Let me take you back to my Saturday morning. With nearly four hours of sleep, my body woke me up for the second time in the early hours, this time at 8:15. It could’ve been for the sheer inability to sleep due to the fact that I was staying at a friend’s fraternity house. The first time I returned to my slumber, while the second I got up and tiptoed downstairs, hoping to find a TV.
It was in the ground floor common room where I sat down, next to a half asleep—and probably still drunk member of said fraternity. It was there where I watched the 3rd period and subsequent shootout magic in Team USA’s glorious victory over Russia.
To tell you the truth, throughout the remainder of the game, I couldn’t figure out if the dude was awake or not. He would grumble after the two goals scored—one by Pavelski for the United States and another from Pavel Datsyuk, accompanied by a brilliant screen of Jonathan Quick. But, he didn’t utter a single syllable when a seemingly good goal for Russia was wiped away from a misplaced goal peg.
By the time TJ Oshie began his duel with Sergei Bobrovsky more brothers trickled in, bleary eyed but still jubilant as the forward continued to pepper the Russian net at the expense of the goaltender. Finally, when the bottom of the 8th concluded with a wicked wrister through the goalie’s wickets, the place erupted.
By now you’ve probably seen the videos of the celebration, whether from the various bars in Boston, Chicago, New York or even here in Iowa City. America awoke at a ghastly hour on a weekend, cracked a couple cold ones and watched a thrilling sporting event with the rest of their countrymen. Without a doubt, the coolest part of the Olympics is the unity that each country embraces. I couldn’t care less if Patrick Kane plays for the Chicago Blackhawks—in this tournament he plays for my team. So what if Patrice Bergeron is the assistant captain for the Boston Bruins—in this tournament he plays for the enemy. Battle lines are seen on a map, and city vendettas are set aside.
Unlike the basketball staged in the Summer Olympics where the rest of the world is trying to catch the Americans, in hockey it is a much more even playing field. The top five teams in this tournament are made up of mostly NHL players. The best players in the world are all wearing different uniforms.
No other American sport halts their play to benefit the rest of the globe. The basketball schedule finishes nearly a month before the Olympics commence, while baseball removes itself from the summer equation entirely. (forget football, people)
Discussions over the NHL’s future involvement in the Olympic games have heated up considerably, and the league’s decision on its future involvement should be made in the coming months. Let’s make one thing clear:
The NHL NEEDS these games.
Forget all the precautions about potential injuries, or the fact that some players play an extra two weeks while the rest of the league licks their wounds in preparation for a grueling Stanley Cup Playoff run. This dilemma comes down to league exposure.
The 2014 Harris Poll that asks American, adult males about their favorite sport said that 5% picked the puck #1. That finished only above college basketball (3%) and behind the NFL (35%), MLB (14%), NCAA Football (11%), auto racing (7%) and the NBA (6%).
The fact that Team USA sits three games from a potential Olympic medal is gold for the NHL. Now, with the lucrative television deal with NBC that puts the league into more homes than ever before, this is a phenomenal opportunity to grow the game’s visibility to American fans.
The 2010 Team USA that snuck up on the world and took Canada to overtime in Vancouver created household names in the hockey community. Zach Parise and Ryan Kessler became known, visual entities. After just three games in 2014, the same could be said for Phil Kessel and TJ Oshie, whose brass marbles were on full display by his incredible shootout performance Saturday.
The NHL is also the only American league where the face of the conglomerate is not American. The NBA’s faces are Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The NFL’s faces are Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Miguel Cabrera may dominate baseball right now, but Derek Jeter has had the league on his shoulders for two decades. The NHL? Sydney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Right now not a single American is even close to their sphere of popularity. If Team USA wins a gold medal, one may emerge as a willing challenger.
If the league were to shut its doors to the Olympics, it would be the entire world who would suffer. These star-studded rosters would evaporate, and the college kids in the United States would be thrust into action against the superstars of the KHL. Very few in this country gravitate to the Hobey Baker Award Winner. He and his teams wouldn’t have a chance in the Olympics again.
Or consider this: If the league said no to international players representing their countries, how many of them would decide to leave the NHL? There are many theories as to why Ilya Kovalchuk abruptly left the richest contract in NHL history and decided to play at home for SKA Saint Peterburg. The reality is that today he looks like one of the world’s best players, who should be playing in the world’s best league. What would keep others like him from glorifying that league at the expense of ours?
This is a no brainer for the NHL, and I truly hope they make the easy choice and continue sending their players to the Olympics. The centerpiece of the Sochi Games has overshadowed much of the controversy that Russia was linked to prior to the puck dropping on the Olympics. All the stories about stray dogs and poor hotel accommodations have given way to the pure grit and determination of competition. This year’s men’s hockey tournament has been a symbol of that thus far.
If the NHL decided to forgo their future involvement, there’s no way hockey would ever be as popular again. I guarantee that on that day, many in this country would see the time, and simply decide to turn over and drift back to sleep.