As much as the 2014 Winter Olympics disappointed American hockey fans, it’s abundantly clear that the state of hockey in the United States is strong. On both the men’s and women’s sides, strong American teams fell to worthy opponents despite rightfully lofty expectations. The talent pool for each of these national teams is only going to get larger moving forward. There won’t always be generational talents with each new crop of 18- or 19-year-olds, but there’s more talent than ever before.
It’s with this that the role of college hockey takes on an even greater responsibility. College coaches draw the difficult charge of having to focus on the development of their players while also trying to win games. Looking around Hockey East rosters and the minutes players receive, it’s often a balancing act between helping an 18-year-old with all the upside in the world and a 22-year-old who may not have the ceiling but is a more effective player at this time. Regardless, most of what we’ve seen from USA Hockey of late is generally positive for the future.
That in itself should be enough for the NHL to guarantee that the next round of Winter Olympics includes NHL players. It’s, in my opinion, because NHL players represent their countries in the Olympics that more Americans have started watching the game. Moreover, the annual World Junior Ice Hockey Championships have reached a level of popularity and esteem in this country that they wouldn’t without NHL players appearing in the Olympics.
The ongoing rivalry between the U.S. and Canada is great for hockey in North America. Seeing this rivalry play out at the junior level each year and the senior level every four years is good for everyone. If NHL players aren’t going to appear in the Olympics, the tournament loses a lot of its cachet. Before everyone starts ranting and raving about the Olympic spirit and the archaic ideal of amateurism in athletics, think about what this specific Olympic event means for hockey. No, hockey shouldn’t be considered more important than the other events in the eyes of organizers. The NHL and USA Hockey need the Olympics, however. If the teams competing in those games aren’t made up of the best players in the world, then there is no major ice hockey tournament that truly suggests which nation is the best.
The IIHF World Championships aren’t taken too seriously by North Americans because of when they occur. A World Cup of Hockey, while an interesting idea, would invariably come with the same hiccups as the world championships. Playing the event at anytime in the summer would prevent some players from participating. As much as all of us like to think representing your country should come first, professional players’ first responsibility is to the organization that guarantees them their paychecks.
The current status quo is the best arrangement. Annual matchups between the best young players in the world, along with a premier senior tournament every four years gives us the best opportunity to showcase the sport’s growth and significance while also attracting young athletes to local rinks.
Any discussion about removing NHLers from the Olympics must consider the potential influence of this tournament on the game itself. Aside from the prospect of losing high-quality college players for a season like occurs in the women’s game, it also will comes with a significant drop in interest for a game that simply can’t afford that in the United States. Read the rest of this entry »