Nobody cares about the Winter Olympics. People will watch them, sure, because it’s February and after this week’s Super Bowl, what the hell else are people gonna watch? But they don’t matter. Certainly not the same way the Summer Olympics do.

Don’t believe it? Try this. Who won the 100-meter dash at Rio in 2016? That’s easy: Usain Bolt. Who won the women’s gymnastics all-around? Simone Biles, of course, and you probably knew that Aly Raisman won silver, too.

Now try to remember who won the women’s figure skating gold in the 2014 games in Sochi. Or the men’s half pipe. How about this: can you name a single medalist from Sochi? It’s surprisingly difficult, and a reminder that even though Winter Olympic events are endlessly more entertaining than the Summer’s (racing vs. racing…ON SKATES, jumping vs. jumping…ON SKIS, etc.), they don’t latch on to the national conscience the way that so many summer competitions, like swimming’s 4×100 medley, do. Well, most Winter Olympic sports don’t. The men’s ice hockey tournament is a lone and glaring exception.

The most famous Olympic moment of all time was, no surprise, a hockey game. No other Olympic sport could elicit the reactions that occurred following the Miracle on Ice. Yes, there was a flurry of outside influences that increased its importance, but Eric Heiden defeated the Soviets in Lake Placid, too. Speed skating just isn’t as important to us as hockey. When he came on air following the game, Jim McKay described the scene at a restaurant where the customers, upon hearing the news of the American victory, started to sing the National Anthem Casablanca-style. Jimmy Carter called it “one of the proudest moments” he experienced as President (I’m not sure if that says more about the game or the Carter presidency). When the Iranian hostages returned to the United States in January 1981, they were shown an hours-long video of all the events they missed while they had been held captive. The film ended with the full broadcast of the game, and when Al Michaels asked who believes in miracles, the hostages were all in tears.

That’s the extreme example, but not the only one. Since 1980, the next most memorable Winter Olympic moment has to be 2010’s Gold Medal game between the U.S. and Canada, where Sidney Crosby netted an overtime wrist shot to clinch the gold medal in front of the hometown crowd. The post-game celebrations across Canada dwarfed even the elation that followed when the crooks behind the Great Maple Syrup Heist were apprehended.

In 2014, Team USA was playing Russia in Sochi. My family was on a plane, boarding and taxiing to the runway, while the game was broadcast live to the backs of everybody’s seats. It had gone into overtime, and then a shootout, and then that shootout never ended. The teams matched each other shot for shot, but what was special was the guy skating for America. Through the first five rounds of a shootout, each team must use five different players, but after that fifth round, anybody can take the shot. So the U.S. leaned on T.J. Oshie, its final and most unlikely addition to the roster. He delivered again and again and again, taking every American opportunity. In the eighth round, Jonathan Quick blocked Ilya Kovalchuck’s try, and a goal would win it for America. Oshie snapped a wrist shot right into the back of the net. The plane erupted, and as the wheels left the runway, the cabin was chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

That was a preliminary match. It barely even mattered.


(AP Photo / Matt Slocum)

NHL players won’t be in Pyeongchang this year. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has given a bevy of reasons why: it disrupts the league’s season, the time change between North America and Korea is extreme, and owners receive no compensation for their players’ participation. Another likely reason to which Bettman will never admit: players overwhelmingly want to be representing their countries, and with the current CBA up for renegotiation in 2019, Olympic participation will be an easy bargaining chip for the league. It’s an unnecessary fight, and all the league’s excuses are incredibly shortsighted. They’re revealing, too, as to why the NHL is never mentioned in the same breath as the NFL, NBA, and MLB as one of the nation’s most popular leagues: its business is mismanaged.

From a purely on-the-ice point of view, the NHL has what everyone else wants: young stars who are marketable, fun, and more than anything, really damn good. Soccer would kill for its own version of Connor McDavid. Baseball can’t seem to modernize itself, but the NHL has done so with ease and style, changing rules to improve both safety and quality of play. By cutting back on dangerous hits and fighting, the league is now experiencing its highest scoring season in years. If the NBA is serious about creating an expansion team in Seattle, they’d be fools to not follow a similar playbook to the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, who are quietly one of sports’ best stories in their first year. All this is to say, the NHL is sitting on 20,000 pounds of highly explosive opportunity.[1]

The Olympics should be the spark that sets it off, but league management doesn’t understand how to translate the successes they’ve had in other areas of the sport to its business. They’re blind to the opportunity Pyeongchang represents. It could be the best tournament in years, packed with stars like McDavid, Crosby, and Auston Matthews—a weekslong showcase for the league. Think all this is fun? We still have half a season left! 

Instead, we’ll get a tournament full of college kids. Here’s the thing, though: Olympic hockey is still going to generate buzz even without NHLers, and if America meets Canada in the finals, there are still going to be World Cup-style watch parties across the continent. Don’t forget: the Miracle on Ice featured a bunch of college kids, and their final game against Finland remains the most watched hockey game of all time. The next highest rated game ever? The 2010 gold medal game, which drew an average of 27.6-million American viewers (meanwhile, nearly 80% of Canadians saw the game). The most viewed NHL game ever? Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, which averaged a viewership of only 8.5-million. The Olympics don’t need the NHL, but the NHL certainly needs the Olympics.

Bettman could stand to learn from, of all people, Roger Goodell. The NFL, for all its in-fighting and poor management, has long operated by a guiding principal that “reach” is king. It’s the secret to the league’s dominance. If you turn on your TV on Sunday, you’ll find football, no matter your cable package, because it’s on broadcast TV. And guess what? If you’re a cord cutter and don’t get CBS, Fox, or NBC, you still can’t escape. Every playoff game has been broadcast for free on Yahoo this year. It’s a brilliant strategy: eyeballs are valued over everything, because an international sports league like the NFL or NHL is marketing itself to the least common denominator. Something more specialized like e-sports can and should take a more pointed and specialized approach to distribution; they’re selling themselves to pre-existing fans, while the NHL should be selling itself to everybody.

Still, the NHL will only have 11 regular season games air on broadcast television (NBC) this season. When the playoffs begin, games will air on NBC Sports Network (available in 70% of American households, compared to NBC’s near-100%). Games will only move to NBC for the actual Stanley Cup final, and at that point, few potential consumers know the teams or storylines well enough to even care. It makes measuring an “Olympics bump” from past years difficult; by the time the country could find hockey games to watch again, the sport had missed its opportunity. The Olympics create that moment and do more than any other event to extend the NHL’s reach, but the momentum only lasts so long. If the NHL wants lasting change, their broadcasting philosophy is the area that needs new strategy: make the league impossible to ignore.

Bettman says there’s not enough incentive for the NHL to allow its players to participate in the Olympics. He says the league receives nothing in return. How’s this for compensation? For a few weeks, the country actually pays attention to hockey. If Bettman played his cards right, America might pay attention for years after—but ask someone to name an NHL player a month from now, and their answer might be similar to the one you’ll get if you ask them to name the gold medalist in moguls: conspicuous silence.


[1] The NHL’s largest problem, and one it’s had for years, is its demographics. 92% of its viewers are white, according to The Atlantic. Pyeongchang could help this, too. Hockey is popular in Korea (read about this fascinating look at North Korean hockey), and China particularly represents an intriguing and humongous untapped market. The Pyeongchang games this year and Beijing’s in 2022 are the league’s best opportunity to get a foot in the door.

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