One of the biggest stories of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games was the absence of NHL players from the hockey tournament. Many hockey fans, as well as the players themselves, took to social media to express their displeasure over this decision. Whether they felt the blame lied with the IOC, NHL, or even the NHLPA, all hockey fans seemed to agree that the tournament would have been better with NHL players. The biggest argument for the inclusion of NHL players is always “grow the game”. However, what does it really mean to grow the game and are the Olympics even the best way to do it?
To be honest, I’m not convinced that the Olympic hockey tournaments have ever done too much to grow the game. If you aren’t a hockey fan you probably treat hockey like hockey fans treat the other sports in the Olympics. The Olympics is a great showcase of sports you don’t usually get to see on television. Think about it. How many water polo matches do you watch outside of the Olympics? How often do you watch skeleton, or ski cross outside of the Olympics? Unless you are a diehard fan you probably don’t. I can’t remember the last time I saw biathlon highlights on TSN in a non-Olympic year. However why would they? The ratings would not be there.
Since 1998 the Winter Olympics have been hosted in Japan, USA, Italy, Canada, Russia, and South Korea. Three of those countries are top hockey nations in both fan support and national team performance. Three of those nations are not. Since 1998 only one Japanese born and trained player has made the NHL, goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji. Fukufuji played a grand total of 4 games for the LA Kings in 2007. This is 4 more games than any Italian born and trained player (Luca Sbisa was born in Italy, but his parents moved to Switzerland when he was an infant and plays for the Swiss national team). As it stands right now, Italy is ranked 19th in the IIHF men’s world rankings and Japan is 22nd. Neither will be competing with the top nations in the upcoming World Championship. Both the Nagano and Turin Olympics featured NHL players, yet the game never really seemed to grow in either nation.
I think the Pyeongchang winter games may have actually done more to grow the game now than it would have if NHL players were there. South Korea was able to hang around in games. Sure they never won, but being able to play close and exciting games was probably a lot more appealing to Korean kids who are thinking about picking up a stick. Similarly, can you believe what the Germans pulled off? Germany knocked off Sweden and Canada and were less than a minute away from a gold medal. Watching the success of the German team absolutely did more to grow the game internationally (or at the very least, within Germany) than if Nylander, Landeskog, Hedman, Karlsson and Lundqvist dominated them in the quarter final. People enjoy watching their teams/countries win more than seeing them get destroyed. More Germans probably watched that gold medal game than Canada vs USA final, even if it featured the likes of a McDavid, Crosby, Matthews, and Gaudreau. Also, how great was it to see the German players celebrating that silver medal instead of the disappointment that McDavid or Matthews probably would have shown?
So what does it mean to grow the game? Growing the game is a commitment, not just the promise that you can watch the best players on earth for 2 weeks every 4 years. For example, the NHL’s southern expansion. You need to make the game accessible to people regularly. One of the best ways to do that is by having a team play 41+ games a year in a non-traditional city. Canadian fans can hate some of those southern relocations and expansions, but most Leaf fans are pretty happy with Arizona native Auston Matthews right now. The best example of the success of the NHL’s southern expansion and how it helped grow the game is a roster comparison of the USA men’s national team. The team that pulled of the Miracle on Ice in 1980 was represented by 4 states; Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Following that victory, participation in hockey dramatically increased in the USA. As I said earlier, people like seeing their teams/nations win. When they win, participation within that nation grows and the game will grow with it. Roughly a decade later the NHL expanded to many “non-traditional” markets and now Team USA has a very different look. The team at Pyeongchang had representation from 12 states, tripling 1980. Of those 12 states you will see California, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado. All states targeted by the NHL’s southern expansion in the 1990’s. Additionally, team USA won the World Cup in 1996 (the same year Colorado won the Stanley Cup in their first year, and Phoenix entered the league). Having a successful team USA combined with giving the people in non-traditional markets a team to cheer for year round has grown the game exponentially within the USA. Growing the game takes time, but constant exposure to the game and a successful national team is much better than one tournament every 4 years. Of course, the Miracle on Ice roster didn’t feature any NHL players either.
Another way to show this, is to take a look at the NBA. There are currently 11 Canadians on an NBA roster. Should it be a surprise that 9 of them are from the Toronto area? Of the 12 players on Canada’s national men’s basketball team, 7 are from Southern Ontario and 3 players are from Vancouver, the only other Canadian city to have had an NBA team. Similarly, the women’s national team has 7 of 12 players from southern Ontario as well. Canada’s only NBA city is producing the vast majority of country’s basketball talent. Could there be more than 11 Canadians in the NBA if more kids grew up being able to attend or watch a local team?
There is an interesting case study for people interested in the best way to grow the game. The powers at be in the sport of rugby league have collectively decided to attack the North American market. Much like football, rugby has two different versions referred to as rugby union and rugby league. Globally rugby union is the more popular version, something that rugby league is aiming to change. So how are they going about it?
Canada and the United States have already been awarded co-hosts of the 2025 Rugby League World Cup. However, as I have already said a single tournament even if it has the best players in the world is not enough to build interest in a new region. Rugby League wants Canada and USA to get better at rugby league which means you need kids to start kicking around rugby balls. Basically, put the wheels in motion to find rugby league’s Auston Matthews, an elite player from a non-traditional place. Therefore, you need to expose the new region to the game. Some major announcements were made earlier this week by different branches of rugby league. First, New Zealand will be taking on England at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High on June 23rd 2018. This game will mark the first of three New Zealand vs England matches on American soil over the next three years. The game will be the second part of a double header between two undetermined sides. Hopefully, that will be USA vs Canada. New Zealand and England are ranked 2nd and 3rd in the world right now, so this is a great opportunity to expose the American public to the highest level of the sport. The number 1 ranked country in the world is of course Australia. The Australia Kangaroos have won an astonishing 11 of 15 Rugby League World Cups and are home to the National Rugby League (NRL), the best league in the world. Obviously, you want to showcase the best clubs in the world too. In the same week that the match between New Zealand and England was announced, the NRL announced tentative plans to open the 2019 season in North America. Rugby League seems to be aiming for a constant presence in North America in the lead up to the 2025 RLWC. And is there a better constant presence than a franchise.
The Toronto Wolfpack are currently in their second year of competing in England’s Rugby Football League. After gaining promotion last year they are now in the 2nd tier called (Championship). Another promotion will bring them to Super League. The great thing about the Wolfpack is that by playing in England’s league you get repeated exposure to the top players and teams. For example, the Wolfpack have many world class players. Liam Kay is on Ireland’s national team. Vice-Captain Ashton Sims plays for Fiji. Ryan Burroughs represents the USA, and Quinn Ngawati dons the red and white for Canada. Additionally, Quinten Laulu-Togaga’e has suited up for Samoa in the past. On any given day at Lamport Field the crowd is treated to some world class talent. And this is ignoring the rosters of visiting teams. This year visiting teams will teams that have Super League experience as well. The Toronto Wolfpack have been drawing great crowds, averaging just under 7,000 fans a game. Additionally, there is plans in place to add another expansion team in New York. A New York team would be great for a number of reasons; exposing more North Americans to rugby league on a weekly basis, ease the travel for both European teams and the North American teams, and create a natural geographic rival for the Wolfpack.
Now, of course it remains to be seen what will actually come of all this. The Wolfpack are only in their second year and rugby leagues North American invasion has barely begun. What rugby league in North America will look like in 5, 10, or 15 years is still undecided. But what could the NHL learn from this?
I’m not saying the NHL should put a team in Europe or Asia. Rugby league works because of the one game per week schedule. Playing 3 or 4 games a week in an 82 game schedule, not to mention the playoffs would be a logistical nightmare. However, there is a few things they can do. The Beijing games are a great start. It’s still undecided if NHL players will be at the 2022 Olympics. Regardless it is more beneficial for the new market to see the elite players more often. Much, like the NFL London games, if it becomes and annual tradition people will start coming back. The NHL and the IIHF should also consider playing more international games. Part of the reason I think hockey fans get so upset about NHL players missing the Olympics is because we don’t get to see best on best hockey very often. The World Cup is very irregular leaving only the Olympics, which we lost out on. But what if hockey became more like rugby and soccer, with international games occurring regularly? If you want to play a September game in China, why not make that a game between Canada and USA instead of game between the Canucks and Kings. Have the new market be exposed to two of the best teams in the world and two nations that will be participating in the Olympic tournament. Let the Chinese fans become familiar with the game’s biggest stars prior to the 2022 tournament. If New Zealand and England can play rugby league in Denver, Canada can play USA in China. If the NHL decides to bring back the World Cup, please do not host in in Toronto. Pick a market you want to improve and go there. Switzerland, Germany, France, China, or even South Korea if you still want to ride any Olympic momentum. If the NHL must host their World Cup in North America at least pick markets that need a boost. International games in Las Vegas, Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, or Florida would do way more to grow the game than another tournament in Toronto or Montreal.
Ultimately, I do not believe that NHL players going to the Olympics grows the game in any significant way. The success of the growth of a sport in a new area is more directly tied to constant exposure to that sport. Furthermore, national teams being successful does more to help grow the game and countries like Germany have a better chance at being successful in the absence of NHL players. Constant exposure and success are the two key ingredients to growing any game.