NHL, Olympics, Sports

NHL Players Are What Separates The Winter Olympics From The Summer

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap] am obsessed with the Olympics. When that flame is lit every 2 years, I am completely distracted from anything and everything going on in my everyday life. If you ever wanted to sneak something past me, the Olympics are when you would choose to do it. When NBC introduced live streaming of events in 2012, it pretty much officially announced that I would be mostly useless for the duration of the Olympic Games and not just every night in prime time, as was the previous norm. Summer, Winter – doesn’t matter. You feed me the 5 interlocking rings and I forget how to blink.

So that sums up my love for everything Olympics. But that said I’ve still always been more of a fan of the Winter version, and every 2 years I sit and try to figure out why. Yes my favorite sport is hockey, but favorite year-round sports gets thrown out the window when it comes to the Olympics. That much is obvious with the signature events that capture our hearts such as figure skating, gymnastics, curling, swimming, and track (sorry field, not you).

Maybe it’s the medal count? After all in the Summer Games the United States comes in and takes home triple-digit medals. It is so many it is hard to keep track and celebrate all of them – or even feel the impact of any one medal specifically. In 2012 we out-medaled China 104-88. In 2008 we racked up 110 total medals. For a fan of the competitions, the impact of a winter medal just feels a little sweeter – because we simply do not dominate in the same fashion. Each medal feels more like I want to celebrate in the Winter vs. simply asking “how many today?” in the Summer.

But I don’t think that’s the main thing either.

After 2010 and 2014 though, it has become obvious the Olympic Winter Games have one thing that, in this country, the Summer Games simply do not have for the fans: the passion of major team sports. It is what sports fans live for. Those moments when you are blinded with passion of a jersey and not just the name of an individual. In other words: Olympic ice hockey is what separates, and elevates the emotion of,  the Winter Games.

Think about it – nothing brings out USA sports passion more than high stakes, millions of viewers, and Americans participating. This is regardless of the team sport being played and our fans’ knowledge of said sport year round. The most high profile example of this, of course, is the World Cup where soccer fans and non-soccer fans alike come together to lose their collective minds when Landon Donovan puts the USA through to the Round of 16. But it isn’t just that it’s the USA on a big stage – it is also relevant to us all because we know the World Cup is the peak of sport and involves the best players from around the world. It is why the World Cup is what it is while men’s Olympic soccer is an afterthought.

And that’s where Olympic ice hockey comes in. It is the only sport between the 2 Olympics that evokes the passionate reaction of sport that we are used to when we are riding the emotional rollercoaster of your typical NFL Sunday. As addicted as many of us are to the Olympics – you don’t see Americans losing their collective minds for swimming. There may be an exception here and there (Kerri Strug comes to mind) but nothing brings out the pure, sports passion during the Olympics that Olympic ice hockey does.

 

But a major reason for this is we know the world’s best are on this stage. In 1980, while the Americans were relatively an unknown group and not NHL stars, the competition of the world-class Soviets elevated the tournament to an elite level.

Consider that NBC was calling these Sochi games a “tremendous success” as ratings and online stream numbers were strong. Then consider the USA vs. Canada game was being live streamed in the middle of the work day to over 850,000 people concurrently. Then once the USA was eliminated, Friday and Saturday saw a rather major drop to the rest of the NBC Olympics coverage including the emergence of soon to be superstar Mikaela Shiffin. A number of people will give opinions as to why this happened such as tape delays and alternate programming. But I contend the drop was simply due to the fact that to many, the emotions of that loss sucked the life out of the last couple of days of the Olympics. In some ways, myself included.

As we have seen with the most recent Winter Olympics, ice hockey has become its own mega event within the mega event. It unites fans across the country, both hockey fans and non-hockey fans, in the same way the World Cup does. But to keep this going, the tournament will need to keep the NHL stars. It needs to be elite. If the NHL decides to pull out of the 2018 Games in South Korea, which many people project especially after the season ending injury to the Islanders’ John Tavares, it will simply become Olympic soccer. A fun little tournament within the Olympics, but not one we wake up at 6am and go to a bar for. Not one we scream for. Not one we high five in the halls for.

If that happens, the Winter and Summer Games will be met with the same reception. Both will continue to be about amazing human interest stories that all happen to be within the world of athletic competition. And that is still a great thing and the Olympics will still be a great event that I will remain addicted to. But it will be missing those moments when we all just collectively lose our minds.