Thoughts on Olympic hockey

Since the moment the Olympics ended, the debate began.

What will this incredibly dramatic and wonderfully played hockey tournament do for the sport and the NHL?

I could go on the radio and elicit callers for their opinions or ask people to e-mail me their thoughts and I would probably get many different answers. Instead, I turned to my own family to learn what it might mean.

My 7-year-old son wants to play hockey. Before the Olympics, he had very little interest. In fact, he hardly liked to skate. Now, he wants in. That’s a tangible effect the tournament had right there. That’s not to say millions and millions of kids are going to feel the same way. He’s at an impressionable age and his dad does watch (and love) hockey for a living. But the point still stands. A kid not interested in hockey now is. Mission accomplished.

As for the NHL question, now that’s another story.

First, more background about my family. On Saturday night, after nearly two weeks of Olympic hockey and the tournament winding down, I thought a night without it might be nice. My wife felt differently. She wouldn’t know a puck from a football, but there she was, putting on the bronze medal game. I wondered why.

“Don’t you want to see if Hossa and his brother get a bronze or that jerk [Finnish goaltender Miikka] Kiprusoff is going to get it?” she asked.

I ignored that question and wondered instead, “Who is this person and what did she do with my wife?”

She didn’t even know why she got hooked but, of course, the rest of us do. That’s what great, championship caliber hockey will do. The only problem is, when I mentioned the Hawks-Islanders game on Tuesday, her response was, “Are you kidding? The ‘Good Wife’ is on TV.”

I think you get the point, but how can we expect people to go from USA-Canada for gold, to Predators-Panthers for nothing? We can’t. That’s not a realistic effect of the Olympics. The key is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. My wife should return for that, right?

Wrong. Unless it’s the seventh game of the conference championship series or maybe even just the Stanley Cup finals, she isn’t interested. And I’m guessing the nation, as a whole, won’t be either. Herein lies the problem.

The Olympics, with a little round robin to whet the appetite, is basically an elimination tournament. You lose and you’re out. Like the NCAA tournament. And how is that tournament working out, by the way? The casual fan simply doesn’t have the attention span for two months. Take the devoted fan out of your soul for a minute and imagine if the Stanley Cup Playoffs were always an elimination tournament since the invention of the sport. We wouldn’t think twice about it. Actually, I think we’d think it’s even better than it is now. I know, you love the multiple best-of-seven series that go on for eight weeks, but that’s only because you’re used to it.

I’m not going to go over every detail on how it would work but what if the playoffs were more like the Olympics. Maybe the division winners get a bye and there’s a little round robin so a loss, early, isn’t devastating, and then we move into the elimination round. You want the final round, for the Cup, two out of three? I can live with that. Think about the excitement it would generate, say, over three weeks, maybe a month at most. Every game would be a seventh game. I realize the “best” team, whatever that means, wouldn’t always win -- but so what? That basically happens now. You do have to reward regular season play and that’s where some of those byes come in. We can work out the details later, like where the games are played, etc. I know one thing -- my wife would watch.

I realize none of this will happen, but you should understand why the Olympics won’t have a lasting affect on the NHL. They are two different animals. One thing NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his people could do is shorten the playoffs by allowing fewer teams to qualify for the postseason. That’s an age- old argument which still applies. I’m guessing I’m not going out on a limb, but hockey in mid-June might not get the attention it deserves. Of course, baseball in November isn’t much better. Unfortunately, no one, from the players to the owners is willing to make less money for the good of the sport. It’s the only way shortening anything would work.

As Barry Melrose said on ESPN Radio, Monday, if this Olympics doesn’t give an uptick to the NHL, nothing will.

Sadly, I don’t think it will.