The Olympics have begun and the eyes of the world are on Vancouver and the athletes representing their various countries. Years of training and intense qualifying now come to fruition for some of the world's most elite athletes. In response and respect to the Olympics, the NHL stops play this season so that its athletes can represent their respective countries.
There has been some debate in the NHL about its players representing their home country in the Olympics. General Managers and coaches worry about injuries or the physical demands of competing in intense competition, and they have valid concerns. After all, the teams are the ones that are writing the sizeable paychecks for these athletes. Losing a player due to injury in the Olympics will have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of an NHL team. With the compression of the NHL schedule to accomodate the Olympics, there is a legitimate concern that returning Olympic particpants will be fatigued during the critical stretch run to the playoffs.
These are serious concerns for any NHL club that has some of its members participating in the intense Olympic competition. This is sure to be an issue in the next negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement between the League and the Players Association.
I had an opportunity to visit with Ryan Suter and Martin Erat, two of the Olympians on the Nashville Predators team, and we spoke briefly about participating in the Olympics. Just a few moments into the conversation, it was very apparent that these two athletes relished the thought of playing for their respective countries. Competing on the world stage was a dream for them and they looked forward with eager anticipation the challenge that awaited them. Their excitement was tangible and their enthusiasm for what awaited them was real.
As a hockey fan, I look forward to watching those two athletes compete for my team in the NHL. They are valuable members of the Predators. I tend to focus on the NHL, the competition against other teams in the League, and where my team sits in the playoff race.
Our converstion made me realize that hockey, for these elite athletes that are called to compete on the international stage, is even bigger than my team or the League itself. The NHL athletes that will compete in the Olympics are competing against some of the best athletes in the world, but more importantly in their eyes, they are competing for their country. The pride in being called to represent their country is something that, as an NHL fan, I have not fully grasped.
The league will begin a two week Olympic hiatus and will take a backseat to the Olympic competition. This competition is not just about winning medals, important as that is. It is about the pride of pulling on the sweater of your country and representing your homeland with the world watching.
The labor negotiations will certainly be contentious between the League and the Players Association. There will be demands made from both sides as they work to renew the collective bargaining agreement. I, for one hope that the League will not take a hardline stand against allowing NHL players to participate in the Olympics. After talking to two of the participants from the Predators, I have a new understanding and appreciation of their desire to compete on this stage.
Olympic hockey, and hockey itself, will be showcased before the world. People that would not normally pay attention to hockey will be aware of the game. This is positive for the game. To eliminate that exposure would be, in my opinion, shortsighted.
The pride that these athletes feel in representing their country is real and the enthusiasm is tangible. The League should build on that energy to grow the game we all love.
Congratulations to all the NHL athletes representing your country in the Olympics. Live the dream and enjoy the moment.