Alex and Sid Take Their Emergent Allure to the Olympics

I no more know who’s going to prevail in the men’s Olympic hockey tournament that kicks off today than I do who’s going to win the Stanley Cup in June, but I do know this: four years from now, Alexander Ovechkin will be representing Russia again in the Sochi Winter Games, and I can’t imagine he’ll be the lone NHLer.

A mere month ago, these Olympics seemed a bit of a distraction from our NHL season, didn’t they? Especially in Washington. And back then there was much chatter, too, about how the NHL’s previous participation in Winter Olympic Games hadn’t produced the net marketing effects the league had designs on.

But now that they’re here, is there a hockey fan in North America or Europe who isn’t enamored about this competition? The leadup to the Games last week was unlike anything I can remember for hockey. Ryan Getzlaf’s high ankle sprain made New Jersey’s struggles with Ilya Kovalchuk a sidebar story. The Capitals were embarked on a franchise-smashing winning streak, and while that was big news in D.C., it struggled for coverage space set beside the buildup for hockey in Vancouver.

American Jack Johnson was so excited to immerse himself in Olympics lore that on a lone day off between Kings’ games late last week he flew from California to Vancouver and back just so that he could participate in the Games’ opening ceremonies. Last night the NHL Network ran nothing but repeats of its new 30-minute feature, “Sid the Kid vs. Alexander the Great: The Olympians.” In the program we learned that a teenaged Sidney Crosby approached Hockey Canada about being, literally, a waterboy so that he could be close to the national team that was training in his hometown of Halifax. We also learned that little in hockey means as much to Alexander Ovechkin as wearing his country’s colors.

If the league is somehow trying to downplay or temper enthusiasm for its athletes participating in the Olympics, last night’s programming wasn’t quite the way to achieve that. We can be assured that in their enthusiasm the likes of Jack Johnson, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Ovechkin are matched manifold among the hockey players who’ve journeyed to Vancouver.

These Games have a buzz we’ve never before seen for our game — they are, quite conspicuously, crowding out buzz for most other events; it’s Hockey and by the way some sleddin’ and skating at these Games — and you have to credit the league’s leading lights for generating it — nos. 87 and 8.

The league, we’re told, wants to turn its back on its involvement with the Games? Gary Bettman’s- run league apparently does, anyway.

I have some theories as to why hockey has become so emergent in Vancouver — and why it is setting the table for another dominant position in Russia in four years. These Games arrive less than a year removed from last spring’s much anticipated, first-ever playoff showdown between the NHL’s two biggest stars. It was the postseason’s best series, and the rare one that not only met the hyperventilating hype accompanying it but actually exceeded it. At Verizon Center press events were held in the arena’s basketball gym to accommodate the overflow media coverage.

Criticism of the league’s participation in the Olympics of the past is unfair relative to its present. These Games belong principally to two players, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. When they first entered the league in the autumn of 2005 the hope was that they’d forge a Bird-Magic kind of rivalry. Last May went a long way to doing just that — a high-stakes showdown. If there’s a remarkable gold medal game between them in two weeks’ time, chapter II will be added. Imagine if that game is a classic, and imagine the anticipation for its rematch in Sochi.

Bird and Magic of course garnered the legendary status they did largely by virtue of their NBA Finals showdowns. Ovi and Sid can’t. Instead, they can square off for the high stakes of Olympic gold. American NBAers competing in the Olympics were labeled a “Dream Team” back in the early 1990s. These Winter Olympics offer Dream Teams. Hence the buzz.

Two or three years ago, there was for both Ovechkin and Crosby a sense that hockey hadn’t yet seen the best they were going to deliver. Today both players are entering the prodigious prime of their respective careers, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Both are captains, big-time goal scorers, go-to guys in the clutch. Crosby’s already won a Cup, and he’s a central reason the Pens will christen a brand new rink this fall. Ovechkin has turned Washington into a hockey town, his team’s mid-season games obliterating 35 years of local television ratings records. Suddenly Bird and Magic seem an apt comparison.

But those two never faced off in an Olympics.

For almost every other sport, the Olympics actually have to be contested before hero storylines can be written. But hockey — NHL hockey — brings with its stars to the Games the lead storylines in advance. This, too, adds to the buzz.

There are nuisances and hardships associated with the NHL’s participation in these Games to be sure, and some of them are not of the incidental variety. A few Capitals’ players this season, not often for attribution, have spoken of their belief that the compressed schedule during Olympic seasons irrefutably inflates the number of player injuries. And having the league compete still just some 48 hours prior to the start of the Olympic hockey competition makes a mockery of the kind of team-building every coach at every other level of hockey labors long and hard for.

But what exactly is the alternative to Olympic hockey sans Sidney and Ovi, among dozens of other global hockey talents? Are we seriously talking about raiding college rosters some six weeks after they’ve already been picked at for the World Juniors? And how could any collegian miss up to three weeks of school in the middle of a semester? If we’re to consider going “Pro Lite” for the Games, how do you compress any further an American Hockey League schedule that’s already crammed full every weekend?

You don’t. Because you shouldn’t.

I don’t have the answers to the ongoing impasse between the NHL and the Russian Hockey Federation, nor do I believe there is a “perfect” in-season schedule for the NHL during Olympic years, one that well balances an acceptable shut-down period with getting Olympians settled together with a bare minimum of practice time. I do know this: something special is shaping up in Vancouver, and we are witnessing merely its dawn.

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Morning cup-a-joe, Olympic hockey, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Alex and Sid Take Their Emergent Allure to the Olympics

  1. penguin pete says:

    i too love seeing pros in the olympics (as far as hockey goes anyway). however, you do have to wonder what the NHL gets back.

    the USA/Canada game will be televised on CNBC, while the mother station broadcasts ice dancing. for NBC, this (unfortunately) makes sense. for a hockey fan, it makes none.

    were canada/russia to play in a prelim game, would it make the main station, or, in a US market, do we see pairs figure skating instead?

    i don’t blame the russians one bit for wanting and demanding to play in sochi. but i don’t think i blame the NHL for wanting to skip as well…

  2. pelle31lives says:

    Here is one 25-year hockey fan not enamored about this competition.

    I think the NHL has done enough to insinuate itself upon the Winter Games, and nothing brings that more into focus than the changes it has pushed through to the round robin format in order to save its own talent for its real purpose.

    I don’t want to see it progress any further than Vancouver, mostly because I am greedy and in this February dead space, wish to have BOTH the NHL in full swing AND the Olympic competition with neither dipping into the other’s talent pool or TV rating shares.

    How many players suffered injuries in Torino because NHL players played an NHL-style intense game all the way through? How many of them came back weary from the competition and couldn’t put forth maximum effort for the clubs which pay their salaries and whose fans pay to see top-flight action? How can the NHL justify sending players to the Games and then jam 25 games into the next 5 1/2 weeks afterward?

    This “Brother against Brother” nonsense with national pride on the line really gets my goat. I’d rather see the joy of amateur competition on display, which has the greatest potential for leveling the playing field between the Big Six and everybody else.

    Also, it’s got to have more of a negative effect on the collective psyche of the pre-determined medalists to perform. None of us can imagine the crushing weight of expectation surrounding Canada and Russia to win it all, and I’m certain it would be drastically less should non-professionals play once again. I don’t want to see that Mike Richards is playing (more) like a zombie because he’s carrying around the burden of his home country’s non-Gold standing.

    I can honestly say I enjoyed the USA’s shocking 1992 run to fourth place in Albertville better than I did America’s appearance in the Gold Medal game in 2002.

    As for the collegians, I can vouch that missing time in the middle of a semester isn’t a big deal, and it can be made easier for all involved. Any ex-athletes, please feel free to elaborate or correct me, but…I attended Boston College in the late 1990s and took the same Communications (go ahead and take shots) courses with such names as Marty Reasoner, Brian Gionta, Krys Kolanos, Mike Mottau and Brooks Orpik. They didn’t all show up for classes during the course of the semester, but whoever did passed the required work along to those who didn’t.

    If this becomes a major deal, I don’t see why the universities and NCAA can’t work out a waiver where any work missed by selected Olympians can be made up during the Summer months. Believe me, if these athletes in question take the stereotypical jock courses, the work can be made up easier than most tracks of study.

    The NHL, while it does need more “buzz,” does not need more exposure to non-hockey fans. It is already broadcast to most if not all home countries of its players. Plus, it badly needs to shore up its own interests to make sure there are teams to attract and keep fans inside North America.

  3. SkinsCapsTerps says:

    While I do agree it is ridiculous for US-Canada to be moved to cable, for people who want to see the entire game (like me), this is probably best solution.

    Because if the game were on NBC, there would constant interruptions, cutting away because a figure skater broke a nail or some in studio blather from Costas/Lauer/Brokaw.

    It is bad enough theyre forcing Mike “The Franchise Killer” Milbury on us. Could we at least get Al Michaels for gold medal game ?

  4. Someone Else says:

    The NHL could make the schedule easier on the players, but chooses not to on purpose. They can take 10-12 games off the schedule, allowing enough recooperation time between games for all teams; this, however, cuts into revenue since the majority of what the league makes comes from ticket sales.

    I do agree, expect the worst from a Bettman-run league. Whomever ends up replacing him, they should go back to being called president, so the stink of commissioner remains with Bettman.

  5. TG says:

    It’s all a negotiating ploy. If the players want to play in the Olympics that badly, what will they give up to the owners in terms of the labor agreement?

    I’d be shocked if they aren’t there in 2014.

  6. Grizzled Vet says:

    An option that hasn’t been thrown around a lot, but makes sense to me is for the NHL to copy what the MLS does for the World Cup. Just keep playing.

    Franchises have enough depth to lose 1-6 players for two weeks. It happens all the time with injuries.

    Upside is schedule doesn’t get compressed, players have a lower chance of getting injured, and teams without a lot of elite players get an small advantage for two weeks bringing more competetitive balance into the league for the season.

    Downside is the Caps could get picked on by teams like Panthers and STH have to choose whether to go to a NHL game or watch Olympic hockey.

    I’m sure that there is more to it than I’ve thought of, but it seems like a reasonable comprommise.

  7. DC Rhino says:

    Pen#$@& Pete: (sorry — can’t bring myself to write the word): I feel the same way about Sochi. There are two right answers and they are mutually exclusive. The solution is that the players will play and the NHL will accede to the demands of the players and let them go. They might not suspend competition, though, because there is no ratings boost to a game at 4a EST, so it will be interesting.

    Pelle: I think you hit the wall in your 911 one too many times. Only top tier basketball and football players take a proportionately lower level of course work than the average student. They’re the only sports in which you make money out of college, so they are disincentivized (is that a word?) to take the tougher load given their sports commitments. On the other hand, the vast majority of NCAA student athletes are exactly that. I had a lot of lacrosse, soccer, and softball players in my advanced finance classes 20 years ago, and I don’t think things have changed much. It is unfathomable to me to think of missing three weeks of Futures and Options Contracts from back in the day. I agree that it would be lovely to have the Olympics and the NHL, but everyone in my household is excited to root for Czechs over Finland or root FOR Parise against Ovie. It adds a different dimension that we’re very excited about. I get up at 5:45a and stayed up to watch the first period of Russia/Latvia. I wouldn’t do that to see Chase Polacek play Gustav Nyquist or Nick Johnson play his Sacred Heart teammate Dave Jarman in a Canada/USA smackdown.

    SkinsCapsTerps: agreed — NBC v. Cable, Milbury (d*ck), even with your name.

    Someone Else: This was my thought upon reading the post, as well, but I thought 6 would be a reasonable number. Most teams don’t play more than 6 games in 2 weeks. It’s 3 home games per team and maybe they could come to some sort of revenue share or game placement agreement with NBC in order to compensate for lost revenues. NBC will make a truckload more (lose a truckload less?) money as a result of the higher profile NHLers on the ice in the Games.

    TG: Yes and no. I completely agree with you, but I also think there’s a bit of truth to Ted’s comment that the owners and the NHL get nothing out of a Sochi Games because there is NO profile (or infinitesimally low).

    Grizzled Vet: I don’t disagree with this. I think it would pretty cool to see. Certainly, it would showcase depth of your AHL roster and absolutely favors the Caps in the short-term. You make a good counterpoint regarding STH choices. Regional cable wouldn’t buy it b/c of the shared viewership aspect of splitting hockey personalities.

  8. penguin pete says:

    like one of ovie’s hits, i’ve been charged and subsequently blindsided by the quality of this discussion! HA!

    thanks for all of the great input, lots of good opinions here…

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s