Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Greatest Competition

I have written before about why I love hockey.

And NHL players participating in the Olympics, which they have done since 1998, is a reason to love it even more.

Although invented and first perfected in Canada, hockey is an international sport in which multiple countries invest a great deal of pride. The Olympic teams of the "big seven" hockey nations (Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, the USA, and the Czech Republic) are all loaded not only with NHL players, but NHL stars.

And those are not the only countries whose Olympic rosters include NHL'ers. Team Slovenia features Anze Kopitar, who led the LA Kings to their first ever Stanley Cup championship by tallying 20 points during the 2012 postseason. Team Latvia includes Buffalo Sabers winger Zemgus Girgensons, and counts retired goalie Arturs Irbe (13 seasons in the NHL) as an assistant coach.

The "excellence parity" among the sport's international leaders is illustrated by the fact that in the first three Olympics that included NHL players, six different nations reached the gold medal game and a different champion was crowned each time. It is also illustrated by the fact that despite all the focus on Canada, Russia, and the USA, it is Finland that has won the most medals in the "NHL Era" of the Olympics.

In a touch of cosmic perfection, every gold medal game during this era has pitted rival nations against each other, kicking off with the Czechs upsetting the Russians in 1998. That outcome triggered a wave of national pride among Czechs who resented the larger country for having held theirs under its thumb during the Cold War. Throngs gathered in Prague for a victory ceremony, with some people holding "Hasek is God" signs in honor of goaltender Dominik Hasek.

In 2006, when Arctic Circle neighbors Sweden and Finland met for the whole ball of wax, it was such a big deal that the two countries practically shut down so their citizens could watch the game and cheer for their warriors on skates to beat the guys from next door.

And when our country's team faced Canada's in 2002 and 2010, it represented not just a duel between countries that share the longest border on Earth, but a duel of pride in which Canada desperately wanted to stop its yappy southern neighbors from staking a claim to Canada's game, while the USA desperately wanted to show its preening northern neighbors that they do not have a divine right to hockey supremacy just because.

Perhaps the biggest testament to hockey's greatness is that NHL players (most of them stars) have an insatiable desire to play in the Olympics, practically for free and undoubtedly at risk of career-ending injury. They do it because of their passion for the game and their love of their homelands.

So many of us criticize professional athletes for being all about themselves; for having no loyalty to anything bigger than their own personal bubble; for continuing to play only so they can line their wallets -- yet too few of us appreciate the fact that hundreds of professional hockey players routinely give us a reason to free our minds of that cynicism.

The only discouraging thing is that 16 years after the NHL started allowing its players to play in the Olympics, so many NHL management types are openly disdainful of Olympic participation and are making noise about doing away with it after this year's games come to a close. They drone on about how NHL players should realize that playing in the Olympics is "not their job" -- as if it were some petty whimsy akin to your high school son wanting to play video games instead of study for his geometry test.

Well, pardon my faux Quebecois French, but fuck that. Those management types should be ashamed of themselves. They should realize that the "higher purpose" aspirations of their players (I'm sorry, their "employees") is the precise attribute that draws fans to the game of hockey and thereby allows the league to prosper, which in turn allows those very same management types to work in dream jobs and dwell in nice big homes in the suburbs.

For decades hockey has been the Winter Olympics' marquee event. For 16 years it has been even more marquee than before, because the players lacing up have been indubitably the best in the world. It might be hard to quantify how much the NHL gains from allowing its charges to participate in the Olympics every four years, but I have no doubt that the losses it would experience if it denies their future participation would be obvious. And impossible to deny.

The league's leaders should stop their grumbling and announce that they will never try to deny their players' God-given right to play for their countries and for their love of the game. This game is great for a reason, and the Olympics exemplify that reason. May it ever be so.

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