By Mary Walsh
Should the NHL allow players to participate in future Olympics? Should Women’s ice hockey be in the Olympics at all? Those two questions keep being asked and not answered, perhaps because they are only really asked every four years or so. Or perhaps it is because they are silly questions.
It seems like the NHL has been saying it for a long time, that this will be the last time they send their players to the Olympics. They have good, solid business reasons for not liking the interruption to their season. Players risk injury outside the risks they are under contract to take. The NHL schedule is disrupted and condensed, viewership is not guaranteed, especially when the games take place at 4:30 am for some of the audience. The benefits of being seen at the Olympic party are difficult to calculate. Perhaps the money is better spent promoting the Stanley Cup Playoffs or a dozen outdoor games.
Even the most lukewarm sports fans notice the Olympics, but they might not notice the NHL’s absence from them. That is not the Olympic committee’s fault, that is the NHL’s fault. The NHL has work to do, markets to grow. It is preposterous for the NHL to not want to be on the most global of stages.
Hockey is one of the few team sports in the Winter Olympics. Technically, bobsledding, curling and relays are team sports, but it is not the same. The bobsledders don’t have to contend with other bobsledders ramming them off the track. Most of the Olympic “teams” compete primarily with themselves, a clock, or a judge’s opinion. They take the stage in very small groups or as individuals.
This makes hockey stand out. The spectacle of uniformed groups in active, face to face competition contrasts sharply with the other Winter Olympic events. If the NHL does not see how valuable this is to growth in their market, they are very foolish.
Perhaps the NHL will never have the resources to expand to a global market, but that is no reason to snub the rest of the world.
The NFL doesn’t do Olympics. Major League Baseball doesn’t do Olympics. Basketball and hockey do. Is that why they are smaller than the other two? Is the secret to success to take an isolationist position?
Throw the other football into that mix, the fanatical, globally thriving market that is called soccer here, and the US market looks like small potatoes. Yes, football and baseball have the biggest piece of the local pie but there is more pie, bigger pies to be had. Perhaps the NHL should be thinking even bigger than the big American fish.
Pro soccer goes to the Olympics, after a fashion. Their refusal to allow all professionals to compete equally has resulted in unimpressive Olympic records for some of the historically strongest soccer nations. That is what the NHL could look forward to, which would be good news for Slovenia, Latvia, Switzerland and Germany. Maybe France could finally get a shot at a spot in the tournament, even a medal.
If the NHL did pull their players from the Olympics, would it be worth alienating some players for the sake of one interruption every four years? What if Alexander Ovechkin insisted on going, no matter what the NHL said? Would they suspend him? How many players could they suspend? It could make for a very interesting, different kind of interruption to the season.
For women playing hockey at the Olympics, the question is different. The utter lack of parity between North America and the rest of the world makes the tournament somewhat predictable and less interesting for any audience outside Canada and the US. Or does it?
Does a nation like Japan take pride and interest in their team, even if they have next to no chance of winning a game? Watching the Japanese women bow to each other after scoring a goal, how could anyone suggest that they did not belong there? It is an enormous thing to have more women, in more places, playing hockey. It is bigger than the sport. We have a moral imperative to promote the expression of women’s achievements in all fields right next to those of men.
No matter what the NHL decides to do, no one is talking about dropping men’s hockey from the Olympics. Yet they do discuss dropping the women’s tournament. Hockey for women is still in a fledgling stage in most countries. This is only the fifth time women have played hockey at the Olympics. If countries are prepared to send teams to World Championships and qualifying tournaments, it would be outrageously petty and mean to not let them compete at the Olympics. If the NHL, as the biggest advocate for hockey, is serious about growing interest and its audience, they cannot ignore half of the population.
Many women will watch even if they do not play, just as men who do not play still watch. But if many people prefer to watch sports they also play, there is no reason that should be less true of women than of men. Professional contact sports for women are not likely to make money any time soon. Today, the Olympics are as far as a woman can go in hockey, so let them go. Let them play too, and dream of big games, and enjoy watching the NHL all the more.