and Arturs Kulda would need 24-hour armed protection. Henrik Zetterberg was hurt, too, but not from game action. Either way, you have to expect injuries to occur. No one wants it to happen. But, the stakes are so high for their regular employers and their fans to lose an impact player at this point in the season, it makes you think long and hard about letting this happen ever again.
Arenas go dark at the worst possible time
Far be it from me to cry for league owners, so I won't. They make enough money and anything they get would never go into my pocket. I am much more concerned about the success of the league at home in February. Success, to me, is marked by attendance, but also buzz in who is talking about the game. In other words, February is usually the one time of year you hear about hockey on WFAN during afternoon drive, unless of course, the Rangers are in the playoffs. You hear some buzz about Olympic hockey, but WFAN is hardly the target demographic for the Olympics.
The 2018 Games are on the other side of the world
If the next Winter Olympics were being played in North America or Europe, we would not even be having this debate. Russia is the only hockey-mad country within reach of the next host country, South Korea. There is a 14-hour time difference from the East Coast. Games would start at 5am ET and 2am PT. In 1980, you could keep the results of a tape-delayed game a secret. You cannot do it now and it will probably be harder to do that in four years.
I am firmly on the side of not allowing professionals to play. I think the Olympics should be about amateur athletics, much in the way college sports should be about scholar-athletes. But, I am also a realist. Not allowing the incredibly boring Michael Phelps to earn his bones doing Subway commercials is un-American. Also, it is not fair to Nastia Liukin either, which, in turn, is not fair to us.
It is tough to deny NHL players to participate when the KHL would be happy to supply most of the professional hockey athletes to the tournament. You would never have a truly amateur playing field and it would give Russia an unfair advantage. In other words, it would be just like the old days and in those halcyon days, the Olympics were still wonderful and as pure as the driven snow.
The International Olympic Committee wants professional players to participate, so they would not put a stop to it. The players want to play for their country. Hence, the owners and league are outnumbered.
I would push for an age limit (25?) for top-tier hockey nations to avoid long cycles of dominance by one team. If I was the NHL, I would allow players to play, as we did in 1988 and 1992, but not shut the league down for two weeks. The players would have a choice to make. So we do not make villains out of our fellow countrymen, another option would be to bring back the exhibition schedule that Olympic teams had to play to get ready for the Games. If you have a 40-game schedule leading up to the Games and you had to play in a minimum amount to qualify to play in the Olympics, it would be an easier decision for players.
I think the NHL will back down and let the players go in 2018. I think the KHL will be the first to announce their players can go, which would give Russia a big advantage if the NHL/NHLPA agreed not to go. And, we will have this debate in four years, probably after another unfulfilling Olympics with 5am ET start times and another major injury to an impact player.