Commentary

Olympic hockey as NHL bounce? Nyet!

The NHL won't get much of a boost from the excitement in Vancouver, and that's OK

Updated: March 3, 2010, 9:04 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Other than Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, everyone seems to have emerged from the Vancouver Games with a more positive outlook on humanity. Russia finished sixth -- sixth! -- in the medal standings, with 15, and only three of those were gold. So Medvedev, a guy with a serious yearning for the rhetoric of the Cold War, is demanding heads roll (only figuratively, we presume) in the Russian Olympic hierarchy. The machine must once again churn forward.

"I think that the individuals responsible, or several of them, who answer for these preparations, should take the courageous decision to hand in their notice," Medvedev said. "If we don't see such decisiveness, we will help them."

[+] EnlargeRussian President Dmitry Medvedev
Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty ImagesDo not trifle with this man. Bringing only three gold medals home is not a good career move.

He didn't name any names, but we will once again presume you know who you are and Medvedev does, too. And if you're in doubt as to your culpability in the 15-medal mess, you might as well heed the call and resign, just in case Medvedev has a more ardent hankering for the old ways. So, in other words, chop-chop.

Meanwhile, in our little slab of North America, where the vibe is good and the medals are plenty, we have a much more pleasant issue to debate in the aftermath of the Games. We want to know, in our typically reactive way, whether the massive outpouring of interest in the Canada-U.S. gold-medal hockey game will usher in a golden age of hockey.

It appears we're seriously discussing whether the Olympic tournament, which included two fantastic games between the U.S. and Canada, will make us care about Thrashers-Blue Jackets in mid-April.

Before we get to the answer (you probably can guess), here's another question: Why do we even ask?

The Olympics weren't a referendum on the importance of hockey any more than Boise State's football success is a referendum on the importance of fake blue grass. The Olympic showdown with Canada combined nationalism, proximity and high stakes in a way the NHL can't match. It brought a lot of people to their TV sets because it was unique, dramatic and rare.

Unlike Thrashers-Blue Jackets, which is traditionally none of the three.

There's a deeper observation here, which we'll address with a glancing blow for fear of darkening the glow of Olympic hockey and ruining Medvedev's pout: Some of the worst journalism of the past quarter-century has been committed in the day after a team wins a championship. It doesn't matter the sport because the follow-up story is always the same: Will (insert winning team here) be able to repeat?

The answer, without exception, is: Who the hell cares?

The idea that Olympic hockey can be a watershed moment for hockey in general is a concept that follows the same line. Why can't it be appreciated for what it is and left at that? The NHL is not and never will be the NFL, MLB or even the NBA. There aren't enough people who relate to the sport, and there are fewer still with the means to pursue it adequately.

(The more important question regarding Olympic hockey is whether commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL will decide to prohibit players from competing in 2014. That would be a savagely stupid idea, which doesn't mean it won't happen.)

The Canadians must think the whole argument is humorous, given that hockey already means everything to them and the gold medal is clearly far more important than anything the NHL can offer. Are more of them going to watch the Senators and Sabres now? Probably not, since a good portion of them are watching anyway.

This is strangely similar to the constant prognosticating over soccer's next big breakthrough. Two or three generations after the supposed first big breakthrough, kids are still playing plenty of soccer, and some of them grow up to play it very well. The sport, however, goes mainstream only during the World Cup. No offense to either hockey or soccer, but in most of the U.S., we're just not pot-committed and probably never will be. We folded a long time ago, but we can still rally and feign expertise for the big games.

[+] EnlargeCanadian hockey fans
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesCanadians probably were going to watch NHL games regardless of what happened at the Olympics.

Our approach to Olympic hockey is not much different from our approach to the rest of the cool Olympic sports. For example: short-track speedskating. Apolo Ohno against the Canadians and the Koreans is riveting television, and wonderful theater, and you can tell it's one of the marquee events of the Games because the finals of its events were always televised after 10 p.m. ET. Great as it is, though, its greatness is defined by its unusual nature and once-every-four-years frequency.

If some enterprising types extrapolated the interest we show in Olympic short-track and attempted to start a professional short-track league, they would learn the limits of our interest. A three-game series between the Kansas City Blades and the Minneapolis FingerPads wouldn't move the needle.

This is not to disparage the NHL. The league is perhaps more valuable today than it was Saturday, and the only thing that can hurt that in the short term is for Bettman to succumb further to his fetish for southward expansion by announcing the formation of the Guadalajara Gray Wolves.

Because in the end, it isn't a bad thing that half the country can now flip past a Sabres game and say, "Hey, there's that Miller guy. Remember him from the Olympics?"

It's far better than the alternative. We could all be standing around staring at our feet, cursing Evgeni Plushenko's choice of music and wondering, "Does Dmitry mean me?"

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com