Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford is wrong: NHL belongs at Olympics

I can only imagine that after Frank Deford completed his latest piece for Sports Illustrated’s web site, he lit a big cigar, leaped into his Hummer, fired up an American Idol CD, and zoomed off to his favorite steakhouse for a 64-ounce prime rib.

The veteran columnist’s argument that the NHL and NBA should both withdraw from the Olympics (after 2010 and 2008 respectively) is both patronizing and parochial, and speaks to an overblown sense of navel-gazing North American entitlement.

This is not about asking “major-league team sports to kowtow to the Olympics.” We’re talking, in hockey’s case, about taking a two-week break once every four years. If SI only granted Mr. Deford two weeks off every four years–for professional development time!–I suspect he’d be mailing resumés to The Sporting News and ESPN The Magazine right now.

Yes, many people have a short attention span nowadays. But only in the very weakest NHL markets will casual fans potentially forget about their local franchise after not seeing the Phoenix Coyotes or Columbus Blue Jackets come through town for 16 days.

Yes, NHL players could get hurt at the Olympics. But they’re more likely to get hurt while battling Atlanta on Tuesday night than in international hockey.

Yes, there’s a brief loss of NHL revenue over that two-week period. But you won’t get any better exposure for the sport of hockey than putting it on the biggest stage in the world, which is the Olympics.

That’s true regardless of whether you buy into the ideals of the Olympic movement or dismiss “all the sappy ceremonies,” as Mr. Deford does.

Even if you believe everything in sports should be done for the benefit of US network television and their sponsors en route to the Almighty Dollar, you definitely won’t get a better bang for your buck by pulling out of the Olympics and, as an alternative, organizing hockey and basketball World Championships every four years starting in 2011 and putting them both in the same cities.

Mr. Deford, that concept is as wrong-headed as the goal that bounced in off Swedish goalie Tommy Salo’s mask versus Belarus in 2002.

Sure, there are fans who love both basketball and hockey. But for the majority, it would dilute their enjoyment of one or the other to stage the two World Championships side by side, and (especially for hockey) it would undercut the level of media attention. Oh, you could argue that the same dilution occurs when hockey takes place alongside ski jumping and speed skating at the Olympics. But the Games, despite all their problems, have built up a special aura that an isolationist hockey-and-hoops fiesta would never match.

Besides, when it comes to hockey, there are good reasons for staging the World Championships annually. The IIHF doesn’t just hold a tournament every four years, because without the funds that are generated under the current annual format, they wouldn’t be able to subsidize the lower-level tournaments (Division I, Division II, etc.) that keep hockey growing around the world. In addition, for countries outside the Big Seven (Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, and the USA), the annual tournament provides crucial exposure to top-level competition. Once every four years wouldn’t be enough.

Also, why restrict these hypothetical quadrennial tournaments to large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, Prague, or Milan, as Mr. Deford proposes? One of the great things about the IIHF World Championships is that they don’t just belong to Moscow and Stockholm. They also belong to smaller places such as Riga, Tampere, and Ostrava, and, in 2008, to Halifax and Quebec City (14th and seventh in population respectively among major Canadian urban centers). The success of an event is not determined solely by the size of arenas or the number of five-star restaurants and hotels in the area.

As far as I’m concerned, basketball can do what it wants–although based on overall international results since 2002, it doesn’t appear the US should be so convinced of its supremacy in that sport that it could afford to withdraw from the Olympics.

But NHL participation in the Olympics is good for both parties, and with a proper view of long-term benefits, it should continue beyond the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. And as long as the league doesn’t insist on an absurdly short Olympic break, NHLers will almost universally be in favor of continuing.

Mr. Deford, think more globally, and step outside your comfort zone bubble. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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