When I Google’d “first Olympics with professional athletes”, this is what came up:
“In 1986, professional athletes were given permission by the International Federation to compete in each sport of the Olympic Games. For instance, in the 1992 Olympic Games, the United States was allowed to field a basketball team comprised of well-paid NBA stars, called “The Dream Team.””
This is the very definition of having your cake and eating it too. You took what was a pure amateur event and soiled it with professional players. At that moment the decision was made, wittingly or unwittingly, to change the expectation of Olympic viewers from watching the best amateurs to just watching the best. Period.
Enter the NHL and their desire to hold out their players, including minor leaguers, from the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Not for honourable reasons like protecting the integrity of amateur sports but because of insurance issues and protecting their own scheduling practices.
As a man in his 40’s there are only weak memories of Olympic hockey without NHL stars. As a man in his 20’s like our writer Spencer Love, Olympic memories have always been about NHL superstars competing for gold. Therein lies the big question: how do you untrain fans used to seeing superstars at the Olympics to watching amateurs? The Olympic hockey tournament becoming a glorified Spengler Cup is a real possibility here.
The Christmas break World Junior Hockey Championship Tournament being moved from yearly to only Olympic years is the only correct answer. This is how you would bypass the NHL and smartly put the focus back on amateur sports. That is if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman even pretended to care about the Olympics unless they give him anything and everything he wants for the athletes under his jurisdiction.
Of all the snafus with the above proposal the elephant in the room is it cannot be just one sport going back to the original concept of amateur competition. If Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby cannot play for Team Canada chasing hockey gold then LeBron James and Kevin Durant should not be able to play for Team USA for basketball gold.
The NHL going rogue holding out professionals is dumb. The league is directly asking its fans to choose between watching Canada versus the USA or a trivial game like Calgary versus Carolina.
For the hockey fan who is all about scouting the upcoming draft class, would you put your best 23 prospects against the best 23 NHL players? The answer should be “anything can happen in a one game showdown” which translates into “yes but they would probably lose”. With the permanent stain of million dollar players playing for Olympic gold, the question of whether prospect X is better than professional Y will forever haunt the mid-February spectacle. For the common NHL fan, naming 23 non-NHL players to fill the Olympic roster is a difficult task. Even for the staunchest anti-Sidney Crosby fan naming 23 Canadian hockey players better than him is currently an impossibility!
Should the outspoken Alex Ovechkin be barred from the Olympics because he is a professional athlete? Pre 1986 it was an answer written in stone - yes! This was not a case where hunger for competition or national pride was a factor, it was a case of being outside the rules of eligibility to play.
Straying away from the “amateurs only” genre has placed the Olympic Committee in a position where professional leagues can hold the event hostage. Shame on the NHL for being the first ones since the Soviet Union in 1984 to do so. The decision has to be made- amateur or professional athletes - because you cannot have both. “I want people to not be able to have their cake and eat it too,” is the sentiment by shared by staff writer Joshua Berube.
Olympic spirit is referred to athletes bonding together to play for their country. The correct meaning of Olympic spirit is amateur athletes bonding together to play for their country. Therefore this cannot be a situation where you blend some amateur level players with some professional NHL players, it has to be all-in on either amateurs or professionals.
Would the NHL trying to hold back players be easier to handle if it were mandated that amateurs only could compete throughout all Olympic Events? Yes! Will the IOC ever do it? The infamous rule change of 31 years ago suggests no!