Given the uproar that followed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s recent announcement that the NHL wouldn’t make any concessions to allow its players to participate in next year’s Winter Olympics, you might have assumed that the game as we know it has come to an end.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m not a little disappointed at the news. Of course I am. I have tons of fond memories of the NHL’s nearly two-decades-old flirtation with the Olympics.
I remember the euphoria that greeted Canada’s victory at Salt Lake City in 2002, the first for our Canadian men in half a century. I recall the joy that erupted in Al MacInnis’ native Port Hood, where the volunteer fire department took its trucks out of the fire hall and led an impromptu parade down the community’s main street. (All of that also brought back nice memories of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, where MacInnis was one of the first Canadians to score in the opening game of the tournament’s round-robin portion.)
I’ll always treasure Sidney Crosby’s dramatic overtime gold-medal-winner at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, partly because it was scored on Canadian soil and partly because it was sweet vindication for the Cole Harbour native after he had spent two weeks getting the business from sports commentators who felt he wasn’t producing enough offense.
And, as a Montreal Canadiens fan, I’ll always look back fondly on the 2014 Sochi Games, where goalie Carey Price proved the naysayers wrong in posting back-to-back shutouts in the semi-final and gold-medal games. (It didn’t hurt that Crosby led the way once again, scoring the second goal in Canada’s 3-0 gold-medal victory.)
With that being said, I also have fond memories of two silver-medal performances for Canada in the pre-NHL era.
My first exposure to Olympic hockey came at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, where some unlikely heroes emerged for Canada. Three NHL players embroiled in contract disputes with their various teams – Eric Lindros, Sean Burke, and Czech defector Petr Nedved – came up big for the red and white, and I don’t think many Cape Bretoners will forget the insurance goal scored by Sydney’s Fabian Joseph that locked down Canada’s spot in the gold-medal game.
Similarly, the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway delivered a whale of a final, with Canada and Sweden playing to a 2-2 tie and finally proceeding to a shootout after failing to solve things in overtime. Three future NHLers – Paul Kariya, Corey Hirsch and Peter Forsberg – made their marks in that game, with Kariya scoring one of Canada’s two regulation-time goals in the third period and Hirsch staring down every Swedish shooter he faced until Forsberg pulled a highlight-reel move to foil Canada’s gold-medal hopes.
So I’m not among those joining in the hand-wringing that accompanied Bettman’s early-April announcement. If the Olympic hockey tournament is capable of generating such inspiring moments without marquee players and their million-dollar contracts, why don’t we trust Hockey Canada – and similar organizations around the world – to put together a compelling group of non-professional athletes to ramp up the intensity and stoke our national pride all over again?
Let’s zero in for a second on a key phrase in that previous sentence: “non-professional.” The last time I checked, the Olympics were supposed to be for amateur athletes. Many of the participants genuinely struggle to afford the training, travel and other costs connected to participating in such a prestigious international competition. Why don’t we support their efforts instead of turning this aspect of the Olympics into a giant international playground for well-heeled athletes who don’t actually have to worry about whether they can even afford skates?
The argument that a lack of “name” players will hurt the Olympics doesn’t wash with me, either. What’s the biggest ratings bonanza for TSN, an event that the network feverishly promotes and a key source of its advertising revenue? Of course – it’s the World Junior Hockey Championships, which have become a post-Christmas tradition for millions of us across Canada.
It doesn’t matter if we don’t know the names on the backs of the jerseys, their hometowns, their junior teams, or whether or not they’ve been drafted to the NHL. What matters is that they’re playing for Canada, so we’re willing to make that emotional investment in these young men when the World Juniors kick off.
The same should apply to the Olympics, no matter who’s wearing that maple leaf on their chest. After all, that’s the way I approach all the non-hockey events, so I’m happy to see that same true Olympic spirit unfold on the ice.