Guest columnBy Peter Adler
Now that the next NHL season is almost upon us, sundry hockey stars have joined the league-sponsored media tour, sharing all kinds of more or less funny (and interesting) behind-the-scenes stories, explaining how they would be even better come next season, and how they envision an improved Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA, for short).
Many of them, prompted by inquiring journalists or not, found it necessary to put in their few cents' worth regarding the Olympic Games (2022 in China).
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks' intrepid captain, his serious face firmly on, went so far as to suggest he did not understand why it had to be the players who insist on going, and how it should be an automatic that the best will play the best, and how much fun there is to be had, mingling with other athletes from all over the world, not only hockey players, in the Olympic Village.
Back to school
All fine and dandy explanations, except they show that the players who make them deserve a brief lesson in Olympic history.
Before anybody begins crying about the sanctity that they trace all the way to ancient Greece: those ancient guys were sincere enough to admit that theirs was an entertainment event. They also had no particular issues with doping and deals (let me win this race and my sponsor will offer you a job for so many drachmas a year, room and board included).
The so-called Modern Games, invented in the late 19th century by French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, were aimed at his fellow aristocrats who were dying of boredom in those wonderful summer resorts along the French Riviera, a.k.a. Côte d'Azur. There can be only so much fun to be had in daily debauchery, after all.
Monsieur le Baron summoned his British counterparts who had been known as the greatest inventors of rules and, voilà, in 1896, the world would witness the first Olympic Games of the modern era.
Strictly on amateur status: an aristocrat wouldn't stoop so low as to be employed, not even as a sportsman.
Please note: it was not only strictly amateurs, but also strictly males only.
When an American Indian, Jim Thorpe, won Olympic gold in pentathlon and decathlon in 1912, all was wonderful, until the Olympic poohbahs found that he had committed a cardinal sin. He played a couple of seasons in a semi-professional baseball league. That cost him his medals (he would be reinstated only in 1983, three decades after his passing).
This kind of scandal would continue. At the 1972 Winter Olympics (Sapporo, Japan), Avery Brundage, then-President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would forbid the best Alpine skier of his time, Austria's Karl Schranz's participation because he was making money off his sport.
Banning the best athletes only because they made their sports their jobs ended costing the Olympic Games: viewers' interest went down. People wanted to see the best, and they did see them in their individual sports' championships, not in the Olympics.
That is why professionalism would be grudgingly permitted, and in stages only.
Similar hypocrisy has surrounded the Olympic flame (and the relay).
There was no such thing in ancient Greece, and neither did it exist in the modern-era games. Not until Germany, by then governed by the Nazis, staged the games in 1936.
Adolf Hitler's Reichskanzlei (Imperial Office) propaganda people came with the brilliant idea. After all, torches seem to be a traditional German source of joy. The relay idea included the plan that the last runner's name would remain secret until s/he was handed the torch. The first last runner was a ranking member of the Hitlerjugend organization, as sporting a body as there could exist.
It would take almost to the end of the last millenium before hockey professionals would be officially invited to join the Olympics.
Until then, hockey teams from Communist countries, the Soviet Union, in particular, would be beating everybody, including Canada, hands down. Their teams were amateurs on paper only. Hockey was their job, and Canada's Allan Cup winners or university teams stood no chance.
In early 1990s, the IOC has noticed that interest in its hockey tournament was declining. After the fall of communism, many more players would find it easier to move to the NHL. Canada and the U.S. continued to field their amateur teams, and the Europeans, all of a sudden, had to rely upon players who interested only their direct family members and, on occasion, a rabid fan or two.
That is when the IOC, egged on by International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) new president René Fasel, would come, hat in hand, begging the NHL to join.
For the NHL it meant it would have to introduce an artificial break in its operations once in four years, risking their stars' health while they were playing for what, actually, is a competing commercial endeavour.
Indeed, the Olympics are as much of a business today as the NHL. Since many hockey players wax poetic about the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, perhaps they should remember how Olympic organizers went after the owner of an old Greek restaurant in town only because its name is Olympia. They, and only they, have the rights to all things Olympic. It took an international scandal for them to back off.
In return for its participation, the NHL demanded that the IOC commit to paying its direct expenses (getting the players to the venue, insuring them, putting roofs over their heads and feeding them). The IOC agreed.
The first result, in 1998 at Japan's Nagano, was a flop, so far as the NHL went: Team Czech Republic beat Team Russia in the gold medal game, and Team Canada lost to Team Finland in the bronze medal game.
Meanwhile, the prospect that Olympic participation would enhance the popularity of hockey around the world didn't pan out, either. Existing fans from hockey-crazed countries would return to their TV screens, thus returning a certain amount of advertising dollars to the IOC, but not even NHL players in the Olympics could convince sports fans, say, under Mount Kilimanjaro, to turn their attention to guys in strange boots, gliding on this strange surface called ice, helmeted and padded to nth degree, chasing something with those strange sticks.
Who's this Wayne Gretzky guy, anyway? Give me Pelé, ten times out of ten.
So, that attraction turned pale pretty fast, too.
And then, Thomas Bach, the new IOC President, delivered the real mortal blow (and perfect excuse for NHL owners): he unilaterally ended the agreement that the IOC would reimburse the NHL for its basic Olympic-linked expenses. The NHL should consider nominating him for induction into Hockey Hall of Fame for this short-sighted step.
The NHL was pretty modest in its demands: it only asked for reimbursement of direct costs. It could have asked to be paid for their front offices' wages, and the-non-going players' salaries, too.
In any case: the question of Olympic participation should have nothing in common with the CBA negotiations, and if these talks get stalled on this topic, it would be a sign that the players don't know what they want, and that they won't rest until they've got it.
As it is, they are crying at a wrong funeral.