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Olympics Taking Hockey to New Heights

Congratulation to the Team USA Hockey Team for completing an outstanding tournament and earning a hard-fought Silver Medal against a much more experienced and highly acclaimed Canadian team. For those of you out there who have known me from a young age, I grew up obsessing over playing and watching hockey. Many of my friends brushed off this obsession with the sport as a waste of time–“what good is a sport that a group of friends can’t just grab a ball and play outside of Canada?” or “what good is a sport with lots of lines painted on ice that make absolutely no sense?”

Well, yesterday all of these naysayers not only watched, but also thoroughly enjoyed one of the best hockey games played in my lifetime (I was born shortly after the 1980 “Miracle” and I cannot help but acknowledge that the USA Hockey gold medal combined with my beloved Islanders early ’80s success played a huge part in my future passion for the sport). In many respects, yesterday’s game is another such transcendental moment in USA hockey and it is now Gary Bettman’s job to capitalize on that success. Unfortunately, as a devoted hockey fan, I fear Gary Bettman as the man for this colossal task. Let us take a brief foray through time and I will outline exactly why I am concerned.

The 1990s NHL:

In the early 1990s, the NHL was growing fast in multiple dimensions. The league had expanded into the Sunbelt and viewership was growing strong. The game known as the “coolest game on ice” had just signed its most significant national telecast, bringing “ESPN National Hockey Night” to viewers across America. The NHL had unlimited upside and potential at the time, and the owners believed that Gary Bettman was the man to take the game to the next level as its first full-time commissioner. Bettman was attorney at Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn before rising to prominence as the NBA’s general council and Commissioner David Stern’s right-hand man.

During this time, the NHL tried to draw on the appeal of hockey as a fast and physical game in order to draw in new fans. While the WWE (formerly WWF) rose from a popular form of entertainment to a mainstream phenomenon, fighting in hockey provided a major appeal to the uninformed American fan. This led to more roster spots dedicated to lesser-skilled players, but more skilled and less reluctant fighters. Whereas in the past, the role of the goon was to provide a solid shift and to protect the team’s star player, the new goon’s role was to engage in battle and serve his penalty time. The increased emphasis on a “grinding” and physical style of hockey resulted in a game with fewer shots, which equated to fewer goals and unfortunately, a less exciting game.

The Rise and Fall of the Power Forward

In the 1990s, teams spent early draft picks and devoted their scouting departments to discovering the next great “power forward.” A power forward was believed to be the perfect blend of skill and physicality, translating to a grinding, gritty and aggressive game. American hockey players, like John Leclair and Keith Tkachuk captured the essence of this style of play and helped catapult the USA hockey team to its greatest (and first) significant international success since the 1980 Olympics.

In 1996, the USA Hockey team beat Canada in a best of three series at the Ice Hockey World Championships–the sequel to the once hugely popular Canada Cup. At the time, some called this the completion of America’s ascension from hockey underdogs to world hockey powers. The victors in that game came of age in the Miracle on Ice generation of hockey players and fans and many believe, this generation reached maturity with the victory. Sadly, rather than completing a wonderful narrative about the growth of hockey in the U.S., the event marked a turning point for the fortunes of the NHL and hockey in the country that began unraveling in the 1998 Olympics.

On the heels of the World Cup victory, USA hockey entered the 1998 Olympics as near-equals with Canada. This was the first Olympic hockey event that included NHL and professional hockey players on a global level and many thought this would be the perfect launching point for hockey into a front-and-center position on the U.S. sports landscape. Unfortunately, the big and strong U.S. players were danced and passed around by the more nimble and nifty, highly skilled Europeans. The bigger ice surface exposed the vulnerabilities of placing more larger bodies and fewer skilled skaters on NHL rosters. The Czech team took advantage of this opportunity and easily handled the larger, less agile and aging North American teams (these Olympics were equally disastrous for Canada as they were for the U.S.). The American team, in response to their defeat, embarked on an aggressive binge of drinking and partying and returned home a disgraceful afterthought to the incorporation of professional hockey into the Olympic schedule.

Following these Olympics, hockey as a sport became an afterthought. The new Sunbelt teams suffered from awful attendance and the game was plagued by dull low-scoring defensive chess-matches. Hockey quickly faded from the scenes as one of the “four major” North American sports and settled into second-class status in America. This became ever clearer in 2005 when the NHL Strike was met with a universal “who cares? I didn’t even notice.”

What many people missed is that following the strike, the NHL adapted their rules to force a greater premium on skill–they placed restrictions on the size of goalie pads and clearly defined existing penalties to free up players from the clutching and grabbing which led to fewer goals. The league recognized that a core stable of dedicated hockey fans, although somewhat disgruntled, remained fully committed to the game they loved and that in order to reemerge from the strike with a viable business, they would have to cater to their most loyal fans, rather than overreaching for new, uninterested viewers.

A new generation of young stars emerged quickly after the lockout. Crosby and Ovechkin rose to international stardom and the new NHL was born. Along with those two centerpiece stars, a stable of young American players–heavy on skills and light on size–stepped into the limelight as the next generation of the NHL and American hockey.

The 2010 Olympics:

The U.S. Hockey team entered the games with an average age of 26, with Brian Rafalski checking in as the wily veteran on the team. This being the same Brian Rafalski who was glanced over as a stellar senior at the University of Wisconsin in 1995 on the charge that he lacked adequate size to compete in the NHL. Rafalski’s story deserves a brief digression from the larger narrative as it so incredibly encapsulates my larger point. After leaving Wisconsin, Rafalski received no interest from the NHL and traveled to Sweden seeking out the opportunity to play his sport. After spending six years in Sweden and Finland, Rafalski finally received his chance to play stateside as a twenty six year old on the New Jersey Devils. It was only a matter of time before Rafalski rose to the upper-echelon of the league’s defenseman as the anchor of multiple Stanley Cup wins in New Jersey and another in Detroit. An undersized nobody became a world-class defenseman when the emphasis of scouts shifted from power and size to speed and skill.

Whereas in the past, the NHL sought to promote viewership through an emphasis on size, physicality and fighting, hockey in the Olympics garnered record viewership without a single fight! This runs completely counter to conventional wisdom when it comes to the NHL’s attempt to grow the game throughout the 1990s. Many North American hockey players had spent the 1990s laughing off the Olympic and European style of play in which skating, stickhandling and precision passing and shooting were tantamount to body-checking and fighting. In 2010, both of the Olympic finalists–the U.S. and Canada–had that amazing blend of skill and physicality. What the NHL ultimately failed to realize in the past was that physicality resulting from passion is far superior to fighting for the sake of fighting–WWE style battles do not share the same appeal as two guys fighting for the puck ultimately dropping the gloves and dueling it out.

During the United States’ semifinal game against Finland, Gary Bettman was asked whether he would send NHL players to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. Bettman expressed concerns over ratings when the time zones do not match up and cited Nagano in 1998 as his evidence. In stating his case, Bettman fails to realize is that the game has changed completely since that time and so too has the U.S. position in the world of hockey and the Olympics.

Big TV stories in the Olympics tend to be consistent with one of two conceptions of the American Dream: overcoming hardship and/or the young upstart underdog taking on the established, dominant power. This U.S. hockey team had it all! The U.S. was the youngest team in the tournament, whose elder statesmen (B. Rafalski) happens to have one of the most appealing underdog stories in American sports. Additionally, the relationship between hockey past and present on this roster of American players helps highlight the true essence of the “Americanism” of the team:

  • Ryan Suter is the nephew of Gary Suter–a standout NHL defensemen for years, and a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team.
  • Paul Stastny is the son of Peter Stastny, an all-time great Czech hockey player who was one of the earliest defectors from the Soviet Bloc to defect and enjoy widespread success in North America.
  • Zach Parise is the son of J.P. Parise, a Canadian who played professional hockey primarily in the United States. Zach was an outstanding American college hockey player at the University of North Dakota who is now one of the most feared snipers and a top all-around player in the NHL.

The Future:

These are the stories that is the USA’s hockey team. Our young batch of up-and-coming hockey players is in an amazing position to build upon the success of 2010 and capitalize on that success in Russia in 2014. One of my favorite young Americans–Kyle Okposo–will add another amazing narrative to the American team in 2014, should Bettman not stand in the way just at the time when the U.S. is truly ready to rise. Okposo is the son of a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. who earned a Ph.D and raised his family in his new adopted homeland. As a twenty one year old this year, Okposo is stepping up as a rising talent in the league.

I urge Gary Bettman to consider the rising American talent ready to take the country’s hockey fortunes to the next level when contemplating whether or not to send NHLers to Russia in 2014 (and I am not even getting into the argument that many NHLers, particularly Russians, have made clear that they will play in the Olympics regardless of whether the NHL takes a recess). In four years, the U.S. has the amazing opportunity of entering the tournament, not as underdogs, but as favorites, with significant buzz for the team and the sport leading into the game. These Olympic games have been the single best advertisement for the sport of hockey and its players. Do not waste this opportunity Mr. Bettman!

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