If NHL owners had their way then Saturday’s USA/Russia instant hockey classic would have never happened. At least not with players like Jonathan Quick, Pavel Datsyuk, and T.J. Oshie. That’s because owners are losing money. Or so they say. There is an argument however for these ongoing Olympic Games contributing significantly to the long and short term economic and cultural growth of the NHL.
Ratings reflect an enormous interest in Olympic hockey and it’s therefore only logical that the NHL will benefit from the increased exposure. History and financial data can be skewed to tell a different story but it’s very hard to accept what owners are saying which is that allowing NHL players to compete at the Olympics is bad business for the league. This is an acceptable point of view if the NHL is satisfied with its current fan base.
Hockey is after all in this country a niche sport with a devout, albeit limited, group of fans who consider themselves part of an exclusive fraternity many of whom would rather keep casual sports fans on the periphery rather than include them in the reverie. In this country, the Olympics offer momentum to a sport and league that has always battled the stigma of being America’s 4th major professional sport.
But hockey is a sports with a significant amount of main stream potential. There are stories out of New York City, which is to be fair a good hockey town, of sporting goods stores selling out of Team USA hockey gear after T.J. Oshie finished off the Russians on Saturday. To show you the influence this game had on social media – as accurate an indicator of growth and popularity in the 21st century – Oshie, the St. Louis Blues forward, gained 45K new followers hours after his stellar performance in the shootout.
Perhaps the NHL doesn’t look at these analytics and automatically see dollar signs but it should. An American player like T.J. Oshie becoming more recognizable is a marketing slam dunk, sorry…hat trick, for the NHL. How many non-devout hockey fans even knew who Oshie was before Saturday? Very few. But today, average fans can’t wait to get their hands on his jersey, or Google his wife, and if the NHL were smart they’d figure out a way for this exposure to translate at the box office. (How about buy 4 hot dogs get two more free in honor of Oshie’s 4 for 6 shootout performance?)
Also, the NHL needs to consider how much pride individual players take in competing for their respective countries. Bruins defenseman and team captain Zdeno Chara felt it was such an important honor to be selected as Slovakia’s flag bearer that he asked to skip Boston’s final two games before the break in order to be present for the Opening Ceremony. Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the most dynamic goal scorer in the NHL has said that even if the Washington Capitals didn’t give him permission to compete in these Olympics that he would have played anyway because representing Russian, the host country, was that important to him.
There are certainly a fair number of NHL players in Sochi today who’d rather be home in the plush comforts of a five star hotel instead of the summer camp styled bunks of the Olympic village but if you look around the Bolshoy Ice Dome you probably won’t see many disgruntled faces. (Putin doesn’t count!) Players are competing at an incredibly high level and the speed of the game looks and feels like it has been bumped up several notches. (Think Stanley Cup finals on a larger surface and without fighting.)
Hockey really is a beautiful game to watch and the NHL shouldn’t cower from the exposure or hide behind the financials. The sport is in a better position today then it was before the lights went dark in NHL arenas across North America and owners shouldn’t run for this reality. Think of it as a gift. A gift from the Black Sea.