A word of warning: Hockey fans should try to soak in the starshine in Vancouver this coming Olympic tournament.
That's because there's little guarantee that, come the next Winter Olympiad in Russia in 2014, National Hockey League players will participate. That in turn is because there is no agreement currently in place between the league and the National Hockey League Players' Association for the event, and a decision is still pending.
The fact that a decision is pending is due to several factors: Of course, it is four years away. Most notably, though, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is dragging his heels presumably representing the best interests of the owners of his league, as he is tasked with doing on a day-to-day basis.
Admittedly, Bettman does have several "good" points. The reason that is quoted most often is that the Games would present the league with a competitive disadvantage once the NHL resumes play following the tournament. As some teams send more players than others, those teams will logically have an unfair disadvantage with more tired players having perhaps sustained more risk of injury.
Dissecting this point further, one can make a roundabout argument that the teams that send more players are actually the ones blessed with more superstar talent and are the ones more likely to be at the top of the standings. So, having more tired and potentially injured players following the Olympic break would actually act as an equalizer of sorts.
When it all boils down to it however, justified or not, the owners and Bettman are saying that the risk of star players getting injured outside of NHL action is not worth it. I say "not justified".
For starters, players have a long history of getting injured outside of the game. Whether the NHL allows its players to go to Russia or not, there's always a chance, hypothetically speaking of course, that St. Louis Blues defenseman Erik Johnson could get his leg stuck in between the brake and accelerator pedals of a golf cart and injure his knee in the process, thereby missing an entire season of hockey. But that's just crazy talk, isn't it? And, besides, if that does happen, the league can just go and forbid players from playing golf the rest of their individual careers, right?
Second of all, this argument of Bettman's would actually hold more water if the league did more to protect its players on the league's own ice than it does currently. While it is admittedly an NHLPA issue as well, players are allowed to wear their helmets visor-free, presenting the higher possibility of eye-related injuries that could end any given player's career. But, then, it isn't as if there was ever a tendency for players to not wear helmets, right? I mean, it just isn't possible for the league to usher in a mandatory need for players to start wearing a certain piece of equipment, like smaller goalie pads? No? Didn't think so.
But, then, Bettman wouldn't want to stir the pot by disgruntling any players that actually like not wearing visors. I mean it's not like he's positioning himself and the league for a bitter feud with the players, trying to keep them from playing for their home countries in 2014, right?
Already, Russian players like Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin have spoken out that they would like to play for Russia. Ovechkin, in particular, has said that he will play for Russia no matter what the consequences are, implying he would be okay with being suspended or worse.
It's somewhat convenient that Ovechkin would say something to that effect, because (nothing against Alexander "The Great") the league had passed on several opportunities to suspend him before giving him a modest two-game ban for a knee-on-knee hit on Carolina Hurricane Tim Gleason earlier this season. Had the hit been committed by someone with less star value, it is very arguable that the suspension would have been more severe.
Meanwhile, shots to the head and hits from behind (Ovechkin actually hit Buffalo Sabre Patrick Kaleta from behind a few games prior to the Carolina game and didn't get suspended at all) are becoming so much more common in recent years that the physical nature of the NHL brand is perhaps one of the leading reasons that the lack of respect amongst players is being translated into the junior ranks.
The double standard that exists in the NHL is incredibly offensive to actual born-and-bred hockey fans, not to mention it is helping to perpetuate the false illusion that it is okay for players to commit such heinous acts themselves. It's a vicious circle of sorts that the NHL brass can help to stop, but seem to choose not to by allowing players like Ovechkin get away with murder just so they can score points.
So, to conclude, it is understandable that Bettman would want to keep the NHL's players safe and sound without any risk to the product he is trying to sell. Still, it would seem that the NHL has done such a great job in recent years of allowing its players to get hurt on it own watch, that maybe Bettman's focus could be pointed in a more constructive direction, like cleaning up the NHL before he worries about what happens on the international stage.
Hell, maybe he should worry about what's going on on the national stage in America, if he needs to start somewhere: Dwindling television ratings, half-empty buildings in markets below the Sun Belt (markets he helped to fill with NHL teams, by the way), and a general lack of exposure that would arguably cripple the National Football League if it were in the same position. Pretty obvious that any exposure, even international exposure, could do the game some good.
What's that other reason Bettman uses in his argument against allowing the players to go to Russia? Oh, yeah…
"It's difficult for any business to shut down for two weeks with the attendant loss of attention and everything that flows from that," he said.
It's become pretty apparent that the attendant loss of attention came long ago, and an attendant loss of attention that he had a hand in. Mr. Bettman, let the players go to Russia. It can't do any more damage that's already been done.