Why do people enjoy the Olympics? No, seriously. I’m asking. Because nobody makes a peep about figure skating or snowboarding for four years, and then for two weeks in February everybody suddenly becomes an expert about axels and halfpipes, all while pinning their happiness on athletes they didn’t know existed a month ago. It’s as if Olympic fever grips America and no one, not even my misanthropic ass, is immune to getting at least a little bit invested.
But why does this happen? Nationalism? I enjoy rubbing Canadians’ faces into American hockey dominance as much as the next guy, but I haven’t been able to do that since [ checks record books] literally never. So that’s not why I’m watching. And while I don’t particularly care if we are the best at throwing ourselves off mountains, I do find myself transfixed by events like curling, even if it’s a match between South Korea and Great Britain.
It was during one such curling match that I finally asked myself: What could the NHL learn from the Olympics? How can a league that is competing with tape-delayed bowling for viewers use the Olympics as a guide to more popularity? Is there a way to take what makes the Olympics fun for the average sports fan and apply it to people who care about hockey the way the rest of us care about Olympic sports?
These are great questions, and I believe there are three lessons the NHL could take from the Olympics.
1. The “event” factor. A league with 82 regular-season games and as many as 28 postseason games every year will never have the special feeling of something that happens once every four years. I’m guessing we’d be less interested in who wins the Super-G if there were a Super-G League that had 82 Super-G events a year. There’s nothing the NHL can do in that regard to compete with the Olympics, although I’d like to see NBCSN’s “Super-G Rivalry Night” between countries that aren’t rivals in the slightest (“America! Luxembourg! Super-G! The night you love to hate!”).
That does not mean, however, that the NHL can’t still create “events” within its season, which right now feels so long you’d think it was a Judd Apatow movie. Revert to one outdoor game per year and it always features the previous season’s Stanley Cup finalists. Bring back the All-Star draft. Play the All-Star Game on the moon (when we have the technology). Make the draft lottery more TV-friendly.
From a psychological standpoint, simply airing one game per week on NBC in primetime would give NHL games that “event” feel. That would wear off eventually, but if you want to bring more people to a thing, you have to expose that thing to more people who would otherwise not see it.
2. Honest announcing. The Flyers dismantled the Rangers 7-4 on Sunday afternoon in front of a national audience on NBC. Henrik Lundqvist allowed all seven goals and was directly responsible for zero of them, as his teammates were so awful and disappointing they could have been mistaken for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The Rangers announced last week they’d be selling at the deadline and have been in free fall since the All-Star break. They are quite terrible, so this was the perfect time for announcers to tear the team to shreds or, at the very least, offer some criticism. Instead, Joe Micheletti, who works as the Rangers analyst on MSG broadcasts, offered praise for Lundqvist’s efforts in the face of poor play. He’s their MVP, this isn’t on him, blah blah blah.
While that’s true, that’s not what fans at home want to hear. Fans want honesty. Sometimes it’s a broadcaster’s job to take out the knives and carve. Yes, this is less likely to happen when national broadcasts employ local broadcasters, but it doesn’t happen during NBC broadcasts, anyway. It needs to. There isn’t a Rangers fan sitting at home watching that game who is interested in a limp defense of Lundqvist; they want you to bash everything around him, but NHL broadcasters are all too chickenshit to ever do this.
You know who’s not too chickenshit? Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. They will tear you apart after one mistake costs you your life’s dream if the situation calls for it. I’m not saying that style is universally loved, but fans at home want someone on TV who reflects their thoughts, and you never get that during national NHL broadcasts. They don’t want some asshole in a suit making excuses for someone’s fuckups; they want you to call out the fuckups. Weir and Lipinski are an oasis in this regard.
If you have honest announcing like you get from Weir and Lipinski, just knowing someone like that will be calling a game makes it a capital "E" Event. Don Cherry is a senile dipshit and people still look forward to his incoherent ramblings every Saturday night. Are they enlightening? Insightful? Intelligent? No! But people can’t help but watch because he’s unfiltered, for better or for worse (mostly worse). There is no American equivalent in hockey but there’s no reason why we can’t have a smarter version of Cherry down here.
A Sunday afternoon game featuring announcers carrying water for teams is the opposite of an event. NBC and NBCSN broadcasts are stodgy, devoid of personality, and thinly veiled PR for the league. People are fed enough bullshit in their lives that they shouldn’t have to swallow it during something as trivial as a hockey game.
3. Open, accessible athletes. Personality. It’s a great thing for an athlete to have. Other sports have them. The Olympics have tons of them. The NHL has P.K. Subban and… FILE NOT FOUND. It’s probably easier to be friendly and open when it’s only required of you for a few days every four years and you’re not involved in a team sport, but here’s an NHL secret: The league actually does have quite a few interesting players. Unfortunately, almost all of them have it beaten out of them by media training and a culture that frowns upon individuality.
Meanwhile, at PyeongChang, openly gay figure skater Adam Rippon made a name for himself when he told Mike Pence to eat shit, but became a household name thanks to, among other things, a comment about his magnificent eyebrows and another involving mixing a Xanax with booze. He will be remembered for years because of his exuberant personality—he was offered a television job, but turned it down—even though he never really had a chance to win an individual medal.
The NHL once had a platform that injected some personality and had the potential to make more names household ones: the All-Star draft. It was the league’s best players hanging out and drinking as the teams were picked, but it was nixed after 2015 because NHL fans can’t have anything too nice for too long.
Chloe Kim won snowboarding gold but became an American hero because she said she liked breakfast sandwiches and is probably minutes away from doing an Egg McMuffin commercial. That’s all it takes. Breakfast sandwiches. We’re not asking NHL players to feud like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, or get political like Chris Long. Just show your human side as often as possible.
You occasionally see it in NHL player tweets. Taylor Hall is an example of a player who is quick with a joke online. Brad Marchand will dunk on a Twitter idiot when he feels compelled. Are players like Hall and Marchand not being given opportunities to display their personalities on a regular basis offline? Are there more players like Hall and Marchand holding back online? Do they feel they must hide their personalities for fear of damaging their brand or alienating themselves from teammates?
Rippon and Kim proved you can bring positive attention to your sport, whether or not you win gold, simply by being yourself with enough people paying attention when you do it.
Unfortunately, the NHL seems to like operating in secret. Whether it’s keeping its players from going to the Olympics, or having its games on outlets like NBCSN or the Outdoor Life Network, or not having visiting scouts listed on attendance sheets—because God forbid fans have fun speculating about why a certain scout or GM is at a game—it's almost like the league is trying to hide itself from fans.
Olympic events like antelope racing and yellow snow eating are what hockey is to other people—give people a reason to have fun with it, and they will. NHL players can capture people’s imaginations the same way Olympians do if the league just allows it to happen. Maybe the NHL will finally talk about it in a couple years during the next lockout.