In a way, ice hockey can be much like soccer/futbol. Oh, I’m not comparing playing on an ice sheet to playing on a huge field of grass, nor players wearing a ton of gear to men in shorts and shirts and somewhat-regular shoes. It’s the fact there are so many tournaments of an international variety that come in to play at all levels of the game that is the similarity. Some are annual, some are vastly irregular and others are on a regular schedule a few years apart… Like the Olympics.
The Olympic games are just a variant of grandiose sport-specific tournaments like the World Cup in Soccer which is played ever four years. I’ll cite the World Junior Championships in hockey, which is an annual tournament of junior-aged players (upper-teens to 20 years old) doing battle, country versus country. There’s also the World Championships which is a toned-down general hockey championship that utilizes players that aren’t involved in the playoffs in pro leagues around the world and those who don’t have to rest and recuperate from a trying season in their respective leagues.
The World Cup of Hockey is an irregular tournament of national teams played in late summer or early fall which can amount to preseason action for the big name talents from around the globe (though that’s not entirely true – the Euro leagues have started by this point while the NHL is in preseason mode). The irregularity sort of dims this and a thin history doesn’t do it any favors either.
And then there are the Olympics…
The Olympic games are supposed to be the top of a country’s talent playing for gold medals. There are major feats in sports history tied to winter and summer Olympiads and they vary for every single country that participates. Ice hockey has long been a part of the winter Olympics and the level of talent participating for the nations has varied for a variety of reasons – hell, that’s a truth for entire Olympic rosters, but that goes off on a tangent – and the fact the NHL is in operation is just one of the reasons why.
That never stopped history from being made. What it stopped was this being just another tournament of play.
With NHL players participating in the games for their national teams, things have just seemed off or dulled down. This tournament of international play, national tem versus national team, long was a mix of amateur and semi-pro talent that fought for roster spots and for the right to represent their country on the grandest stage of international play. That changes dramatically with NHL players participating – names alone lock down roster spots and what is left feels like a variation of all-star game play. Oh, the all-star break will last longer than usual, but a hyped up names-names-names roster versus names-names-names roster is just all-star play a month later. It’s the World Cup of Hockey in February. They don’t train and practice extra in preparation for the tournament… They can’t; they have a contractual responsibility to compete elsewhere for the majority of the fall and the start of winter…
I can’t talk about Lake Placid here, can I? It seems like an odd place to do it –rag-tag team beats pro-level veterans in USA-vs.-Russia – but the story of Team USA in the 1980 winter Olympics does have one thing going for it that fits with this story: It was a mixed crew of players, pieced together. It added to the nationalism in that they had to damned well play their asses off to show they should be there. Does this translate to me trying to suggest pros players don’t compete at that level? Nope, not at all. They just don’t have to earn their place in the same way. The kids – college, junior level or non-NHL league players of the AHL and USHL – who get closed out of participation by way of this.
I’ll make a declaration here and it’s likely not going to sit well with other hockey fans or specifically NHL fans (and players), but I’m fine and good with the NHL deciding not to let players participate in the PyeongChang Olympics this coming February. The challenge rises for Canada and the USA in game play while the European leagues play their all-star variation tournament… Knowing the talent out of Canada and the skill that does exist in the US, it’s not like those teams would not perform at a level that raises national pride. They just aren’t supposed to be the big-guys-only rosters.
Oh, there’s still the possibility of the NHL waving the white flag and letting players participate for their respective nations. I’d just take more interest in the talent of general players doing the play. That or the respective rosters being a hell of a lot more open than majority-NHL talent. Earned spots rather than reputation-earns-the-slot roster management has a better link to countries. It doesn’t have to be a names-you-know collection for people to take heart and invest pride in a national team.