Hockey is so much more than a business in this country.
It’s Canada’s national sport, “our game,” a heart-pounding source of pride that stirs passions and is woven into the very fabric of our identity. It thrills us but it also unites us.
The most watched TV broadcast in Canadian history – bar none – was the gold medal men’s hockey matchup at the 2010 Winter Olympics when half of this country – 16.6 million viewers – revelled in Canada’s overtime victory against the United States.
That’s twice the number of Canadians who have ever tuned in to an NHL final.
This devotion explains why Canadians so desperately want to see their best men’s hockey team vie for Olympic glory next year.
The NHL’s decision last week to deny them this pleasure and ignore their long-standing loyalty to the league is a slap shot in the face to every Canadian who loves hockey.
It’s also a sharp elbow to fans from other countries whose NHL players won’t make it to South Korea next year.
Obviously, the NHL and its commissioner, Gary Bettman, don’t care.
In fairness, some of their reluctance to participate in the Olympics is justified.
A knee injury to Canadian hockey star John Tavares at the 2014 Sochi Games put him out of action for the rest of that NHL season. Having a marquee player hurt at the Olympics can alter the fate of an NHL team – and cost the league money.
Blame for what’s happening must also be shared by the International Olympic Committee, which reversed a previous policy of covering travel, accommodation and insurance costs for NHL players who competed at the Games.
Even so, the International Ice Hockey Federation said it would foot that bill. And NHL teams would still have had the same 82-game season, with the accompanying revenues, even if they took a 17-day break for the Games.
For once, the NHL should have put hockey and the fans ahead of its profits.
But as galling as Bettman and the NHL brass are, we don’t fool ourselves that Canadians will suddenly stop buying their tickets or watching “Hockey Night in Canada.”
It would serve Bettman right, however, if in retaliation the International Olympic Committee orders the league to stay clear of the 2022 Winter Games, which will be held in China – a vast, untapped market coveted by the NHL.
How appropriate it would be if a crass, calculated business decision was bad for business.
Going forward, we think it’s time for the International Ice Hockey Federation to start running a true World Cup of Hockey in different locations at the end of summer once every four years – and nuts to the NHL.
Hockey fans everywhere deserve a best-on-best competition that would give them a true, global champion.