It shouldn't take Games to celebrate NHL's diversity

Updated: February 16, 2006, 5:52 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

So, the boys are off in Italy, playing for their nations while the majority of NHL players get a break before returning to practice late next week.

That's great, especially because the NHL Olympians generally, almost without exception, were thrilled to be named to the teams. And it wasn't because they were thinking about endorsements, prestige, "respect" or medal bonus possibilities.

They wanted to be there.

Next, regardless of how the medal tournament plays out, the NHL needs to find ways to take advantage of the Olympic exposure -- more so than in the wake of the 1998 Games at Nagano and even the 2002 Games at Salt Lake City.

It isn't only a matter of trying to draw in casual fans who found themselves paying attention to hockey on the international stage during their channel surfing, but of thumping the league's chest, so to speak, about the diverse talent pool and the mind-set of the sport.

Otherwise, why bother?

First off, the NHL never has gotten sufficient credit for its commitment to the Olympics. Sure, the league's motives aren't completely altruistic, and because it is a business, the league's motives can't be completely altruistic. Gary Bettman isn't just hoping to pal around with International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee officials, and maybe even meet -- if he's lucky -- Katarina Witt.

Think of the reaction from the other major-league sports to proposals to shut down during the Olympics so players could participate in the Games. Yes, it's farfetched in our version of football. Yet, at least the U.S. and Canada could field teams in the North American version of football, which is about the same thing you can say for women's hockey, right? Aren't there sports in which Norway kicks everyone's lutefisk? And isn't the NFL bragging about the spreading of football to other parts of the world?

No matter.

Though the NBA has jumped into Olympic participation because the Summer Games makes it convenient, and Major League Baseball has embraced the World Baseball Classic, and also allowed some peripheral participation of pros in previous Summer Games, in-season shutdowns wouldn't be bona fide possibilities.

The NHL is doing it for a third time.

Of course, some interpret the NHL's participation as an in-house acknowledgment of the sport's No. 4 status, and even of the notion that other sports don't have to seek the Olympic spotlight because they don't need to. That's probably the view of many U.S. journalists, who will be opining after hockey games in Italy but have yet bothered to show up or write about NHL games within a 20-minute drive of their homes in major U.S. markets. Or even of the writers who have been pontificating about Wayne Gretzky, Janet Jones Gretzky and Rick Tocchet, yet couldn't name three players on NHL teams in their own (or closest) NHL markets.

The World Cup, whether in 1996 or 2004, doesn't get nearly as much attention outside the natural hockey constituency as do the Olympics.

Granted.

But the NHL is there!

That simple step hasn't been sufficiently saluted.

In this case, the NHL eventually would have been able to get away with skipping Torino because of the lockout and then committing to stepping back in the Olympics at Vancouver.

So when the season resumes, the NHL should indulge in some self-congratulation and not be ashamed of it. If Canada doesn't win the gold medal? If the U.S. doesn't medal at all? So what? The NHL would have had the pride in its product and the world-view to put its product back in the international spotlight. This is not the NHL only having a goal of pandering to the nationalistic television and other media coverage (regardless of the nation), waving flags and honing in on the fate of one team.

Hockey is truly an international phenomenon. The NHL's new wave of marketing is trying to take advantage of that, and that's good for the game, and even the revenue stream in the new partnership between the league and the players.

Hockey fans, in North America and around the globe, see the bigger picture, even if we in the media aren't always that progressive.

When Latvia ties the United States, many hockey fans get it. The story isn't just the Americans' underachievement in their first game off the plane. The story also is the first-day pluckiness of a team from a tiny Baltic nation that has regained its independence and has a roster with only two current NHL players (Sandis Ozolinsh and Karlis Skrastins) and only one other player currently skating in a North American pro league (Maris Ziedins of the ECHL's Stockton, Calif., franchise). Anaheim's Ozolinsh, the wandering Latvian, standing out on the international sheet is just as big a story to true NHL fans as what "happened" to the Americans.

If Slovakia pulls off more upsets, hockey fans will be considering it poetic justice after the way the Slovaks had to run NHL players in and out of Salt Lake City during the preliminary round.

There are plenty of other examples to be cited, of course, as the Games play out.

Rather than consider the internationalization of the NHL talent pool to be something only grudgingly accepted (and that attitude still lingers in some caves), this is a hockey reality that should be emphasized at every opportunity.

Most NHL teams introduced their Olympic-bound players at their final home games before the break. In Detroit Sunday, for example, players' children skated out with the Wings' Olympic sweaters, and it was a class act. Around the NHL, the attitude indeed was worldly. The Americans weren't only being exhorted to win one for the memory of Herb Brooks, or the Canadians weren't being told to bring back the gold to reassert the nation's claim to primacy on ice, but the league's players were being sent off with arenas full of heartfelt best wishes.

There's a fine line, of course.

You don't have to be a redneck to at least bristle a bit when baseball players literally wrap themselves in flags while wearing major league uniforms. At that point, such nationalism is extraneous, especially considering the way MLB has enriched so many players from beyond the U.S. borders.

So we can do without players from Sweden, for example, waving the blue and yellow flag in any sort of NHL team context, whether after winning the Stanley Cup or otherwise. The NHL should continue to luxuriate in its diversity of homelands, without giving the traditionalists a face wash.

But how about little flag patches on sweaters, signifying the home nations of the players? The NHL did that under the old World vs. North America All-Star format, and if it means a parent might have to explain, or learn about, the breakup of the Soviet Union, all the better.

Further emphasize what an amazing phenomenon it is that players from around the globe -- Russians, Czechs, Swedes, Finns -- understand the magic of the Stanley Cup and seem to get just as intoxicated in its presence as a guy from Swift Current, Fort McMurray or St. Paul.

Continue to take the world view. Brag about it. Celebrate it. Don't apologize for it, to anyone. Play not just to the current NHL constituency, but try to join a new wave of intelligent, world-view fans who might be disgusted with the "me-first, don't-get-respect" attitudes in other sports, even those with some international flavor on their rosters.

The biggest compliment to the sport is that of all exposed to it, the world has embraced it. That extends to Europe, but also to the overlooked aspect of the game's expansion in the United States -- the amazing boom in youth hockey and rink construction in non-traditional areas after the NHL's arrival. Just one example: Some of the U.S. college game's top players, including Wisconsin's Robbie Earl, Denver's Gabe Gauthier and Colorado College's Brett Sterling, are from the Los Angeles area.

It's an international NHL -- and not just when the Olympic flame is lit.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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