A little more than five years ago yesterday, the NHL and the hockey world suffered through ‘Black Wednesday’ – a.k.a. the day commissioner Gary Bettman announced the formal cancellation of his league’s 2004-05 regular season.
But yesterday was a different kind of Wednesday. Call it a ‘Wicked Wednesday,’ with all the adjective’s positive and negative connotations coming into play for disparate groups of hockey fans.
For Canadians, Slovaks, Finns and Americans, Wednesday was wicked in the New-England-accent-Jimmy-Fallon-Rachel-Dratch celebratory sense. For Russians, Swedes, Czechs and the Swiss, the day was wicked in the vein of evil witches and airplane-wing-surfing goblins.
Whatever the case, it was a Wednesday that will stand out in hockey lore for a very long time. And it laid to rest just about any argument Bettman has against continuing NHL participation in future Olympic Games.
Honestly, after Wednesday’s non-stop drama-rama, how can the commissioner or anyone else suggest hockey doesn’t benefit from the Olympic experience?
Granted, as Capitals owner Ted Leonsis noted last week, the business relationship the NHL has with the International Olympic Committee seems a little one-sided in the latter’s favor. (Perhaps that’s just karma coming back to smack NHL team owners around for claiming – without bursting into fits of laughter afterward – they’re in a genuine partnership with the NHLPA.)
But let’s get real for a minute: aside from the record-setting TV ratings, raucous caucuses at the arenas and full buy-in by the players, there are many other reasons why the owners would be cutting off their collective nose to spite their two faces if they didn’t find a way to participate in the 2014 Sochi Games and every Winter Olympics thereafter.
Think of it strictly in terms of storylines. Isn’t there a heightened sense of intrigue now surrounding Alex Ovechkin that wouldn’t have existed without Team Russia’s world-class quarterfinal meltdown and No. 8’s suddenly rocky relationship with the North American media?
Of course there is. And don’t players such as the Sedin twins and Henrik Lundqvist have a little more to prove after they and their Swedish teammates fizzled out Wednesday against Slovakia?
Sure they do. But here’s the best part: the games only get more important from now until the end of the tournament on Sunday. The potential gold medal matchup between Canada and the United States will drive news coverage in the Great White North – and likely will garner its share of attention by an American press contingent that normally treats hockey like a dog deals with a hydrant. (That fact alone should have Bettman and the NHL working furiously with the IOC to finalize a new working agreement.)
In addition, none of the Olympic hockey games are junked up with sideshow acts – wherever have the sport’s professional score-settlers and noble policemen gone and how can the game survive without them? – or egregious episodes of on-ice recklessness. This is hockey at its best.
More than anything, what Olympic hockey does is offer fans an alternative to the NHL product. However, that’s not to say it does so at the expense of the NHL game.
Single-game elimination rounds heighten the angst and awesomeness of each contest, but at the same time remind us how the NHL’s multi-game elimination playoff format also is important and exciting to watch in its own way.
As well, rule variations in the Olympics (i.e. allowing a penalty shot to be taken by a player who wasn’t victimized by the opposition) also provide a fantastic window into a different interpretation of the sport.
It was highly enjoyable watching Bettman blush with anger and tap-dance around Rene Fasel last week when the International Ice Hockey Federation president all but begged him to publicly state NHL players would be in Sochi four years from now.
Now, though, Fasel shouldn’t need to plead one more second. After the events of Wicked Wednesday, Bettman ought to be the one on his knees in the praying position.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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