1. Why Hockey is Special
Hockey is special.
In no other sport do the players, the management, the owners, and the fans treat “the Game” with such respect. That’s what they call it, too — “the Game.” You hear it all the time in hockey — everyone’s actions are still guided by what’s good for “the Game.”
For the players, I believe, it’s because the game is the hardest sport in the world to play. You need great athletic ability. And, you need persistence and tenacity. You need to be fearless to play a full-contact sport at high speed.
You also need ice.
Hockey is not available outside for even one day a year in much of the world. Most kids cannot just go outside and play. For other sports, every elementary school has outdoor fields and a basketball court. And those other sports — basketball, football and baseball — are offered in every kids’ gym class.
Not so with hockey. You have to seek this sport out, you have to chase it.
And once you make that effort and get out there, you find the game is elusive. In most sports, you can quickly attain a level of familiarity and competence that allow you to enjoy the game, at least a little bit.
You can skate 50 times and still be stumbling around, let alone handling a puck.
The Game is much harder to learn than most sports. And to excel at it — you are talking about years of commitment. It takes special young men and women to play the game.
The sacrifices they make turn them into unselfish, dedicated athletes. The sacrifices their families make are without parallel in sports. We are blessed in our Game. While our players are the greatest athletes in the world, they are also the greatest ambassadors in sports. They are gracious, courteous and accommodating with fans and the media, active in their communities and patriotic. They make the game special.
2. The Future of the Game:
But our Game is only played in a comparatively small area on the planet. We need to grow the world’s greatest game. And international hockey competition is therefore a critical component to grow the game.
The primary senior tournaments involving National Hockey League players and the rest of the elite level players from leagues and schools around the world are the Olympics and the world championships. These tournaments can spread the reach of the game and be of great mutual benefit for all parties, but participation should not continue without a close look at the risks involved.
Indeed, tournaments must be staged in a manner that is consistent with the interests of the fans, the players, and the teams they play for. In short, international competition needs to benefit all of the stakeholders involved in the game.
The current format of international tournaments simply does not meet everyone’s needs. The National Hockey League currently sends its players to these two international tournaments, but receives no compensation for doing so.
Each NHL team shuts down their business for close to three weeks while the Olympic Games are played. In return, fans, management and owners are often rewarded with tired or broken players on their return from Olympic competition.
Assured only that the game must be growing as a result of an Olympic bump in interest, what results instead is the game’s most dedicated stakeholders see their own games being diminished.
And it’s not fair that the athletes themselves are not compensated for their participation. They run the risk of injury in international tournaments, which can threaten their NHL livelihood.
While some would argue that the chance to represent their country is compensation enough, it’s unfair when the IIHF and the IOC receive multiple millions of dollars from these tournaments.
Some countries and national governing bodies do provide small honorariums and podium money to their Olympians, but these are relatively small amounts. Even the healthy player is impacted negatively in years requiring overseas travel where distance and time changes compound fatigue in an already gruelling schedule.
The post-Olympic slump that often impacts player performance can result in lost bonus opportunities and further lost endorsement revenue owning to missing the playoffs or Stanley Cup.
Basically, athletes and leagues are not paid or protected for their participation in either tournament while the tournaments themselves make millions. With that money going to the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation alone, it jeopardizes future NHL player participation.
I feel very comfortable with a confident prediction that this will change.
3. A Solution:
I submit that the best time to stage international competitions is in the off-season in a best-on-best format, not achievable in the current format. This would require resurrecting the World Cup.
Staging a late-summer World Cup gives the best opportunity to grow of the game in the 24/7/365 era of competing entertainment options. Fresh, local hockey news will come to fans with a patriotic flavour right when football (NFL, CFL and College in the US and Canada) and soccer (EPL, GFL, La Liga and Lega A in Europe) seasons are just gearing up.
NHL owners will not shut down their businesses mid-season, teams, fans and players do not have to shoulder in-season injury risks and post-tournament slumps and players can earn some additional income and use the tournament to prepare for the upcoming season.
Indeed, alternating a World Cup with the World Championships (held in the late spring of each non-Olympic year) allows fans, teams and players to embrace a new, thoroughly homegrown tradition.
As a kickoff to NHL and European league schedules, a World Cup allows a host of good results-all of which allow for growth beyond the current schedule and fan base.
Teams condition, train and practice in home nations-giving them the chance to showcase local talent that may play in a distant NHL city. Players avoid extra travel and are highlighted in their home nations, offering them new chances to capitalize on local commercial opportunities—particularly important for those where language may inhibit endorsement opportunities in their own NHL cities. Most importantly, fans get extra exposure to the game and their national team. I am not proposing that our best vehicle for growing our Game is through the World Cup, not the Olympics.
In a perfect world, I believe NHL players need to be present at the Olympics.
Ideally, the Games would shift to the Summer Games. I realize this is simply not going to happen. But I am troubled by people in the hockey community who simply presume that the National Hockey League should, and will, continue to send their players to the Olympics.
If the Olympics are to continue as a means of growing our Game going forward, then we need to make the tournament work for all the parties. The National Hockey League and its players need to be compensated.
This Game needs ice surfaces. In many areas, new arenas have not been built for many years, and the older arenas need to be maintained. We need to make the game available. We need to keep ice time affordable. And we need to utilize more cost-effective alternatives, primarily in-line hockey and floor hockey.
While people focus on the small numbers of people who play and watch the game, the fact is that we have witnessed explosive growth in the numbers of elite athletes who are taking up the game in non-traditional hockey markets. As I’ve already said, the game is special precisely because of these remarkable people who choose to become hockey players. Let’s make sure we support them.
By making the barriers to entry low, by bringing the competition home to them, we, in turn, stand to attract even more of the equally special people who choose to become fans of the game.