NHL should get younger at Olympics

Updated: February 24, 2006, 1:17 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

By now, I hope it's apparent that:

a) I not only support, but have advocated, the NHL's participation in the Winter Olympics;

b) That has little or nothing to do with North American xenophobia. In fact, through the years, and long before the quarterfinal flop, I found the stories involving the European teams to be as interesting as, or far more interesting than, those tied to the often blinkered North American coverage of the Canadian and United States teams.

A puck

c) So, what I am about to say isn't sour North American Grapes. I have disdain for my fellow North Americans who will be saying, "See, let's take the pucks and go home … because 'we' lost." And much of that is going to be coming from writers who need to be at an Olympics to cover hockey, or be offered a sizable check to comment on it in front of a camera after a talking-point controversy (e.g., Bertuzzi or Gretzky).

There's a way for the NHL to have the best of both worlds -- the continuation of the World Cup in 2008 and every four years after that, and also Olympic participation and exposure in Vancouver in 2010 and every four years after that.

Go younger at the Olympics.

Make the World Cup, which primarily has been an NHL-NHLPA production, the showcase for "open" participation at the end of the summer, every four years. That means USA Hockey, if it hasn't learned its lesson, can continue its practice of picking a team largely on the basis of brownie points for past service and seniority. And at least, when the medal rounds are played in North America, Team Canada can stand a better chance of getting away with thinking that becomes more archaic with each added square foot on an international ice sheet.

Then, at the Olympics, showcase the younger talent.

No, don't go back to the era of "college kids." That turn-back-the-page view often comes from Americans who watched "Miracle" and think not just the hockey world, but the world period, is the same as it was in 1980. Thankfully, the Berlin Wall isn't going back up and the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia aren't going to be reassembled, with their best players essentially indentured.

In actual practice, the "go-back" approach would mean, "Round 'em up anywhere you can."

Pulling the NHL out of the Winter Games completely would make a mess of the Olympic hockey competition, with teams assembled under scrambling approaches, whether that means "kids," minor-league pros, or the Trail Smoke Eaters. If the NHL "loaned" out a few players as its season continued -- that could be called the Jim Peplinski Rule -- it would be closer to the annual World Championships, when players from NHL non-playoff teams or early losers are begged to play. But that's not necessarily anything to run up the Olympic flagpole.

Lillehammer in 1994 was a fun competition (especially for the Swedes and Peter Forsberg), but the hockey world has changed since then, and the NHL, for both selfish and world-view reasons, should stay in the Games.

Here's how:

The IIHF and the NHL should agree to make the Olympics a 25-and-under competition. The Switzerland-based IIHF won't do handsprings over that, but it would come around -- if that's presented as the only alternative and a win-win proposition.

And all the teams should be put together with the age limit as the inviolable standard, so the ice is even.

Soccer, in part because of the primacy of its World Cup, takes that approach. The Summer Games men's soccer competition is for players 23 and younger, with three exceptions per team. It still can be fun, an on-field preview of coming attractions and an under-the-flame celebration of its top young talent.

The NHL still could shut down for the Games and embrace and celebrate its involvement, both before and after the Olympics. Heck, the way the schedule works now, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin visit each Western Conference city once every 18 years or something like that, so this would be another way to get them and others in the New or Next Wave in the spotlight, in an atmosphere in which even non-hockey fans are paying attention.

And it would fit.

Amid the concentration of "success" and "failure," on medal counts, on endorsement possibilities measured under a gold standard, and even on national angst when highly-paid pros flop (see Sweden in 2002, and Canada in 2006), this sometimes gets overlooked.

In most cases, as corny as it sounds, the athletes have little hope of winning a medal and consider the Olympics an extraordinary, defining fortnight in their lives. You get a better feel for that watching the Opening Ceremonies, for example. And it sinks in more every Olympiad that, despite the graying in some sports, it is a young phenomenon.

Young people being around each other, in competition, in the Village, in pin-trading and e-mail exchanges. Curling doesn't require youthful exuberance and elite conditioning, but that's part of the point: The Olympic sports where age and conditioning aren't as important often are getting their quadrennial high-profile exposure.

So, while I see nothing wrong with making the Olympics the open tournament during an NHL shutdown, maybe there's a way to preserve the World Cup, as well. As it stands now, the NHL (or, more important, the NHLPA) is showing signs of killing off the World Cup because it's too much of a hassle in a tandem with the Olympics. It's a shutdown and the Olympics one year, then a summer, out-of-season tournament two years later. Absolutely, NHL players deserve credit for their passion in wanting to represent their countries, but there's a way to have it both ways.

Go to the age limit at the Olympics.

Continue to make the World Cup the every-four-years open competition, and also keep open the possibility of playing the medal rounds in Europe.

There wouldn't be national pressures on veterans to participate in the Olympics or even wanting to make the team because of some sense of peer competition.

If 25-and-under was the standard this time, Rick DiPietro, John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold would have been the Americans' graybeards, and Ryan Miller -- among others -- would have been an automatic choice. The Canadians would have had Crosby not just in uniform, but in a leading role.

Don't make it the World Junior Championships, but make it the NHL's young stars.

The NHL would get credit for remaining involved, and it would get something out of it on the promotional level.

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."