Is a Return to the Olympic Dark Ages at Hand?
October 3, 2016 | 10:58pm ET
By Josh Brewster
CA -- For much of the 20th century, Olympic hockey was a strange
competition. Before accepting professional athletes in the 1980s,
communist bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia and the
Soviet Union were able to field elite talent due to the fact that
under communism, the players were effectively “amateurs,” while free
countries such as Canada and the United States sent junior-age
players, collegians, also semi- and former-pros.
The disparity in the playing field created a strange history: Elite
talent in communist countries faced lesser talents, while the
countries which housed the top league in the world -- the NHL -- never
got to display their countries’ real talents.
Equal competition between countries was established elsewhere, first
during the 1972 and 1974 Summit series, then subsequent Canada Cup
tournaments in 1976, 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991. Additional exhibition
series between NHL clubs and the Red Army and other elite squads were
also held prior to the fall of communism. Since then, the 1996, 2004
and 2016 World Cup competitions were held.
The Dark Ages
Before pros were admitted and the NHL began participating in 1998,
Olympic hockey existed in a sort of Dark Ages.
The drama came to a head at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics at the
height of the Cold War when the historic “Miracle on Ice” took place,
as a group of U.S. collegians won gold.
During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, culminating in the fall
of communism --which thankfully crumbled under its own weight in the
early 1990s -- a series of notable and breathtakingly brave defections
including the Stastny brothers, fellow Czech Petr Klima, also Russians
such as Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, amongst others.
The history is mostly lost on subsequent generations, sadly, who don’t
understand what pressure and potential punishment players like Slava
Fetisov and Igor Larionov faced at the hands of their communist
“Amateur” was a strange word as pertained to Russian talent 30-40
years ago, indeed. Fetisov, one of the game’s all-time great
defensemen, toiled under a communist system that kept him and his
peers in barracks for most of the year, while a brutal training
regimen included skating as much as eight grueling hours per day, led
by coaches such as Vladimir Tikhonov, who was, just to make things
even more tense, a KGB agent.
The state-sponsored “amateur” Fetisov was given favors granted to few
Russians, including living in one of the swankiest high-rise
apartments in Moscow. Of course, the Soviets could always take such
privileges away at any time.
As Barry Melrose recounted on ESPN during the 2016 World Cup,
defenseman Alex Zhitnik once mentioned that if a Soviet coach wanted
to teach his “amateur” a lesson, he could always send that player to
the army. Captivity was no joke.
End of the Dark Ages
By 1998, the NHL got its just due when its professional players
appeared at the Olympics for the first time. The playing field now
leveled, 1980’s “Miracle” by the U.S.A. grew in stature and was
cemented in history as something that will never happen again, a Cold
War pinnacle that will never be repeated in the post-Cold War world.
Since 1998, when the NHL joined the Olympic tournament, Canada and the
U.S. have been given their just desserts, the playing field leveled.
Conversely, Europeans have competed knowing that their efforts are not
marred by a perversion of the term “amateur.” Canada has rightly
earned its dominant position in the sport, enjoying huge success at
Which brings us to the current situation, with the NHL re-launching
its “World Cup.”
The NHL is now embroiled in a tense standoff with the International
Olympic Committee, whose 2018 Games will be held in South Korea, and
2022, in China.
The IOC and its new president, Thomas Bach, have suggested that costs
used to cover such items including transportation, insurance, and
accommodations, will not be offered in the future, even though they
have during the previous five Olympics during which the NHL sent its
“All things being equal, we want to go,” said NHLPA boss Donald Fehr,
around the time NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman openly railed against
the proposed cost shift to the NHL.
The League knows that its players want to be there. The League’s
owners, however, have every right to question the practice of shutting
down the NHL for weeks at a time during February, which is a crucial
month in the season since the last third of the 82-game campaign is
prime time for playoff races and the only real competition is
basketball after the NFL’s Super Bowl during the first week of that
Famous players such as Alex Ovechkin have stated that they have every
intention to go to the Games. If the NHL avoids the next Olympics, the
onus could shift to its member clubs if star players like Ovechkin
decide to take a leave of absence from their gigs.
You can empathize with both owners and players on this one.
From a management perspective, it’s a costly endeavor and while the
Olympics broadens hockey’s reach; it’s too much of the regular season
to sacrifice. When the Games were in Salt Lake or Vancouver, well,
that’s one thing. When they’re halfway across the globe, it gets
From the players’ perspective, they don’t want to be denied a lifelong
“I think that’s got to count for something,” said Jonathan Toews of
the fact that many players want the NHL to continue its participation.
“The Olympics is a huge stage for our sport. The best players should
be there, and that’s an opinion I think I share with a lot of players.
There’s an element there that transcends our sport, and we can draw
more and more fans from around the world.”
“Our experience with the Olympics has been a mixed bag -- it’s not our
tournament, we’re not in control of it, it’s at a time of the year
that doesn’t work in our regular-season schedule,” NHL Deputy
Commissioner Bill Daly told the Wall Street Journal. “On the positive
side, we recognize we’re on a world-wide stage.”
As for the just-completed World Cup of Hockey, the NHL and NHLPA are
celebrating unity between the long-acrimonious parties. This despite
questions about whether any country can supplant Canada as tops in the
game (not likely), iffy TV ratings (Game 1 of the Canada/Europe final
yielded ESPN just under 500,000 viewers, while Game 2 fell just short
of 300,000), and whether locales in addition to Toronto should be
considered are all future concerns. The League is happy with its
inaugural re-launch of the tournament, and the Olympic brass will have
to take note.
Cold War Over, Green War Brews
If the NHL stays home and continues to offer the World Cup event every
few years to fill the Olympic void, what of the Olympics? Does it
become an Under-22 tournament? Do we get a mixed bag of collegians and
junior players, or retired veterans, mixed in with renegade NHL stars
that skip out on their clubs for three weeks in February 2018 and
2022? A new format of that type would signal the onset of a sort of
Dark-Ages-in-Reverse, if you will, that takes quite a bit of luster
off Olympic hockey medals.
Money talks, however, and if the governing bodies for Olympic hockey (IIHF,
IOC) changes their stance and coughs up the funds to keep the NHL from
having to fork over, “many millions of dollars,” as Bettman put it
recently, it’s a pretty good bet that the NHL will go to the 2018
Games and keep a potentially bad situation between management and
players from occurring.
Additionally, the 2022 Games in China would also be very attractive to
a league that wants to continue its unprecedented growth.
It says here that what the NHL provides deserves to be paid handsomely
by the International Olympic Committee, and if it can’t extract all it
desires, it should absolutely avoid the 2018 Games.
The League is playing it cool, for now.
“We’re not going to speculate on things that at earliest are years
ahead and may or may not ever come to fruition,” Bettman said.
The Cold War is Over. The Green War is underway, and right now, it’s a
standoff between the NHL and the Olympics.
Josh Brewster is a Columnist for The Fourth Period
and the host of Anaheim Ducks' postgame radio show since 2006. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.