NHL needs Olympics

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:20 AM ET

So far, the Olympic experience has not been a pleasant one for the National Hockey League.

The league cares only about the reaction in the United States, and on neither occasion has the impact been positive.

In 1998, the embarrassment that was the American team, both on and off the ice, overshadowed any other aspects. In 2002, the deficiencies in the NHL game became evident when fans were exposed to the high-speed, more offensively oriented international game.

So less than six months from now, in Turin, Italy, the NHL is hoping that it will be a case of third-time lucky.

It's virtually certain that the NHL will participate. The NHL Players' Association made its involvement all but a non-negotiable demand at the bargaining table.

Furthermore, the recent announcement of the make-up of Canada's front-line squad, from management staff on down, is a clear indication that Hockey Canada has been tipped to the NHL's intentions.

Really, even though common sense and NHL governors are rarely found in close communion, common sense dictated NHL involvement.

The league can hardly pass up the 2010 Olympics in its own back yard (Vancouver), so how can it pull out of Turin in 2006 after being in Nagano and Salt Lake City?

Furthermore, this is a league that has fallen off the edge of the earth in the United States. It can not afford to pass up any opportunity for major network exposure.

And most of all, the league has to make it clear to the public that it has faith in its product.

The problem that arose after the 2002 exposure was that fans who were not very familiar with the game enjoyed what they saw from Salt Lake City. So after the Games, they checked out the NHL product, expecting to see more of the same.

But the check-to-a-stand still NHL game turned out to be nothing like the international game, and instead of receiving a peripheral benefit from its Olympic exposure, the NHL got nothing but criticism.

"These are all NHL players," many fans said. "Why is the NHL game so dull compared to the Olympic game?"

This time, there is every reason to believe that when fans who enjoyed the Olympics give the NHL a try, they'll like that too.

And no matter what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says in his press conferences, Olympic fans will indeed take a subsequent look at the NHL. The incontrovertible fact is that on the previous two occasions, NHL network ratings rose appreciably in the weeks immediately following the Olympics.

But some of those potential fans didn't like the fact that in the NHL, long passes were inhibited by the red line. In the new NHL, the red line probably won't be a factor in off-side calls.

They didn't like games ending in a tie. They wanted a shootout. The new NHL will have that too.

They didn't like the defence-first NHL game. If the league, as expected, imposes a serious crackdown on restraint and institutes rules which award three points for a regulation-time win, the overwhelming emphasis on defence will be reduced considerably.

Toss in the restrictions on goalie movement and the smaller pads, and all of a sudden, people who liked the Olympic game will probably find themselves liking the NHL game.

And that will be the number one priority in the NHL in the next few years -- entice potential fans to take a look at the game and then make sure they'll like what they see.

The Olympics fit that mold perfectly.


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