Will the NHL Ever Learn from the Olympics?

published February 25, 2010

We interrupt these figure skaters to bring you a moment of actual sports.

The most anticipated event of the 2010 Olympics took place last night, and contrary to the impression created by NBC, it did not involve a blonde skier, a red-headed snowboarder, or an overgelled skater in sequins.

Naturally, as a result, it wasn’t on NBC.

The Canada-Russia hockey match could easily have been a gold-medal game. Instead, thanks in large part to the U.S. defeat of Canada Sunday night, it took place in the quarterfinal round, with the victorious Canadians facing two more must-win games before they can mount the podium.

The Olympic hockey tournament has provided a nightly smorgasbord with a nearly endless array of chef’s specials.  Pool-play rivalries included Russia versus the Czech Republic, U.S.A.-Canada, the Czechs against the Slovaks, and Sweden-Finland.  The signature play of these Games came when Alexander Ovechkin leveled an on-rushing Jaromir Jagr with the Russians and Czechs tied 2-2; the turnover led directly to Russia’s winning goal, and provided one of those rare sports moments when you can see the tide turn in a split-second of real time.  That match was an unforgettable thriller, even though neither team will win a medal.

The Olympics first allowed NHL players in 1998; every four years since, the league has put its season on hold and cancelled its All-Star game so its best players could represent their home countries.  The matches are action-filled, swift-moving, and flow from beginning to end.  They showcase hockey at its best.

(Two important stories will be ignored for the remainder of this column but must be mentioned.  First, the US-Canada game was relegated to MSNBC; only a brief excerpt of the third period was shown on NBC.  The Canada-Russia quarterfinal ran on CNBC, to leave room on the main network for more Apolo Anton Ohno coverage, freestyle skiing, and a feature on a Canadian sled dog.  This is despite the fact that NBC televises NHL games, which could use the promotional boost; alas, hockey doesn’t fit into NBC’s six-minute-snippet-then-a-commercial primetime format.  Second, the NHL is making noise about not stopping for the Olympics in 2014, when they will be held in Sochi, Russia.  If it happens, this will likely be interpreted by the Russian government as an act of war.)

After each Olympics, the question is asked: How can the NHL capitalize on the excitement and the attention the game just received?  And, always, the answer comes back: It can’t.  Or, at least, it won’t.

On one level, it’s impossible to replicate on a day-in, day-out basis the electricity of playing for your homeland at the highest level of the sport.  If it could be done, the American audience for World Cup soccer would transfer readily to a match between D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo.

But it’s no secret what keeps the games flowing, giving them a rhythm that’s quicker and more entertaining than the North American version, even on the smaller NHL rink in use this year (international hockey rinks are 98 x 210 with the goal 13 feet from the end boards, as opposed to Vancouver’s 85 x 200 with the goal 11 feet from the boards).  The major differences between Olympic rules and NHL rules create the faster pace of play in several ways:

  • Faceoffs come quickly after stoppages, and teams are not allowed to change personnel after an icing call
  • Icing is called as soon as the puck crosses the goal line, rather than waiting for it to be touched by the defensive team
  • Checks to the head result in either a two-minute minor and a ten-minute misconduct or a five-minute major and a game misconduct
  • Fighting is not tolerated; the penalty is a five-minute major and ejection

After the 2002 Games, the NHL directed its officials to put the puck in play more quickly, but this soon slowed again to allow time for commercials.  The league has never seriously cracked down on fighting, believing brawls and the threat of them are an essential part of the game’s appeal.  The conversation, attention, and ratings generated by Olympic hockey – MSNBC’s broadcast of US-Canada drew the second-highest audience in the network’s history – suggest that skating, stickhandling, and shooting, with plenty of physical play that stops short of mayhem, are what really draw people to the game.

If the NHL wants a higher profile, it might try paying attention to the quadrennial lesson, though there’s no reason to think seriously that it will.  Why emphasize skill, speed, and artistry when you can cling to the old-time hockey of Eddie Shore?

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