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HARRIS: NHL keeping players out of future Olympics would win gold for stupidity

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Let's start with a question: Is the NHL stupid?

OK, that's rhetorical. Don't answer. The NHL is pretty much answering for itself by actually debating whether it will endorse its players participating in the Olympics when they roll around again in 2018.

A television report Monday morning said the league hoped to have an answer in six months.

It should take about six seconds, or less. Enough time to shout YES at the top of its collective lungs ought to be plenty of time.

Take this to the bank: The NHL needs the Olympics a lot more than the Olympics need the NHL. To deny its players the opportunity to play would be remarkably stupid and possibly damaging to the league.

It may not want to admit it, but hockey is a niche sport in the United States and that's where most of the NHL franchises are located. Yes, the NHL is one of the big four of professional sports but it is clearly fourth among those four.

Attendance may not be a problem in most arenas but making the big bucks goes beyond fans in seats. You want your sport to be so popular the numbers on the TV contract make your eyes hurt. You want merchandising sales to be off the charts.

The Olympics expose hockey to a lot of people who might not otherwise watch. Will they remain fans? Not all of them, but some of them. Over time, that adds up. To deny your sport the exposure of the Olympics would be absurd. And to deny the Olympics bring extra exposure is even more absurd.

Let's take a quick look at T.J. Oshie. How good is it to be Oshie right now, after his four goals in the shootout Saturday enabled Team USA to beat Russia in a preliminary game? His money is likely no good for years to come. He won't have to buy his own meals or drinks.

Before that shootout, Oshie probably wasn't very well known beyond the St. Louis area where he plays for the Blues, Minnesota where he calls home or among diehard hockey fans. He isn't close to a star, like Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. He's a solid, working-class type of player who in five-plus seasons with the Blues has never had more than 19 goals or 35 assists in a season.

For a local comparison, he's a Brooks Laich or a Troy Brouwer. That's not a knock on any of those men, they're just not household names nationally.

Now Oshie is a national hero, for something he did in a game that didn't even earn the U.S. a medal. The 27-year-old can expect huge cheers every time he skates onto the ice in an American arena the rest of the season.

His Twitter handle, @OSH74, was up to 235,270 followers as of Monday afternoon. That's an increase of about 150,000 since his shootout performance.

Yeah, he'd get that without the Olympics.

Here's another name — Mike Eruzione. He's arguably one of the biggest names in U.S. hockey history and he never played in the NHL. All he did was score the game-winning goal in Team USA's 4-3 victory over Russia in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., back when the Games were for amateurs only.

He was undrafted by any NHL team and though his showing in the Games certainly would have netted a look, he retired because he knew he'd likely never accomplish anything better than he already had.

That the NHL has some objections to the Games, given their timing, is understandable.

They disrupt the season, causing every team to take a two-week-plus Olympic break. Capitals coach Adam Oates, for instance, has five players participating in the Games and 15 on extended break. Some are relaxing at home. Some are sunning themselves at various vacation hotspots. How long will it take for teams to round into form once play resumes?

There's also the injury risk. The Caps have a difficult enough task ahead to qualify for the playoffs. Imagine if Ovechkin gets hurt while playing for Russia or Nicklas Backstrom goes down while playing for Sweden. Then it becomes an almost impossible task.

But as legit as those objections may be, they're not enough to keep the NHL from fully supporting Olympic participation. It's once every four years, not every year or every other year. The risk is there, the reward is greater.

Speaking from experience, at least one bar in Arlington was packed on Saturday for the game against Russia that started at 7:30 in the morning. The cheers of "OSHIE, OSHIE, OSHIE" lasted long after his shootout winner settled into the net. Odds are hardly anyone in the bar had heard of him before.

They know him now. Some might have taken a quick look at a Caps schedule to see when he was in town (earlier this season unfortunately).

As Ed Sherman noted in a post on his Sherman Report web site Monday, the Stanley Cup doesn't get the kind of attention a U.S. run to the goal medal game will get.

The NHL needs this. It cannot possibly think otherwise.

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