Monday, February 24, 2014

Point/Counterpoint: NHL in the Olympics

Welcome to another semi-regular edition of Point/Counterpoint, where the Phanatic's hockey editor and his favorite punching bag, Nick D of Flyerdelphia, square off on either side of a hot-button hockey issue.

Keeping with the times, we debate the merits and pitfalls of using professionals in Olympic games.

Point, Nick: The NHL should definitely allow it's players to play in the Olympics after Sochi. Have you watched these games? It's incredible hockey. Why? Because the best players in the world are competing for their countries. I know that the whole league has to shut down and the players risk injury, but Olympic hockey is special for the fans of the game and for the players. It's something that happens once every four years and is always a great tournament. I say you let the players go and play for their homelands.

Counterpoint, Bob H: Henrik Zetterberg. Steven Stamkos.  These are two players of the so-called "best in the world" who didn't compete. John Tavares managed to squeeze in a few games before that freak knee injury suffered against Latvia killed his Olympics and has killed the rest of his Islanders season. Remember when Jaromir Jagr was done the dirt by Jarkko Ruutu eight years ago in Turin, on a blindside hit that would be a five-game suspension in 2014?

While it's an exciting prospect to have an overwhelming number of top-level NHL players compete every four years, the facts are a) the brutal nature of the NHL's in-season competition has caused injuries to marquee players severe enough that they cannot risk playing in the Olympics and rest them for the continuation of the NHL season, and b) having an overwhelming number of NHL players populating the medal-hopeful nations simply brings that level of brutality overseas, where injuries that can affect not only the Olympics but also the resumption of the NHL schedule are lurking around a blind corner.

Let's also recall injury-prone Peter Forsberg's months-long "Hamlet" act during his first season with the Flyers over whether or not to risk his new contract against starring for the Tre Kronor, who desperately needed him to help erase the stench of losing to Belarus in Salt Lake City. Save the drama for your mama.

Nick: If NHL players were barred from competing, the quality of hockey would certainly diminish and for this two week period where this beautiful game is showcased so prominently, why wouldn't you want the best players playing to best represent the sport? I know I am sick and tired of hearing how hockey will never be as popular as basketball or football or baseball in the United States, so for the two and a half weeks that hockey is on top of the world, I want the top athletes in the game in those games. I'm sure that there are plenty of kids watching these contests and becoming life-long fans of the sport.

Hockey deserves to be recognized and with the Olympics, for once, it gets its due.

Bob: You're a hockey fan, right, Nick? I mean, you grew up here but live in Florida, so I assume the flame still burns. You should want to be like me, and thousands of others, who are greedy bastards when it comes to the game. Before 1998, we had the NHL and the Olympics going on at the same time, every four years.

Sure, the USA stunk it up in three of the four Olympiads pre-pros, but there wasn't this emotional investment and unrealistic expectations because we knew it was a bunch of college kids and discarded pros going up against guys who may or may not be considered "professional." The essence of amateurs competing against each other is that satisfaction we're seeing the absolute best they can do. Besides, once every 20 years when Team USA shocks the world, it makes those memories cherished and celebrated more. And when the Americans or whatever non-powerhouse country manages to do well, it creates that buzz of anticipation that these successful "kids" may soon be making their mark in the NHL.

Besides, have you heard and seen how many people whined and moaned on social media about missing the Flyers for the four days in between the end of the NHL schedule and the start of the Olympic slate? Keeping the pros out of the equation, if nothing else, keeps that unsilent majority pacified. You'll have any one of the 30 NHL teams competing AND the bonus of your home country playing before, during or after, depending on the time zone relative to yours where future Games are contested.

I think the NHL has done all it's going to do to raise its international profile, as far as the male of the species is concerned. It has had five cracks at this over 16 years. It's time to square up its own house and improve some internal issues that made it THE best league on Earth.

Nick: If the NHL were to keep it's players from participating, wouldn't that also deter some guys from coming here in hopes of playing in the best league in the world? You hear it all the time when this topic comes up every four years. If other pro leagues like the KHL and Swedish Elite League allowed it's players to go to the Olympics and the NHL did not, I feel that some players could opt to play in those other leagues.

How long will it be before the National Hockey League is no longer recognized as the best league in the world after players leave in favor of the chance to play for their countries because these other leagues afford them an opportunity that they would have to forego in order to play in the NHL? To me, this is a no-brainer: let the players participate.

Bob: Nick, you ignorant slut. At least you didn't roll out the old chestnut that Uncle Ed did, about the Olympic break halting a team's positive momentum.  It works both ways, that it's a blessing to have a break when a team is doing horribly.

The NHL is Hell-bent on being portrayed as the best league in the world, and from a marketing standpoint, it doesn't even need an Olympic showcase to do so, even in the face of competition from the Kontinental Hockey League, Elitserien, the Czech Extraliga and other European leagues. That's what the potential resurrection of the World Cup can accomplish, without a set schedule, and without the needless kabuki between Gary Bettman along with the IIHF and IOC. The idea is to take the NHL level game and display it on the world stage? Done and done without having to put the league on hiatus for 2 1/2 weeks. There has been reports in the populace of fatigue with the NHL invading the Olympics as well, American disappointment notwithstanding.

Canada "needs" to be able to defend double Golds? Why go all the way to South Korea when it can be done from Toronto, Chicago, Stockholm and Helsinki? If it happens that enough marquee NHL players defect to other leagues, they can still participate in a World Cup just as easily as an Olympics while still competing under the NHL banner.

I hold the Olympics sacred, separate from all other competitions, and if there are other alternatives, the NHL braintrust should feel obligated to investigate them going forward.

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