by Mike Chen on 12/18/09 at 03:31 PM ET
With everyone caught up in Olympic-team discussion these days, I find myself torn between wanting to watch peaking players in a best-on-best tournament and—selfishly, yeah—not wanting to see key players on my favorite team involved in what will be a physical and intense tournament. As a Sharks fan, I’m facing the potential of eight guys involved in the tournament: Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton, and Dany Heatley for Canada; Joe Pavelski for Team USA; Douglas Murray for Sweden; Evgeni Nabokov for Russia; and backup goaltender Thomas Greiss for Germany.
That’s almost half of the roster, and almost all of the critical guys. I can’t be in this boat along—teams like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and others will have a good chunk of their guys hopping on a plane to get to Vancouver. I’m sure fans of teams like these have debated this back and forth, and it brings up the question: is the magnificent competition of the Olympic tournament worth putting your players at risk?
I think anyone watching Olympic hockey can marvel at just how fantastic the games are. The skill level is undeniably higher, and the pace is faster and more intense than you’ll find just about anywhere. Every game is like a playoff game—hell, every elimination game is like a Game 7 between ultra-talented teams. It’s a joy to watch, and some of the best games I’ve ever seen as have stemmed from NHL involvement in the Olympics.
That being said, are there any NHL benefits to dropping out and playing mid-season? You hear stories stemming from the old Canada Cup days, where Mario Lemieux talked about how playing on the 1987 team with Wayne Gretzky helped him elevate his game for the rest of his career. How much of that happens during these tournaments? Will a player like Steven Stamkos accelerate his maturation by being involved on a team like this, or will it simply open him up for injury as Tampa Bay fights for a playoff spot?
In 2002, Salt Lake City witnessed Team Canada and Team USA battle it out for the gold medal. Several months later, the Detroit Red Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup with a host of Olympians on the roster: Steve Yzerman, Brenden Shanahan, Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, and Dominik Hasek. Obviously, the extra grind didn’t hurt the Red Wings that year. In 2006, the Turin games saw Sweden beat Finland for the gold medal while the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. That Hurricanes team wasn’t quite as involved with the Olympics: Frantisek Kaberle played on the bronze-winning Czech team; Erik Cole and Doug Weight skated for Team USA (didn’t medal); Martin Gerber played for the Swiss team (didn’t medal); and Eric Staal was an alternate for Team Canada (didn’t medal).
Looking at this, there’s probably not a direct link between fatigue and winning a Stanley Cup. However, every time you step on the ice, you open yourself up to injury, whether that’s in practice or the Olympics or the pre-season. If it’s the best players on your team being involved in a physical and intense tournament, bumps and bruises are almost certain while major injuries remain a possibility.
That’s a lot of risk for teams mid-season, and the more I think about it, the more I hope the Sharks players somehow stay at home during the break. Ultimately, this makes me think that the notion of moving Olympic Ice Hockey (as they like to call it) over to the summer games is the best solution, as it would allow NHL participation while minimizing long-term ripple effects into the playoffs. I’m sure that’s a tough sell for the IOC (“Ice? In summer?”), and the league has to decide if it even wants to participate past the 2010 Olympics. When they get to that discussion stage, though, I hope it’s something that at least is talked about.
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