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Cornered Coach: The (Olympic) Rings are the Thing

 

To a lot of people, it's big news that NHL players won't be participating in the 2018 Olympics.

But to me?

I say, "Big deal" and, yes, I'm saying that sarcastically.

Frankly, I could care less whether NHL players take to the Olympic ice and, to be honest, I never thought they should be on the Olympic stage in the first place. Granted, I'm coming to the Olympic discussion from a much different place than a lot of people – especially the younger generation who have been brought up on waving the flag for NHL superstars such as Sidney Crosby.

When I was a young guy growing up in the Calgary area, the Olympic team was based in that city. The 1980 Olympic team lived together in a bunch of trailers on the Calgary Stampede Grounds and played a series of exhibition games leading up to the Games in Lake Placid, New York. I was lucky enough to attend a few of those pre-Olympic contests and it was a thrill to see up and coming Canadian players such as Randy Gregg and Glenn Anderson, who eventually became important parts of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty. Leading up to the 1980 Olympics, Team Canada had great success against a young American squad that was also prepping for Lake Placid. But during the Olympic tournament itself, Herb Brooks, Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione became household names, pulling off the USA's famous "Miracle on Ice" against the mighty Russians and eventually claiming the gold medal.

Here in Canada, Sidney Crosby's "Golden Goal" from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver holds a special place in the hearts of hockey fans. But, with apologies to Sid, that goal pales in comparison to the true "Miracle" that was pulled off by a bunch of American college kids. 

"Yeah, but Mike," some of you may be saying. "We want to see the best players in the game going head-to-head."

There's nothing wrong with that. But in the old days, that's what the Canada Cup (now known as the World Cup) was for. Canadian hockey fans have great memories of Darryl Sittler scoring the overtime winner in the 1976 Canada Cup and the Gretzky to Lemieux set-up to win the 1987 Canada Cup.  Just last fall, meanwhile, the World Cup produced great hockey and provided a unique showcase for the exploits of young stars such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.

Speaking of McDavid and Matthews, it's too bad that the Olympic program wasn't an option for them leading up to their NHL careers. Eric Lindros had the opportunity to play for Canada at the 1992 Olympics and it turned out to be an important building block in his eventual ascension to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In contrast, McDavid was stuck playing against overmatched teenagers in the OHL, while Matthews spent last season playing in a pro league in Switzerland. You can't tell me they wouldn't have rather had the chance to represent their respective countries before launching their NHL careers, and can you imagine some of the head-to-head Canada vs. USA battles McDavid and Matthews would've been part of?

Yes, the NHL is an important piece of the hockey world. But it doesn't have the market cornered when it comes to promoting the game. When the NHL talks about "selling" the game, what they're really referring to is "moving the merchandise" – selling as many tickets, cable packages and designer jerseys as possible. But there's another way to  showcase hockey, and the Olympics could play a crucial role.

The "Olympic Ideal" used to stand for underdogs, such as the "Miracle on Ice" bunch, defying the odds and inspiring the masses.

The "Olympic Ideal" used to represent an opportunity for young athletes to announce their presence on the world stage before heading to the "big business" of pro sports.

The "Olympic Ideal" used to be about athletes sacrificing their time and effort to represent their country and inspire people to become better in their own lives.

Sure, it can be entertaining to watch a bunch of multi-millionaire NHLers give up their regular jobs for a few weeks to go after yet another treasure to put in their crowded trophy cases.

But, in my opinion, the Games are bigger than the biggest of stars and it's time to give the hockey tournament back to the players who truly define what the Olympics were supposed to be all about.   

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