All Things (Olympic) Hockey: Part 5, Wrapping It Up

This hurts. It sucks. Losing always does.

The United States falling in the gold medal game to our rivals to the north was tough, as losing goes, too. I have been recapping games for you here, but I don’t need to do this one. The world was watching. It was all over ESPN, NBC, and even found its way on to news sites like NYTimes.com or CNN.com. One in three people with their TVs on were watching the game as it was played, calling in to question the judgment of 2/3 of America. In Canada, that number was 4/5, so I really see no point in a blow by blow. The game certainly didn’t disappoint on the ice, unfortunately, that’s exactly what the result did.

It was easy going into the game to say that it was all upside. I had told myself that the tournament had been so great that even if Canada maintained hockey dominance, I couldn’t end it upset. I told myself that I had known that the USA was a long shot, and that silver would be a great finish. I knew that the tournament had brought hockey to the forefront of the sports world. And I told myself that I had seen the greatest hockey tournament of my life, 34 enjoyable, great games of the 41 that were played, and that really, we were all winners. All those things were true, and I couldn’t have asked for a better game in the finals. All I do is watch hockey when I have fee time between October and June, and between the last two Sundays, I saw the two best hockey games I have ever seen. Unfortunately, by the time Crosby went Miller time and put the USA on ice, I was convinced that the USA not only could win, but would win.

I knew Canada was better, but we hadn’t lost yet in Vancouver. The team was resilient, and more importantly, despite what some had thought coming in, they were damn good. 120 minutes of even hockey isn’t a fluke, the USA could play with Canada. When they went down a few minutes into overtime, all the rationality of not being disappointed, thinking that everyone was a winner after the greatest tournament I have ever seen, and realizing that silver was a great result for USA Hockey was crushed by the anger brought about by seeing Corey Perry hug Chris Pronger having just won the gold that should have returned to the USA after 30 years (this hug really happened, and when it did, I really wanted to cry).

What had been elation on facebook and twitter moments before when Zach Parise had tied the game, was replaced by Crosby hate which I reject, anguish which I shared and disparaging remarks about Canada being Americas hat, which I refrained from, but fully endorsed. On the ice, it was one of the best games I have ever seen. I can’t possibly say that I feel cheated, and I’ll get to those things, but it was still a tough reminder that in sports there are two things. There are no moral victories. No matter how rational you are coming in, there is only winning and losing. One is great the other hurts.

The Olympic hockey tournament couldn’t have been better. I couldn’t be prouder of team USA. Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson and Ryan Whitney play for a division rival. Brian Rafalski, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner play for teams I have grown up resenting. I will never be able to root against any of them, or anyone else on team USA again. There are a plethora of great things that I can take away from the Vancouver Olympics, but right now, all I am getting is that we lost. The greatest player alive ended the greatest tournament I have ever seen, and right now it sucks.

There were so many things to like about the Olympics, whether you are a diehard hockey fan, a big sports fan with a passing interest in the ice, or even a casual sports fan that tunes in only to check out the Super Bowls, March Madness’s and National Championships of the sports calendar. As someone who started to preview the Olympic hockey tournament last February, and routinely writes about the NHL, it would be impossible for me to sum it up from a perspective of something other than a diehard fan, and as someone who lives with hockey every day, one of the most fun things about the tournament was that for once, hockey was the center of the universe.

It can be frustrating being a hockey fan in America. ESPN will relegate NHL highlights to the last few minutes of SportsCenter, or go months without putting it on the front page of ESPN.com. That certainly wasn’t the case during these Olympic Games. Hockey has always been there with American media, but you wouldn’t say that it has ever quite been a mainstream topic. Once Team USA made it clear they were poised to make a run, though, America seemed willing and eager to follow them, and the sports media followed suit.

Hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike were checking scores, watching games online or on tape delay, even as NBC was trying to tell us that the Olympics were for our mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends by showing an endless array of figure skating and ice dancing, the most insufferable of all so called sports, in addition to a plethora of women’s events surrounded by ads for Tide and Vicks, or ones proclaiming that ‘To their moms, they will always be kids.’ ESPN was putting previews and scores on the front page. It was the main attraction for talk radio. NBC was even forced to give in, eventually, moving the USA-Finland game to live, and carrying the Canada-USA game both live and with limited commercials, in order to show all the action.

It isn’t just conjecture and insinuation, either. The ratings for hockey were huge. Almost as many people tuned in to MSNBC to watch the USA beat Canada as watched Obama get elected on the most prominent liberal news source. 27.2 million people watched the USA-Canada final in the United States, along with 80 percent of Canada. Not 80 percent of people watching TV, but 80 percent of the population, or 26.5 million people (this is perhaps my favorite stat, that more Americans watched than Canadians, although the 80 percent is astounding). Essentially, hockey was as big yesterday as it has been for 30 years since Carter and Brezhnev decided to forgo nuclear war and the USA beat Russia in the battle of Lake Placid, to put it lightly, to win the cold war and ensure the triumph of capitalism and freedom for the world over communism and dictatorship.

Even if the American numbers would have been just as high against Slovakia (they wouldn’t have been, although judging by the Finland numbers, they still would have been huge), the viewers were treated the best team in the tournament, America, against the best players, the Canadians. Someone said that if you don’t enjoy that, you don’t enjoy hockey. I would say that you don’t enjoy sports.

Does that mean that the NHL will now turn around and do numbers that beat the BCS and regular season football all the time? Of course not, but it does mean that come playoff time, or Sunday afternoons, some of the 50 million plus that checked out the games will come across the NHL and say, ‘hey, it is Ryan Miller,’ or Sidney Crosby, or Patrick Kane, and stick around, when they would have changed the channel before. That’s because people like hockey. Very few watch it, say “I’m bored,” or “that sucked,” and never want to go back to the game. Usually, the reaction of sports fans watching hockey is at worst that they don’t get it, but more often, that they want to watch more. The problem for the NHL has never been a bad product, but rather under-exposure. While a little familiarity from a popular Olympics may not turn around hockey as a TV sport, with an NBA lockout looming, it can’t be a bad thing. And who knows, it might be enough to boost the game in the USA after all, even if it is just a little.

I mentioned women’s events and figure skating—and the effect that they have on ratings—above, and wanted to clarify my thoughts on that, as well as put my take on the NBC coverage out there.

Women’s events should absolutely be in the Olympics—not the figure skating, but the women’s events like hockey, skiing and Speed Skating for instance–, but to covered and hyped to the extent that they were? Come on. I can name three women’s skiers, two snowboarders, and a speed skater. The only males I know that don’t play hockey are Shaun White, since he has been bouncing around for a few years, Bodie Miller because he used to be the best, and Apalo Ohno because…well I’m actually not sure what his appeal is, but he keeps getting jammed down our throats. I’m not being a misogynist, only pointing out that it is a fact that men’s events push more boundaries, are faster, and are generally more exciting, yet they receive significantly less coverage. The reason for this is pretty simple.

Unfortunately, the networks know that sports fans will tune in, so they go out of their way to bring in other audiences that could lead to a big number. This emphasis is misconceived as being because women and non-traditional fans watch more. Instead, it just means that they need to be pandered to more, since their viewership can be had, and will push ratings to greater heights, but it is harder to court. This leads to a paradox in which the core audience is neglected, in order for the network to attract its largest possible audience. You can’t blame NBC for it, but it is rough if you are a sports fan.

One thing I can blame NBC for, though, is the tape delays. Many people have pointed out, similar to the point above, that the primetime show does huge numbers and should be kept as it is, even if it is taped footage. I completely agree. I watched most of my stuff online, and was uninterested in the pageantry (that’s what it was—sports don’t have judges) that was emphasized at night. The problem is that there is not a single reason that I have heard or can think of, in the vast and rapidly expanding GD universe, that events occurring at noon, 2 or 3 in the afternoon shouldn’t have been live on NBC.

When many of the live events were taking place, in the afternoons, NBC’s typical programming includes repeats of soap operas, the Bonnie Hunt Show, something called a Wendy Williams show and the abortion known as the Ellen Degeneres show. I know, because I am in the gym most days at this time, and there is usually at least one TV on NBC. Every time I see Ellen dance in front of her audience like the dorky, phony loser that she is, before she sits down, and fails to be funny with guests I could not possibly care about, I hate humanity a little bit more, and that is the so-called ‘highlight’ of the slate of afternoon vapidity that they refused to cancel, or even move to one of their cable networks. Yes, I am losing my temper, but it is well freaking justified. If you try to tell me, NBC, that those are better programming decisions than showing the Olympics while they happen, and that this is a valid reason for not showing me a life freaking hockey game, I will fly to New York and take the cast of 30 Rock as hostages.

I forgot what I was talking about. God I hate dumb executives…

One more thing, speaking of dumb executives. If you are a casual sports fan who, like millions of your countrymen, tuned on the game on Sunday to check out some hockey, enjoyed it, and now want to watch a bit more, you have no idea where you can watch it. I’ll answer the question for you it is on N-B-freaking-C, the network you were watching, and it is on every Sunday, but you didn’t know that. Why not? BECAUSE NBC DIDN’T SHOW ONE GD PROMO FOR THE NHL ON NBC! NOT ONE! IN THE ENTIRE TIME THEY WERE DOING THE BIGGEST RATING THEY WILL GET IN MONTHS, FOR A FREAKING HOCKEY GAME THEY DIDN’T STOP AND THINK, ‘HEY, MAYBE WE SHOULD LET PEOPLE KNOW WE HAVE MORE OF THIS.’ NO I WILL NOT TURN OFF CAPS LOCK. THIS IS EGREGIOUS. IT DEFIES LOGIC. I LITERALLY DON’T KNOW HOW TO DESCRIBE HOW STUPID THAT IS.

People have said that the NHL may not see any sort of significant boost from this tournament, which to me is a load of crap. I have a number of friends who have cheerfully told me that Sunday was a bad day for the NBA, because they are now in on hockey. If I am wrong though, I will know exactly why.

I will now take a five mile walk to calm down…

Having ranted for about two thousand words about how great the 2010 Olympics were, I probably don’t need to tell you that I am strongly in favor of the NHL returning to the Olympics in 2014, by going to Sochi, Russia. Gary Bettman has refused thus far to commit to such a scenario, but he simply has to send guys overseas. First of all, because not one player has said that they don’t want to travel and represent their country, and some have gone as far as to insist that they will, if they are released from the league for 2 weeks or not. There is more to it than that though.

A lot will be made in the run up to the decision to go to Sochi or not, of the fact that Bettman works for the owners, and that the NHL doesn’t see a dime from the Olympic Games. The thing is, as a commissioner of a major sports league, your job goes a bit deeper than your financial responsibilities to the owners. Your responsibilities do, anyways. Sure, protecting the interests of the owners and the league can come first, but they shouldn’t be the only concern. Growing and protecting the game should certainly factor into decisions made, especially if there isn’t a significant downside, and I am sorry, but a condensed regular season with a 3 week break is not a significant downside.

Beyond that, the premise that the Olympics don’t help the NHL is shortsighted. If anything, the NHL needs to work with their partners (coughNBCcough) to ensure that it does help. You cannot convince me that having the best players in the world, on perhaps the biggest stage in the world, does not help the game of hockey. It is too good, and too exposed not to at least make people more aware of the game. People will say that the games didn’t help the NHL, but people talking about hockey helps the NHL. Period. Sure, the USA-Canada final in an NHL city is about as good as it can get from the standpoint of North American hockey, but that hardly means that significant momentum can’t be built for the sport even if the result is less perfect.

There are some detractors that have nothing to do with the NHL, usually by referencing the 1980 games, but these premises are fairly easy to reject. An argument that some people have voiced is that the Olympics were somehow more pure when the athletes were amateurs. I couldn’t disagree more. Ask the IOC how the Olympic baseball tournament has gone. Without pros, the Olympics essentially become a second rate event. That, not having professionals, is what would fly in the face of the Olympic spirit. The Olympics are all about bringing the best athletes in the world together (as well as the best curlers), in order to see which nations are dominant at these sports. In no way would restricting access to the games to those who are at the top level make this a better tournament. It would make it a lower level of play at best, arbitrary at worst. As for the 1980 argument, that was a perfect confluence of circumstances. No one can say anything about the 1984 or 1988 tournament other than ‘the Russians probably won.’ One of the first sporting events I can remember, however vaguely, is the 1992 Lillehammer Olympics. I was 3, but I remember watching with my parents. Not once, as far as I can tell, did we watch hockey. 1980 will never happen again, and to try to replicate it is shortsighted.

Generally, I like to refrain from blaming ‘the media,’ in the general sense, as one. This is hard to detect, since I do it all the time, just know that I have an urge to write about something stupid that I hear all the time, let’s just say twice a day, by way of an estimate, but usually stop myself. During the Olympics, there were a lot of things that gave me this urge. Here are a few of them.

- People kept asking themselves, in previewing team USA, if a ‘repeat of the Miracle on Ice’ could take place, and the USA could take gold. I don’t even need to explain how stupid this is, but just for fun, had the USA decided to send their world junior team, and the Russians sent their national team, and the USA took gold, that would be a repeat of the miracle on ice. But only if the Russians were playing for China. And people in America actually realized how evil the Chinese government actually is. Everyone knows this by now, but there were still plenty of morons trying to play this up, and they need to be called out.

- Later, I heard a lot of people talking about the United States’ upset of Canada. They were responding to the hordes of media saying that this victory compared to that of 1980. They were rightfully calling out all the people saying that this was just as big a win for USA Hockey. There was a problem, though. No one was saying this. They were responding to people that they had made up. Sure, plenty of people were comparing the game to the 1980 tilt, but not one was saying it compared favorably. To a man, people agreed that it wasn’t as big an upset. Still, the media felt compelled to point out that these people (who I stress, are imaginary), kept saying that this was the same, and correcting them (even thought they didn’t exist).

- A third 1980 thing got to me. We get it. It was the greatest thing in the history of hockey, nay sports, nay human history, nay the universe. Listen, I have seen Miracle 2,864 times. I own the documentary. I have found the entire game online and watched it multiple times. I even read The Boys of Winter twice. I know that the most interesting story wasn’t Eruzioni, or Ralph Cox getting cut, but Herb Brooks playing nice with his archrival at Wisconsin, Bob Johnson, because he was afraid Johnson wouldn’t let his son Mark play in the Olympics for Brooks. Just thinking about this, I want to watch Miracle again. Having said all of that, can we just agree to move on? I’m not saying completely. We should show clips when Johnson is coaching the women’s team. We should run a piece or two on it on anniversaries, and at least once an Olympics. What bothers me, is that everything that USA Hockey does gets brought back to it. I don’t want to forget about the 1980 games, but I am ready to move on.

- This one is less about incompetence and making stuff up, and more about my competitive disposition. I listen to Leafs Lunch, an hour long talk radio show out of Toronto every day. I don’t listen because I care particularly about the Toronto Maple Leafs, but rather because I enjoy good sports talk radio, and Leafs Lunch is one of the few high quality shows with a focus on the NHL. I would recommend it to anyone who likes hockey, as Darren Dreger is perhaps the best reporter in the NHL, and provides a great league wide view. Last Thursday, the day after the red Maple Leafs smoked out the Russians in dominant fashion, they opened the show in an…aggressive…manner.

Here is the link, take a listen for yourself (you have to scroll down to get to the February 25th show).

(If you didn’t listen, the show began with Queen’s We Are the Champions, before guest host Brian Duff proceeded to declare the tournament over for the next five minutes. You really need to listen to get the full effect, though.)

Now, bear in mind, that this was not Monday’s show. Canada had not only not won the tournament yet, they hadn’t even made the championship game yet. Even if he was trying to make a point, the whole thing came off as sort of infuriating. After I listened to that, I wanted to take the ice for the United States, who had just beaten the Canadians, a team that had only played one game in which they looked unflappable.

The podcast is great, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes hockey, but this got me a bit fired up, because Duff completely trivialized two strong teams (Slovakia and America). Then again, he was right, although Canada didn’t exactly roll to the title like he predicted, with one goal wins over Slovakia and the United States.

- Not one person on ESPN, ESPN Radio, ESPN.com or NBC pointed out how great it was that the second leading goal scorer in the tournament was Norway’s Tore Vikingstadt. Seriously, his name is Tore Vikingstadt. That is way better than Fedor Tyutin, the current league leader in awesome names, and may even be good enough to surpass Jeff Beaukeboom as the greatest hockey name of all time. Seriously forget the trade deadline, my one hope for the Sharks is that they sign Tore Vikingstad. He did score 4 goals in four games against America, Canada, Switzerland and Slovakia, three of the top four teams in the tournament. Would I buy a Tore Vikingstad Sharks jersey? I am pretty broke, but I don’t think I would have a choice. I don’t know what the transfer rules are for the DEL, but we need to at least inquire about the Hanover Scorpions’ (Vikingstad’s current team) interest in Scott Nichol or Brad Staubitz.

(And you’re right, this had basically nothing to do with the media, I just wanted to point out how awesome Tore Vikingstad is. He is my new favorite player.)

There seem to be two factions here in America, now that Canada has gone back to their igloos, village fishermen and polar bears with a gold medal in the only sport they care about. The first is a sort of ‘good-for-you’ feeling, shared by a lot of sports fans who aren’t so much hockey fans on a day to day basis. The feeling that Canada, which most Americans have always liked, deserved to win on their home soil is certainly shared by many. On the other hand, there is a large dose of Sidney Crosby haterade. Not only do I not buy into this, I actually find it a bit upsetting.

If you happen to be a fan of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, you get a pass on this (I would include the New York Islanders, but as far as I can tell, they haven’t had a single fan since 1994). For these guys, it is a divisional rivalry thing. Personally, I chose to respect, fear and root against special players who are in the same division as the Sharks, but if you want to go all the way to genuine hate (sports hate, at any rate), that is fine with me. Everyone else, though, you sound ridiculous.

Sidney Crosby only does one thing. That one thing, is do everything right. All the kid wants to do is be the best player that he can be, and win hockey games. Take a look at his career.

As a rookie, the cros was a twice in a generation playmaker (add Iginla to his number and you get the other guy), but not what you would call a pure scorer. This worked alright, especially when Gino Malkin joined him in Pittsburgh, but you could tell that Crosby was never completely satisfied with his role as a setup guy. Still, he killed himself to help his team win games. It is laughable that Ovechkin is sometimes sited by dumb hockey fans as better because “he plays a physical game.” I am the farthest thing from an Ovie hater, but Crosby spends more time in the corner, battling for pucks in a given month than Ovechkin has in his career. Crosby got plenty of help from guys like Malkin and Jordan Stall, but did every single little thing (on both ends of the ice), in leading the Penguins to the cup last year.

Crosby came into the game as an elite talent, but he had found new ways to get better, and to help his team get to championship level. Once they got there, there was only one thing that changed in his desire to get better. This year, he turned it up a notch. He decided that to take the Penguins back to the finals, he would have to be a scoring threat, because, as he said, teams could shut him down as a playmaker (untrue, but don’t tell 87 if you are a Pens fan). He did just that, shooting more, creating more, and racking up a league leading 42 goals.

Less noticeable, but more importantly, Crosby has turned two of what were considered his weaknesses into downright, indisputable strengths. Not just passable skills, but on both counts, league leading statistics. When attempting to find something wrong with the kid as a young player, nitpickers often pointed to faceoffs as something that Crosby could improve upon. All he did was work, and in 2009, he is 11th in the league in faceoff percentage. Same goes for shootouts. Crosby started out his career 1 for 9 in the tiebreaker, but now he has found a move (fake that almost is just a stickhandle to the backhand, back to the forehand to open up the goalie and a quick shot 5 hole), that works for him, and he is second in the NHL with shootout goals, with 6 in 8 attempts this season.

There are two takeaways from this. One is that goons the league over better hope that Crosby is never told that his weakness is that he doesn’t fight enough/isn’t a good enough fighter, because you better believe that if that were the case, he would lock himself in an MMA gym for the summer and come back to break every orbital bone in the league. More importantly, Crosby is, quite simply, the complete package. A supposedly good guy to boot, Sid does everything that you could want on the ice, and if he doesn’t, you can bet he will next year.

I can’t really buy into the whole ‘it would have been good to win, but I’m happy for Canada’ thing. USA Hockey is right there with the Sharks for me. World Juniors are my favorite part about the holidays. I started thinking about the Olympics a year ago. I know we could have won, and I really wanted gold for this team. The fact is, though, that it is fitting that Crosby, the best player in the world ended the tournament with the greatest players in the world.