Tuesday, February 18, 2014

2018 Winter Olympics or 2016 World Cup of Hockey?

American hero?
A funny thing happened on the way to the Rbar on Saturday morning.  With DKM Hockey T-shirts in tow, I arrived at the Front Street entrance of the Rbar at 7:30am - and was met by a bouncer who said the Rbar was at capacity.  The bar was on "one-and-one" status which meant if one person left the bar, one person could enter.  The RBar was PACKED with people watching the USA vs Soviet Union Russia hockey game.  I was a little bit baffled by the crowd size, given my attendance to previous viewing parties.

The Blue Jackets had been promoting this viewing party, but not any more than they promote any other of their CBJBWW viewing parties.  I normally get to the viewing parties early as I am podcasting and NEED to get a table by a power outlet.  I am a planner and I usually gauge crowd size/participation with a fair degree of accuracy.  As I stood outside the bar in the brisk morning air wrapped in my cozy Arctic jacket (like I said, I am a planner and prepared for the possibility of standing outside for a while, however unlikely) peering through the window looking at a world where I wanted to belong, I began to consider how I misjudged the crowd size.

Hockey has not woven itself into the fabric of the Columbus community just yet.  Sure, we have an NHL team. But, in a metro area with the population of 2 million people, there are 260 varsity high school hockey players on 13 teams, one heck of a club team in Newark, and one AAA program.  How many Varsity football players do you think there are in the metro Columbus area?  Point being, hockey is not a hugely powerful draw in this city top to bottom, yet.  As I pondered those thoughts and the size of the Rbar crowd, a man stormed out of the entrance to the Rbar.  My eyes met the glance of the bouncer, who welcomed me into the warm embraces of the Rbar.  As I entered the bar I was met with smiles and cheers from the 15 or 20 folks who had been watching me stand outside for 20 minutes. 

The Rbar was absolutely packed.  It took me about 5 minutes to get from the pool table to the penalty box.  I gave Mike Todd and Marcus Stephenson their DKM T-shirts. Like a salmon in spawn, I then swam upstream to an 8-top table to meet up with the folks from the CBJ Artillery, Boone's Goons, and Union and Blue.  I saw some familiar faces as I battle the waves of people, but it was largely a foreign crowd.  There was the occasional Team USA hockey jersey worn by people who were in grade school, if at all born, when 'Miracle' happened.  There was lots of Team USA gear, almost everywhere.  I made my way to the table, met up with friends and contemporaries, ordered three drinks, and settled in for the second and third period. 

The Olympic hockey was fantastic.  The Soviet Russian team looked good, even with smattering of 2nd line NHLers and KHLers making up parts the team, the whole squad looked good.  The larger ice surface of the international rinks initially serves as an equalizer for North American teams while as they learn to adapt team concepts on the Olympic ice surface against a skilled and speedy eastern European team.  The first five minutes of the 2nd period were, for me, instantly nostalgic of the Canada Cup, which later became the World Cup of Hockey. 

If you're Canadian, you're probably sporting the "Murphy to Lemieux to Gretzky" boner about right now.  For those of you unaware of that statement without a google search, the Canada/World Cups were tournaments held in late August/early September and featured national teams made from the best hockey players from around the world, most notably NHLers.  This was not the "best of what's around" tournament known as the IIHF World Championships. These were teams made up of the best players from around the world in a tournament that did not interfere with NHL league play.  The tournament showcased the world's best hockey players in a tournament with a unique format played under NHL rules.  Quite literally, it was some great hockey and hockey fans every where were treated to some memorable games.  Oh what it would feel like to be packed in the RBar as the US squared off in the first of a three-game championship series against the Soviets Russia in a World Cup.  I want the Canada Cup back, badly!

But my daydream was interrupted by the cheers of the first goal scored by team USA!  It was then that I realized why this crowd was so large and why I had misjudged it's size. There were countless "Team USA" tank tops, hats, sunglasses, and hoodies.  The Rbar crowd was half hockey fans and half Winter Olympic fans.  There was a cross-over appeal to this event that I had not anticipated.  It was the Olympics where only haters and troglodytes don't feel some sort of patriot swell during the games.  The decades of the United States largely being irrelevant in Olympic hockey ended in 1998 when the NHL participated in the Olympics.  Miracle on Ice?  The US faded back into Olympic obscurity in 1984 and 1988. They had a another good run behind everyone's favorite goal Ray Leblanc in 1992, then back to obscurity in 1994.  This cross over appeal was two pronged. 

Ray Leblanc, Olympic hero and soon to be
former Cincinnati Cyclone

1.  It was the good old USA vs the land grabbing Soviets Russia. Ok - the strike through font should be pretty tongue-in-check to everyone by now.  There will forever be a US-Russia rivalry thanks to General Patton.  I don't care what flag flies in front of St Basil's Cathedral or what they are calling themselves these days.  USA v Russia is going to be a rivalry for some time.  Red Sox-Yankees, OSU-Michigan, North Dakota - Minnesota.  These rivalries get everyone interested in their respective sports.  Not sure how packed this Rbar is had this been USA vs Latvia.  Everyone loves a villain, just ask WWE fans. 

Evil always trimphs over good, because good is dumb.

Reason number 2.  The United States is the best country in the world and the Olympics are a showcase of Nationalism that we as American have forgetten the last 20 years.  Outside of ski resort areas in the US, no one watches the World Giant Slalom championships whenever they are held in the time between the Olympics.  When was the last time you watched ski-jumping?  However, if you throw in a non-stop medal count update, the once every four years marketing campaign firestorm, and a "Tim Burton tripping on LSD and mescaline" opening ceremony and BAM!  Everyone one is excited for the Olympics.  When was the last time you watched Luge, the Bi-athlon, or ice dancing?  Never.  But, you add a flair of National Pride to a sport where the world's best compete and EVERY ONE is watching, and hell yeah - the RBar is packed.  It's also fair to say that hockey is one of the more popular events during the Winter Games.

What am I going at in all this?  Well, there is no agreement for NHL participation beyond this winter Olympics - everyone is assuming the World Cup of Hockey is coming back.  And largely, that it will be just as popular to the common mas as that Saturday morning in the Rbar.  Now,  it doesn't mean a deal with NHL/NHLPA for Olympic participation can't be made, but one doesn't currently exist.  If the NHL does not participate in the Olympics going forward, men's ice hockey will sink into obscurity and I'm not really sure that Ted Leonosis, John McConnell, and Rocky Wirtz really care all that much.  IT will go back to minor leaguers and US guys playing overseas who make up the Olympic teams.  While I will watch an non-NHL winter Olympics with all my heart, the competitor in me will know that it is not the best in the sport competing against each other.  It will be like watching the OSU spring game.

If the NHL withdraws from the Olympics, do we turn our eyes to the pending World Cup of Hockey in 2016?  And remember, no agreement exists for a World Cup of hockey in 2016, either.  The hockey player in me longs for the return of the Canada/World Cup.  It was OUR own tournament.  It happened in September when the thirst for Hockey grew.  In fact, I would LOVE it for the World Cup and Olympics alternated every two years.  The World Cup was the tournament of champions.  But, in the United States where hockey is still largely a niche sport, can the World Cup of Hockey capture the hearts and minds of the casual sports fan like an Olympic match of USA vs the Soviets Russia?  My heart tells me no.  Does my chubby celebratory face at the Rbar get on NBC Nightly News, Yahoo Sports, and 10TV News if this is a game played on a random Tuesday evening in September against Slovenia?  Do Americans care if McDonalds, Visa, and every major TV network isn't throwing the event in your face non-stop for two months?  Does America as a casual sports fan celebrate its best hockey players if they are removed from the Olympics and tucked neatly into their own little corner every fourth September?

That's a tough question.  What's best to showcase the sport and encourage it's growth?  Is TJ Oshie elevated to "hero" status during a largely obscure tournament in September against Norway?   Remember Tony Amonte's World Cup clinching goal for the USA in 1996?  Nah, didn't think so.  Not to snark it up too bad, Ray Leblanc got more press in the 1992 Winter Olympics than Tony Amonte's 1996 World Cup clincher ever got.  Why?  Because Ray LeBlanc played in the Olympics.  But, a regularly occurring World Cup of Hockey would be a hockey fan's dream.  That has also been, in my opinion, the problem with the Canada/World Cup is they don't occur regularly.  Since 1976 there have been 7 tournaments combined.  Sometimes 3 years between events, sometimes 5 years, sometimes 8 years, and perhaps 12 years between events.  It's sporadic and you can't build excitement and momentum if you don't know when the next one is going to be held.  That's the beauty of the Olympics, every four years -  you expect them and a large part of the winter sports populace gets excited for them.

As of right now, hockey needs all the exposure it gets from the Olympics.  And quite ironically, Olympic hockey needs the NHL.  Olympic glory can't be replicated in anyway - save maybe the FIFA World Cup.  But this is not Soccer - a truly global sport.  Should the NHL not extend it's participation in the Olympics, the international hockey stage will need the World Cup of Hockey.  If the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 happens, it then needs to happen every four years.  It needs to happen without fail, it needs to be promoted the best it can by the NHL and by the 15 or so other countries in the world stage of hockey.  If hockey fans, most notably in the USA, are content to leave hockey in it's niche status, then the World Cup of Hockey is just what the doctor ordered.  But if you want the global recognition by the casual fan, which is in my opinion the best way to grow hockey, then the NHL must stay with the Olympics.  Alternating between the World Cup of Hockey and Olympics would be awesome.  It would infuse a little life back into international match ups that are largely benign in North America.  It would just be awesome for hockey fans  But which event has shaped US interest in Hockey more?  Mike Eruzione, Ray Leblanc, TJ Oshie, or Tony Amote?  The answer is the Olympics.  If NHL owners truly have a passion for the game of hockey, than they and the NHLPA can make sure the best athletes in the world are in South Korea in 2018.

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