22 Feb Stromme’s Takes: I’m a Reason Why the NHL Belongs in the Olympics
By: Mike Stromme
Having pro athletes compete in the Olympic Games, summer or winter, has been a hot-button issue amongst sports enthusiasts. The narrative from nay-sayers on whether or not the NBA or MLB (back when baseball was an Olympic sport) should let their elite talent compete on a world stage, for what many purists would say is intended for amateur athletes, is fairly linear. Essentially, it goes: “Why, the American basketball team is just an NBA all-star team; it’s hardly fair to the other nations,” and “So what? Who cares about baseball at the Olympic level, just a bunch of college kids I’ve never heard of anyways.” Obviously, this isn’t the opinion of the majority of sports fans who take-in the Olympic Games, but those narratives are out there.
Given that the Summer Olympics occurs in, well summer, the NBA doesn’t need to deal with the dilemma of taking a mid-season break to let the best of the best compete. The WNBA lets their stars compete at the Olympics. The Nippon Professional Baseball League (pro Japanese baseball) held a break for their players to compete in Beijing 2008. And while Major League Baseball as always been firm on their stance about letting their best players compete, they’re more than open to letting minor league players compete in 2020 Tokyo, when baseball and softball are reinstated as Olympic Sports. It seems that most pro leagues around the world are on one side of the fence or the other when it comes to lending their number one assets, the players, to the International Olympic Committee for a couple weeks in February or August.
And then, there’s the NHL.
Prior to the 1998, ice hockey was an “amateur” event at the Olympic level. (I add quotes to the word amateur due to the Russians allowing pro-calibre players to compete due to labour loopholes that come along with living under a communist regime, but I’m not here to discuss the finer points of communism; that’s a story for another day.) That was until, the NHL and IOC came to an agreement to allow pro players to compete at the Olympic level. As hockey fans, we’ve seen best-on-best hockey in Nagano, Salt Lake City, Torino, Vancouver and Sochi. I think we can all say that between Olympic Hockey and Olympic Basketball, the best-on-best was much more competitive on the ice than the hardwood. I mean, Canada wins Gold 60 per cent of the time in this case, but it’s not like they roll-over the competition.
For nearly 20 years, the marriage between the
IOC and NHL has been lovely… Up until now. The NHL has decided that they will not let their players go due to the IOC refusing to fit the insurance bill on the players participating. Talks have been rather heated over the past few months. Even the leagues biggest stars have chimed-in, Alex Ovechkin says he’ll compete for Russia in 2018 “No matter what,”. While Sidney Crosby won’t commit without the league’s permission, young Edmonton Oilers’ superstar Connor McDavid “can’t picture the Olympics without NHL players.”. There are valid reasons as to why one could present an unbiased argument for or against the NHL
releasing their stars to the IOC.
So, I am here to argue for NHL players competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea with complete bias and my heart on my sleeve, for one simple reason:
If it weren’t for the gold medal runs of both the Canadian Men’s and Women’s Olympic Hockey teams in Salt Lake City back in 2002, I might not be a sports fan today.
It was February 2002, an eight-year-old Mike Stromme (by the way, I went by Michael back then), was oh-so very much into PokeMon, Digimon and whatever animated “Mon” came out of Japan in the late ’90s/early 2000s’. Not that there was anything wrong with that; hell, I was engulfed by that tidal wave that was Pokemon Go back about six month ago. But, I really wasn’t into sports. I mean, my t-ball career came to a crashing halt two years prior when I became more infatuated with the dirt of the infield and the many bugs it contained than the ball that was occasionally hit my direction.
I guess I did have “favourite sports teams” at this age, I vicariously followed the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf” years through my Old Man. I also liked the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Blue Jays at this age, but I’m 98% sure I only liked these teams because my father, grandfather and the majority of my extended family were all huge Leaf fans. And, my Blue Jay fandom (and general interest in baseball as a whole) was tenuous at best given my previous t-ball experience. Needless to say, I wasn’t one of those kids who is “born a sports fan”.
But then came February 2002, the Olympic Winter Games. For many Canadians, this one was a huge deal. It was the first time since 1988 that the Winter Olympics were on North American soil; this meant that there wasn’t a single event on tape delay. Parlay the viewing convenience with the Canadian hockey team that had just as much talent as any team in the world and a chip on their shoulder, and you had a country on the edge of it’s seat.
For essentially the entire month of February in ’02, everything was Olympics this, and Olympics that. Hell, even my grade three teacher at the time, Mrs. Clayton, devoted an entire school subject to the event. I’m not sure if it was my age, or if things were magnified for the reasons I listed above (or a combination of both), but I was helplessly pulled-into the whirlpool that was the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Everything about that incredible run for Canadian hockey brought me closer to the sport. The sky-high expectations, the pandemonium from coast-to-coast, the fact that there was Canadian currency buried deep under centre ice, it all spoke to me on a near-primal level; I was hooked.
I remember the event like it was yesterday… even though it all happened 15 years ago. I remember then-Leafs’ goaltender Curtis Joseph giving up five goals to Sweden in the opening game of the tournament. I also remember the team handing over the reins to Martin Brodeur after that performance. I remember Simone Gagne’s game-winner against the Germans and that tie against the Czech Republic that lead to Canada having to squeak-out
a tight 2-1 victory over Finland in the quarter-finals. Meanwhile, Belarus had the Lake Placid-esque upset over the powerhouse Swedes on the other side of the bracket; setting-up a Canada-Belarus match-up in the semi-final. The Canadians won 7-1.
I remember Joe Sakic sneaking, what would end-up being, the game-winning goal past the United States’ Mike Richter. I remember the passionate, patriotic, Connor McGregor-like post-game interview Haley Wickenheiser gave to Don Cherry after the Women’s team won Gold over the Americans just a few days prior. I remember seeing people flooding the streets of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary and all over the nation on television; it was like the whole country won the Stanley Cup. Cars everywhere honking their horns in jubilation, everyone and their
mother were talking about Sakic, Lemieux, Iginla, MacInnis, Yzerman, Shanahan, Brodeur, the late, great Pat Quinn, Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell and how much this meant to a nation that lived, breathed hockey and bled red and white.
Immediately after that run, I became the biggest Toronto Maple Leaf fan you knew. I bought NHL ’99 for my Nintendo ’64 (yes, it was NHL ’99, I was eight, not made of money) and wore it out. I put many scuffs and marks on the walls of my then-unfinished basement, taking shots on my brother and dad. Shortly after, I was fitted for hockey equipment and signed-up for not only league play in the fall, but a week-long hockey camp that summer. My childhood love of hockey branched over into baseball just a few years later. Not too long after that, I took an interest in the NFL, then the NBA. If it wasn’t for that run the Men’s and Women’s Olympic hockey teams 15 years ago, I may not be the sports fan that I am today.
So NHL, Gary Bettman, NHLPA President Donald Fehr, International Olympic Committee, get your shit together! Get the best to play the best. Because who knows? There could be another eight year old out there, just like I was 15 years ago, who needs to be inspired. Not just in Canada, but in the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, The Czech Republic or just about anywhere else in the world. ‘Cause you just never know who’s watching.