- Paul Grant
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It might be blasphemous to say on the NHL page, but hockey at the Olympics is better in so many ways than it is in the NHL. Seven ways I'm backing that up:
1. The shootout: Let's start with the most contentious issue. NHL GMs complain that they don't like games to be settled by the coin flip that is a glorified skills competition. Reminder: The idea of the game is to entertain the fans with displays of amazing skills and talent. Sure, it's a profession for the players -- but it's a pastime for the fans. And what could be more entertaining than the skilled and talented T.J. Oshie taking shootout shot after shot, with the game and pride on the line while an aggressive home crowd razzed his every move? It was called a Hollywood ending for a reason -- it was entertaining. Highlights of that game were shown far and wide in the U.S., quieting the complaint that only fights or gruesome injuries in the NHL rise to the level of viral video. If that game ends in overtime, we're not talking nearly as much about that game and Oshie doesn't incite such an intense Twitterverse spike. Plus, has a fan ever really walked out during a shootout? If you're an NHL owner trying to sell the game, why would you take away something that makes your business attractive to the people who buy your product?
2. National rivalries: These are not manufactured, like, say, a Florida Panthers-Carolina Hurricanes rivalry that has to be stoked with countless intraconference games that force the players to feel the hate because they've seen each other's ugly mugs so many times. Russia-Slovakia comes with so much cultural baggage; it's about history, it's about oppression, it's about freedom, it's about civil rights. It's bigger than anything the NHL could fabricate, bigger than anything in sports. Plus, players are greatly restricted against changing teams/countries, further entrenching loyalty by fans.
3. Every game is meaningful: Even during the preliminary round, the tension in close games is unbearable. Yes, every game of the tournament is a Game 7. I love Game 7s, but the same all-or-nothing tension does not come in Games 1-6. You have to pay your dues to get to Game 7. But not at the Olympics, and the consequences are that much more extreme. Screw up with a giveaway at the blue line and your country just might go from upstart underdog to downtrodden elimination; score the winner and your name will be remembered forever by your country's citizens.
4. So many good stories: This is self-serving because journalists cheer for stories, not teams (well, North American journalists don't cheer for teams), and the Olympics is full of them. In addition to the national rivalries and the stories they generate (not to mention the weird decisions made by coaches and GMs driven by politics and not talent), dating back to Jim Craig, anyone can come from nowhere be a hero at the Olympics. Oshie, the Team USA savior against Russia, was known in the NHL as a skilled, up-and-coming player, but few knew he was capable of executing one of the greatest stone-cold-steady performances in recent memory. Today, more people know the name T.J. Oshie because of the Olympics than they ever would had from the NHL, even more than if he had scored a big goal in the Stanley Cup finals.
5. Money doesn't rule: Well, at least not on the ice (IOC notwithstanding). Players are playing for the love of their country. They don't get paid. They stay in glorified dorms. They eat in cafeterias. There is no salary cap, there are no holdouts, there is no pressure to give a player ice time just because he's got an enormous contract, there aren't too many games on the schedule because the owners are trying to squeeze every dollar out of the fans. There is very little outside noise; it's about the game.
6. Bigger ice: Because greed doesn't rule, the games at the Olympics (outside of North America) are played on the bigger ice, the way it should be. The 200-by-85-foot surface was fine for when the average size of the players in the NHL was 6-foot and under, but those days are long gone. More space (Olympics ice is 200 by 100) means more creativity, more scoring chances, more emphasis on strategy, less boring play such as digging in the corners or fighting for the puck along the boards or dumping-and-chasing. This is especially evident during overtime, which is 4-on-4.
7. No fighting: Really, it's 2014 -- are we still defending fighting? You could argue it has a place as a release valve -- especially over the course of the long-haul, tight-quarters season in the NHL. But as we wind our way from thrilling Olympic game to thrilling Olympic game, does anyone miss fighting? Did any of the millions who sat on the edge of their seats for the USA-Russia game wonder, “Boy, this game could use a dash of Colton Orr”? And conversely, is anyone talking about the increased stickwork, the dirty play, the headhunting that supposedly results from not having the built-in accountability fighting is said to provide?
The games at the Olympics aren't perfect (the refereeing is wildly inconsistent, for instance), but the NHL has a lot to learn from the Olympics model when it comes to worldwide growth of this great game.
8dScott Burnside and Craig Custance