Nearly every U.S. sports fan and absolutely every U.S. hockey fan knows the legend of the “Miracle on Ice.” The semi-final matchup featured a heavily favored Soviet Union team, which had previously won five of six gold medals and featured pro players with significant experience in international play. The United States was composed of promising young college kids and amateurs, many from small towns where they grew up playing on frozen ponds. David smote Goliath that day in Lake Placid 4-3. The U.S. beat Finland anticlimactically two days later to win the Gold.
Amateur status rescinded
For much of the 20th century, the International Olympic Committee strictly required all athletes at the games to be amateur. This rule led to stripping Jim Thorpe of his track and field medals for taking expense money while playing baseball in 1909-10. The Soviets got around this rule by playing on military or corporate hockey teams, despite having the sole purpose of playing elite-level hockey. The luster placed upon amateur status faded over time, overshadowed by the call for top players to represent their countries, as well as the obvious hypocrisy of the “amateurism” rules. Eventually, professional athletes were embraced at the Olympic Games, including marquee players from the NBA and the NHL.
NHL takes a pass
The NHL players did not compete in the 2018 Olympics, but a subsequent collective bargaining agreement allowed players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 games. However, COVID protocols postponed 50 NHL games by December 23. Team owners and the players association decided that the COVID-related time off plus a break for the Olympics would be too much of a scheduling setback. The league will now use the break planned for the Olympics to make up postponed games.
The rosters for the Olympic teams will once again feature amateur college players and professional players who play in other leagues outside the NHL. The NHL players are quoted as being disappointed. Still, they all seem to understand that the league must prioritize its players’ safety and its obligations of finishing the season and playoffs within a reasonable amount of time.
An opportunity for the young to shine
The NHL is the international gold standard for hockey. So, this decision doesn’t mean that a team of professionals will be playing teams of amateurs as the Soviets did in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, it will benefit the countries with the deepest youth programs. Individually, it provides life-changing opportunities to all the young players, which is not a bad thing.