NHL can't leave Games, experts say

By JIM KERNAGHAN, SPECIAL TO QMI AGENCY

Despite threats of a withdrawal from future Olympic participation by the National Hockey League, leading Games historians feel the top professionals will continue to compete for gold medals.

The men’s hockey competition has been too hot to cool down.

Bob Barney, one of the founders of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, says the presence of the pros has become too deeply ingrained in the Olympic culture.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cast some doubt when he said further discussions with the NHL Players Association are required and that there is no agreement in place for the 2014 Games in Russia.

“I think he’d better re-think that,” Barney said. “There are so many players from so many countries who take pride in participating in what many think is the biggest athletic competition in the world.”

Along with Kevin Wamsley, the immediate past director of the International Centre, Barney acknowledges that a professional league shutting down for two weeks places unwelcome pressures on the league. The potential for a lack of focus by players after the pressure-cooker of Olympic participation, plus the potential for injuries, are a couple.

Both see the emphasis on Olympic hockey overshadowing other sports not as a hindrance but a reality.

“There’s almost more (in the media) on the rosters of the hockey teams than on Canadian athletes in other sports. It’s a big part of the Canadian culture. We all understand hockey,” said Wamsley, himself a recreational player.

In earlier comments, Bettman acknowledged he’ll have a fight on his hands if he seeks to withdraw from the Olympics.

“I know the players are passionate about representing their countries — we have a long history as a sport in international competition and that’s something that’s important to the players,” Bettman told reporters. “But we have to decide on balance, is it worth it?”

Bettman said media focus on the Games will be muted during the 2014 Olympics due to the 10-hour time differential between Sochi, Russia, and the top North American television markets since games will be seen here in the middle of the night.

As for the overall success of the current games, the feedback Barney and Wamsley, along with new director Janice Forsyth, have received left them with the sense the Vancouver Olympics have been a smashing success despite the usual glitches.

Barney, who was in Vancouver participating in a documentary on the Olympics, scoffed at a British reporter’s comment the Games were the worst ever.

“What did the Brits ever do in the Olympics beside send us Eddie the Eagle (the comical ski jumper at the Calgary Olympics)?” Barney said with a laugh.

“It’s been a great Olympic Games,” he said. “To me, the atmosphere is stronger than Salt Lake City (2002). There’s been a surge of Canadian patriotism. What’s wrong with that? It’s not quite the same as the jingoistic Yanks,” the New Hampshire native added.

Wamsley felt the media coverage has been superb.

“What I’ve enjoyed is how so many stories have been told, with some emphasis on the families of the athletes,” he said. “As for the ‘worst ever’ comment, it was way over the top. Everyone seems to appreciate how well-organized they are.”

Both historians acknowledge there is a growing anti-Olympics movement internationally. Enormous costs set against joblessness and weak economies spurs it. Many people aren’t willing to accept the white elephants, as Barney calls venues that are unusable after the Games, despite improvements to the infrastructure and national pride.

A guy like Barney knows whereof he speaks. Once described by an Olympic colleague as “being in the seam of Olympic culture” he deals with both good and bad in Olympic history and has published more than 100 articles on the Olympics plus a leading history, the Selling Of The Olympic Games. He’s working on two more critical works, one titled Tarnished Rings, another yet to be named.

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