By Josh Brewster – The Fourth Period
For much of the 20th century, Olympic hockey was a strange competition. Before accepting professional athletes in the 1980s, communist bloc countries such as Finland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were able to field elite talent due to the fact that under communism, the players were effectively “amateurs,” while free countries such as Canada and the United States sent junior-age players, collegians, also semi- and former-pros.
The disparity in the playing field created a strange history: Elite talent in communist countries faced lesser talents, while the countries which housed the top league in the world — the NHL — never got to display their countries’ real talents.
Equal competition between countries was established elsewhere, first during the 1972 and 1974 Summit series, then subsequent Canada Cup tournaments in 1976, 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991. Additional exhibition series between NHL clubs and the Red Army and other elite squads were also held prior to the fall of communism. Since then, the 1996, 2004 and 2016 World Cup competitions were held.
The Dark Ages
Before pros were admitted and the NHL began participating in 1998, Olympic hockey existed in a sort of Dark Ages.
The drama came to a head at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics at the height of the Cold War when the historic “Miracle on Ice” took place, as a group of U.S. collegians won gold.
During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, culminating in the fall of communism –which thankfully crumbled under its own weight in the early 1990s — a series of notable and breathtakingly brave defections including the Stastny brothers, fellow Czech Petr Klima, also Russians such as Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, amongst others.
The history is mostly lost on subsequent generations, sadly, who don’t understand what pressure and potential punishment players like Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov faced at the hands of their communist captors.
“Amateur” was a strange word as pertained to Russian talent 30-40 years ago, indeed. Fetisov, one of the game’s all-time great defensemen, toiled under a communist system that kept him and his peers in barracks for most of the year, while a brutal training regimen included skating as much as eight grueling hours per day, led by coaches such as Vladimir Tikhonov, who was, just to make things even more tense, a KGB agent.
The state-sponsored “amateur” Fetisov was given favors granted to few Russians, including living in one of the swankiest high-rise apartments in Moscow. Of course, the Soviets could always take such privileges away at any time.
As Barry Melrose recounted on ESPN during the 2016 World Cup, defenseman Alex Zhitnik once mentioned that if a Soviet coach wanted to teach his “amateur” a lesson, he could always send that player to the army. Captivity was no joke.
End of the Dark Ages
By 1998, the NHL got its just due when its professional players appeared at the Olympics for the first time. The playing field now leveled, 1980’s “Miracle” by the U.S.A. grew in stature and was cemented in history as something that will never happen again, a Cold War pinnacle that will never be repeated in the post-Cold War world.
Since 1998, when the NHL joined the Olympic tournament, Canada and the U.S. have been given their just desserts, the playing field leveled. Conversely, Europeans have competed knowing that their efforts are not marred by a perversion of the term “amateur.” Canada has rightly earned its dominant position in the sport, enjoying huge success at the Games.
Which brings us to the current situation, with the NHL re-launching its “World Cup.”
The NHL is now embroiled in a tense standoff with the International Olympic Committee, whose 2018 Games will be held in South Korea, and 2022, in China.
The IOC and its new president, Thomas Bach, have suggested that costs used to cover such items including transportation, insurance, and accommodations, will not be offered in the future, even though they have during the previous five Olympics during which the NHL sent its pros.
“All things being equal, we want to go,” said NHLPA boss Donald Fehr, around the time NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman openly railed against the proposed cost shift to the NHL.
The League knows that its players want to be there. The League’s owners, however, have every right to question the practice of shutting down the NHL for weeks at a time during February, which is a crucial month in the season since the last third of the 82-game campaign is prime time for playoff races and the only real competition is basketball after the NFL’s Super Bowl during the first week of that month.
Famous players such as Alex Ovechkin have stated that they have every intention to go to the Games. If the NHL avoids the next Olympics, the onus could shift to its member clubs if star players like Ovechkin decide to take a leave of absence from their gigs.
You can empathize with both owners and players on this one.
From a management perspective, it’s a costly endeavor and while the Olympics broadens hockey’s reach; it’s too much of the regular season to sacrifice. When the Games were in Salt Lake or Vancouver, well, that’s one thing. When they’re halfway across the globe, it gets dicey.
From the players’ perspective, they don’t want to be denied a lifelong dream.
“I think that’s got to count for something,” said Jonathan Toews of the fact that many players want the NHL to continue its participation. “The Olympics is a huge stage for our sport. The best players should be there, and that’s an opinion I think I share with a lot of players. There’s an element there that transcends our sport, and we can draw more and more fans from around the world.”
“Our experience with the Olympics has been a mixed bag — it’s not our tournament, we’re not in control of it, it’s at a time of the year that doesn’t work in our regular-season schedule,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told the Wall Street Journal. “On the positive side, we recognize we’re on a world-wide stage.”
As for the just-completed World Cup of Hockey, the NHL and NHLPA are celebrating unity between the long-acrimonious parties. This despite questions about whether any country can supplant Canada as tops in the game (not likely), iffy TV ratings (Game 1 of the Canada/Europe final yielded ESPN just under 500,000 viewers, while Game 2 fell just short of 300,000), and whether locales in addition to Toronto should be considered are all future concerns. The League is happy with its inaugural re-launch of the tournament, and the Olympic brass will have to take note.
Cold War Over, Green War Brews
If the NHL stays home and continues to offer the World Cup event every few years to fill the Olympic void, what of the Olympics? Does it become an Under-22 tournament? Do we get a mixed bag of collegians and junior players, or retired veterans, mixed in with renegade NHL stars that skip out on their clubs for three weeks in February 2018 and 2022? A new format of that type would signal the onset of a sort of Dark-Ages-in-Reverse, if you will, that takes quite a bit of luster off Olympic hockey medals.
Money talks, however, and if the governing bodies for Olympic hockey (IIHF, IOC) changes their stance and coughs up the funds to keep the NHL from having to fork over, “many millions of dollars,” as Bettman put it recently, it’s a pretty good bet that the NHL will go to the 2018 Games and keep a potentially bad situation between management and players from occurring.
Additionally, the 2022 Games in China would also be very attractive to a league that wants to continue its unprecedented growth.
It says here that what the NHL provides deserves to be paid handsomely by the International Olympic Committee, and if it can’t extract all it desires, it should absolutely avoid the 2018 Games.
The League is playing it cool, for now.
“We’re not going to speculate on things that at earliest are years ahead and may or may not ever come to fruition,” Bettman said.
The Cold War is Over. The Green War is underway, and right now, it’s a standoff between the NHL and the Olympics.