There is something truly incredible about the Yale men’s hockey coach, Keith Allain ’80, serving as an assistant coach for an American team loaded with former Yale players. On Wednesday at the Pyeongchang Olympics, Marc Arcobello ’10, Broc Little ’11 and Brian O’Neill ’12 will begin play for Team USA.
But the former Bulldogs are playing only because, for the first time since 1980, the National Hockey League has prohibited its players from attending the Olympic Games. So let’s not get too blinded by our hometown biases. As fun as this is for a Yale fan, the dearth of the world’s top talent is disappointing, isn’t it?
But first, let’s step back and look at why the NHL prohibited its athletes from playing.
The NHL claims that it simply wants to keep its athletes healthy. Since 1980, the NHL has made up for taking a break during the Olympics by condensing the rest of the season, thereby exposing its players to far greater danger. On the face of it, this seems like a legitimate argument. After all, John Tavares, Henrik Zetterberg, Aleksander Barkob and Tomas Kopecky all lost the remainder of their seasons to injuries because of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Moreover, it seems that the NHL’s decision is not motivated by altruism; its original complaint belied the falsehood it attempted to perpetuate. The NHL balked because the IOC wouldn’t insure its players. The league worried about compensation for an injury, not the injuries themselves. This is not a health issue. It’s a money issue.
Yet, ironically, if we are to climb into the skin of an owner and, as it were, walk around in it, one still has to question the decision because, even financially, it doesn’t make sense.
At the moment, the NHL has plans to expand into the Asian markets. Next season, the league will hold preseason games in China. It’s a business decision that needs little explanation. China is an entirely untapped market of literally more than a billion people; unlike Russia or most of Europe, China does not have a government-sponsored league. Viewers are ripe for the taking.
One merely has to look at the National Basketball Association to see the effects of expanding into the Asian market. According to U.S.A Today, last season 700 million people in China watched games. Although the league already had a strong foothold, the 2008 Beijing Olympics served as the launching pad for the cultural phenomenon that the NBA has become in China. For instance, it was then that China’s obsession with Kobe Bryant, whom the Chinese have dubbed “Little Flying Warrior,” took flight.
Why, then, has the NHL denied itself the opportunity to market its players in Korea and, as it seems to be threatening, in the 2022 Beijing Winter Games?
Thus, any way you look at the NHL’s decision, you have to question the truth of its reasoning, and its conclusion as well. But what about the athletes?
NHL athletes play in the NHL because it’s the world’s most talented and high-profile league. As a result, although it’s called the National Hockey League, the vast majority of its players are, in fact, not from this nation. Thus, playing in the NHL, for the foreign 86.9 percent of the league, means living and playing in another nation, for another nation. In this way, the Olympics serve as an NHL athlete’s chance for patriotism, the opportunity to don a country’s colors, to skate alongside his fellow countrymen — and maybe even to watch his flag lift in the air, his happiness only weighed down by the medal on his neck.
But even for the Americans, the importance of the Winter Games cannot be quantified. You would be hard pressed to find a sports fan whose heart doesn’t race when he hears Al Michaels’ famous words, “Do you believe in Miracles? YES.”
But wait, wasn’t the 1980 U.S. Olympic team bereft of NHL talent? Weren’t they all amateurs stacked up against the Soviet Union professional “amateurs” — who were, in reality, athletes paid by shadow companies? Yes and yes. So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the current U.S. team, populated by non-NHL players and an amateur or two, has the makings of another miracle on the ice. As it stands now, the team is noteworthy for a truly landmark reason. Current Boston University player Jordan Greenway made the Olympic roster. He is now the first African-American ever selected for our nation’s men’s Olympic hockey team.
So here’s to the hope that I’m utterly wrong. Here’s to our Olympic team full of Yale athletes who didn’t make it in the NHL, a former player who returned to his college to coach and the first African American in a national team’s 98-year history. Here’s to hoping for another miracle, because it just might take that to beat the Olympic athletes from Russia.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org