Should the NHL participate in the Games beyond 2010?
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: With the surprisingly early buzz surrounding hockey's involvement in the Vancouver Olympics, should the NHL continue to participate in the Games beyond 2010?
Scott: Hello, Damian. Everywhere I look, I'm reading discussions and debates about the Vancouver Olympics, which are just under two years away. I see you wrote on it earlier this week. I did as well. What's the deal? Why are people so pumped about an event that's some 730 days away?
Damien: Well, I can't speak for the United States of America and how much interest there is there as of yet. But here in Canada, this will be, of course, the first Olympics held in our country since the Calgary Games in 1988. There's been a major initiative called "Own The Podium," a plan for Canada to win the 2010 medal race for the first time (we didn't win a single gold in Calgary). Our skiers are back in business, but, of course, the men's hockey team will garner more attention than anything else, at least in Canada. It could also be the last time NHLers play in the Olympics. I don't know how you feel about that, but I think it once again illustrates the lack of long-term thinking in the NHL.
And my name is still Dami-E-n, Skott.
Scott: Do you think it's a subliminal thing? I actually paused before I wrote the first note.
Damien: No, I think you're just not very bright.
Scott: ANYWAY ... I've been surprised by the amount of discussion stateside on the Olympics; specifically, what the U.S. team might look like, who might manage it, who will coach it and I think it's a fait accompli (I still remember some of my Grade 10 French) that Vancouver will be the last we see of the NHL at these tournaments. Maybe that's added to the anticipation of the Vancouver event. I must admit, I am torn on the end of the NHL experiment. Of course, it has nothing to do with the hockey (which is pretty much always spectacular), but that the owners don't like what the Olympics do to the NHL's regular season. And given the number of players that came up bumped or bruised in Torino in 2006, I guess I understand the reluctance to have players parading around the world every four years. How do you feel about the end of the NHL/Olympic shindig?
Damien: Well, I think if everyone goes all non-NHLers, there will be a certain intrigue. But isn't this completely contrary to the entire push to play games in Europe, which you and I discussed two weeks ago? If you're trying to increase your global reach, why in the world would you pull out of the biggest planetary sports competition?
Scott: Well, there is a slight difference between sending a couple of teams (OK, four) to Stockholm and Prague for four or five days before the start of the "real" regular season and stopping an entire 30-team league for three weeks to play games that no one can see unless they're suffering from insomnia. Everyone agrees (or, at least, publicly seems to agree) the NHL can't parachute in and out of the Olympics. If that's the case, then as much as it's nice to have the NHL in the tournament, I don't see how it can move forward after Vancouver when the 2014 Games are in the remote Russian resort town of Sochi (I had to look that up, by the way). It's been nice, but so long.
Damien: Interesting. Nagano good, but Sochi too far away? Are you serious? And, as a sidebar, is there absolutely any NHL official policy you disagree with? Or if commissioner Gary Bettman says, "This is the plan," Burnside says, "Great idea, sir"?
Scott: Well, I wasn't in Nagano in 1998, but given the number of players who bailed on the Torino Olympics (Markus Naslund, Scott Niedermayer) and the ones who ended up having their seasons impaired after playing there (Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr), I'm not sure how you can justify traveling more than halfway around the world to play. What is the benefit when no one in North America can see the games at a reasonable time? If we're talking growing the game, I don't begrudge the Russians having the tournament, but I don't see how it helps the NHL to be there. As for NHL policy, as you know, this isn't a policy, but a widespread belief. And I was not in favor when the NHL decided to stop putting beer in the press rooms. I protested vigorously, for the record.
Damien: I believe you suggest bourbon as a replacement beverage, but were voted down. See, this is the attitude that has hamstrung the league for so long. Being part of the Olympics isn't solely about what it does or doesn't do for the NHL. Sometimes, the time zones will work (Vancouver); sometimes, they won't. But it's about being part of an enormous sporting festival every four years (not every year) and about doing something for the good of the game. The game, remember that?
If you're so worried about injuries, by the way, why is it you thought it was so fabulous to let the lads play outside on New Year's Day on bad ice? It's a sport; sometimes people get hurt playing for their countries. With your perspective, there would be no World Cup of Soccer or any sport in which professionals play for their countries.
Scott: Oh yes, the World Cup; the tournament of the perpetually injured, moaning, wailing athlete. I didn't say the Olympics were a bad idea. I just understand why the NHL doesn't necessarily want its players disappearing for the better part of a month even if it is just once every four years. I love the hockey and I love players' playing for their countries. But how would the Olympics in Russia be any better for "the game" (and I genuflected when I wrote that for your benefit) than having a World Cup of Hockey event every four years with a schedule that appealed to the greatest number of fans of "the game"? I take it you think the NHL should be in the Olympics wherever they are, no matter what?
Damien: Spare me another World Cup of Hockey. What drudgery. How about this. If you're so worried about those aging, delicate NHL Players' Association athletes, what about keeping NHLers in by making this an under-23 proposition? That's what international soccer has done with Olympics. So, poor Dominik and Jaromir can rest their weary bones while the Ovechkins, Getzlafs and Kessels go after it.
Scott: Did you think the original World Cup of Hockey in 1996 was drudgery? No? I didn't think so. Why was that? Because the Olympics weren't an option for the NHL. You haven't answered my question about why you think it's so crucial for the NHL to be at the Olympics?
Damien: I think I have. Because it's good global exposure for the game and the athletes on the world's biggest stage, and because, in Nagano, Salt Lake City and Torino, it produced pretty spectacular competition. It's pretty straightforward, actually. And how about my under-23 idea?
Scott: I think it's a nice idea except you have the same issues; think owners will be happy to have Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, et al, out of commission for a month? And you think television ratings stink now. OK, on to more important things. If you were the head of Hockey Canada (and I'm not suggesting you're not) who do you pick as your GM and coach?
Damien: Combo for GM -- Wayne Gretzky with Steve Yzerman. Coach? Um, um, um & how about Mike Babcock?
Scott: I wonder if Gretzky would come back as GM after things went so sour in Torino. But I think having him behind the bench with Babcock and Andy Murray might not be a bad thing. Like the idea of Ken Holland and Yzerman at the helm. How about for our boys in red, white and blue here in the U.S.?
Damien: You should know, by the way, that a poll this week listed Gretzky as the favorite to light the Olympic flame in Vancouver. Not that it's important or useful for the NHL to be part of the Olympics. Only about 20 zillion people will see a hockey player receive that particular honor. In reference to Team USA, I would always turn first to Lou Lamoriello, but it seems that ship has sailed. What about Brett Hull at the top? He seems to have things humming along in Dallas with Les Jackson at his side.
Scott: I had no idea you were a man so enthused by ceremony. And I've never suggested it's not a good idea for the NHL to be in Vancouver. I can't wait. Ah yes, Brett Hull, the golfing GM. He's really whipped that Dallas team into shape. Have they made a single personnel move since taking over? If you're looking for a good quote and someone who actually knows what he's doing, I don't think you can look further than Brian Burke. And I know the coaching pool is shallow relative to what Hockey Canada has to work with, but I'd love to see John Tortorella take the job with Peter Laviolette and Ron Wilson as assistants. Boy, that would be fun, at least for the press corps. And after all, it's all about us, no?
Damien: Agreed. Don't tell me if they can play, coach or manage -- can they talk is the central issue. I'm sure Burke will be the No. 1 choice for USA Hockey, although he may have some issues working with that crew.
Scott: OK, before we go, give me one Canadian and one American few people would consider Olympians right now, but who you think we might be talking about two years from now when we're enjoying our last NHL Olympics in Vancouver.
Scott: I think we'll be talking about Green on the Canadian blue line. The guy's been an absolute force for the Caps and one of the main reasons the team is in the playoff hunt (OK, there's this guy named Ovechkin, too). As for the U.S., I am thinking Matt Niskanen, the young defenseman with the Dallas Stars who has been impressive, as has forward David Booth in Florida. Stay tuned. Just two more years of this. Until next week?
Damien: Let's pick up this discussion in Naples, Fla., next week while the GMs break bread together. We'll call it a plan.
Scott: Until then.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."