THIRD MAN IN: Don’t bett on it

Behind the Bench/Sports by

The gold medal is back in its rightful place, safe for another four years. Canada fulfilled its destiny, and another chapter has been added to the legend of Sidney Crosby. But as the last of the champagne is poured and celebrations across the country begin to die down, it’s already time to think ahead, and consider the troubling future of Olympic men’s hockey.

As any hockey fan knows, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is considering barring NHL players from the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. A number of factors, Bettman says, contribute to a possible NHL no-show in 2014: the time difference between North America and Russia; scheduling conflicts; and the fact that the salaries of the players the NHL “lends” to the Olympics total roughly two billion dollars – money that the League would still pay even if its players were hurt in Olympic competition.

The reality, however, is that these variables have already been rendered null. Bettman made a conscious choice in 1995 when the NHL finally allowed its players to participate in the Olympics at Nagano. He made a commitment, and it would be classless and unfair to break it.

The Olympics represent the best athletic teams and individuals in the world. “Amateur” athletes have fallen by the wayside, with guys like Michael Phelps and Shaun White raking in millions of dollars in endorsements. The Olympics are about showcasing the best. How excited were Canadians at the prospect of watching our country’s greatest players compete for gold on home ice? How excited were we to see Crosby, Nash, and Niedermeyer all playing together? Imagine being a Russian hockey fan four years from now, and having that same excitement being snatched away from you. No Malkin, no Semin, no Ovechkin. Canadians experienced the euphoria of cheering for the nation’s best last week, Americans had it in 2002, and even the Italians were given a taste of it in 2006.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Russian NHLers expect to be able to play in front of their home crowd. If Bettman is set on denying them that pleasure, he should have revealed his intentions long before the host country was announced.

This wouldn’t just affect the Russians, either – it would affect all the big hockey countries. Canada wouldn’t get to properly defend its title, as they’d be fielding minor leaguers against the far superior KHL players in Russia. Banning NHL players also wouldn’t be fair to teams that have vastly improved their place in the hockey world over the past few years, particularly the Americans.

USA Hockey has taken great strides as of late. A decade ago, Canadians and Europeans dominated the first round of the NHL entry draft, but in recent years, teams have used their top picks on an increasing number of talented young players from the States.

Coming into these Olympics, no one was willing to give the Americans a chance. Critics said they were too young and too inexperienced. Some argued that a team composed of Canada’s rejects could still beat the Americans handily. But the US proved everyone wrong by making it within one overtime goal of Olympic glory. The majority of their players are under 25, and by the time Sochi rolls around, they’ll be hitting their prime.

I can’t offer Mr. Bettman any substantial economic reasons for backing down from his stance, but as a supposed fan of the game, he should recognize that allowing the best players in the world to compete for their countries is a matter of principle.

Ovechkin and Malkin have publicly stated that they plan to attend the 2014 Winter Olympics regardless of what the NHL says, and that they’ll pay whatever fines are levied. Personally, I applaud this act of rebellion. After all, these players alone earn millions of dollars for Bettman and the NHL. The League owes its top players the opportunity to play for their country, especially when the Games are in their country. When everything goes according to plan, the end result is pure magic – just look at what happened on Sunday afternoon.