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Olympics about honour, not buck

By Zack WilsonStaff Contributor

This past holiday season, sports fans the world round were privy to one of the greatest hockey tournaments in the history of the game. That said, the 2010 Olympic form of hockey will be hard pressed to outdo what transpired at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Hockey tournament.
At the 2010 Winter Olympics, the world’s eyes will be fixated on Vancouver, B.C. Eight years ago, the city was chosen. Since then it has undergone a massive transformation in an effort to ready the city for the world’s greatest sports event. Vancouver is no different than any other metropolis in Canada, in that it is a hockey crazy city. For the first time since Calgary, Canadians will be able to watch our athletes strive for victory on home soil.
As is usually the case, our men’s hockey team will be under the microscope, although, unlike in Calgary, this team will be made up of professional players from the NHL. Whereas in the past Olympic hockey was played purely by amateur athletes, for the first time Canada will witness the game’s best players in our own backyard.
For millions of Canadians, the two most important weeks on the sporting calendar (in non-Olympic years) run from Boxing Day through to the early days of the new year. Within this time frame, young men from 10 nations travel thousands of miles, don their country’s colours and go to war in an effort to be crowned kings of the junior hockey world. Unfortunately for the 5.6 million Canadians that tuned in to watch the final game of the 2010 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships between Canada and the U.S., our boys came up just short. They lost 6-5 to the Yanks in overtime in what will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest games in tournament history.
Some may find it hard to believe that a tournament made up of amateur teenage competitors could draw an audience of that magnitude, but it really isn’t all that inconceivable. To begin with, Canadians love to see their country win. Unlike any other major hockey tournament, the Canadians have dominated this competition in a way that no other nation can possibly dream of.
We are watching the future of hockey. A great number of these young men will grow up to be some of the greatest players in the game. Canadians love their amateur athletes. Despite the fact that our government does relatively little to support them, we always rally around our under-endorsed crop.
Something that needs to be taken into consideration is that when these juniors shed their club jerseys in favour of their national colours, they do so without a professional contract. National Hockey League players on the other hand have the luxury of signing multi-million dollar deals and then simply playing them out, these teenagers don’t have such liberties. Hypothetically speaking, all an NHLer with a multitude of talent would need to do is put in a few good years until it came time to sign an inflated contract. The player could then relax while watching his retirement fund grow. This is not to say that men who sign these deals (which are now exceeding the $100 million mark) did not work to get where they are. But once they have reached this point and have their names on these financial papers, where is the incentive to perform?
Unlike the men of the professional ranks, the teenagers that defend their country’s honour in the hockey world are playing for their livelihood. Aside from a select few, none of these kids are guaranteed jobs in the NHL and not a single one of them is assured of a long and fruitful career in the game of hockey. For a considerable portion of them, the NHL is anything but a given.  Due to this fact, these boys are willing to play more recklessly and lay more on the line than any paid NHLer (whose base salary is $475,000 per year). This all translates into a much more exciting brand of hockey.
One can’t help but salivate at the prospect of the world’s best hockey players (junior and professional) taking to the world’s biggest stage and vying for Olympic supremacy. Despite the fact that the Olympic rosters will be bloated with professional hockey players, the tournament itself is an unpaid event. Much like the World Junior tournament, the men partaking in this competitive event are doing so strictly out of national pride. Once the two weeks in which the Olympics take place have come to an end, most of these guys will strut back to the financial security of their NHL clubs, but for the Olympic fortnight these pros will become unpaid soldiers, fighting a labour of love for their countries. It is almost as if these endorsed stars will have been transported back in time to the days when they played the game of hockey for nothing more than pride and pleasure rather than the pursuit of capital gain.
Many of the Olympic hockey participants are not strangers to the intern ational game. For example, of the players selected to the Canadian roster, 18 played for their country at the World Junior tournament. The number of those with international experience is even greater considering those who have represented their nation at events such as the World Under-18 Challenge, the World Championships and the Spengler Cup.
There is no doubt that the NHL is an exciting league. With a fan base that far exceeds 100 million, and TV broadcasting deals in more than 80 countries worldwide, it is impossible to deny the league’s status.
As a direct result of such widespread popularity, massive revenues incur and the league’s players are paid accordingly. Each and every one of these competitors played some form of junior hockey in which they were unpaid. All of them looked forward to and hoped for a successful playing career. As a result, these young men were willing to lay it all on the line in hopes of being given a shot at the big leagues. This determination and drive has produced – and continues to produce – some of the greatest hockey ever played.
Quite a large number of men, who were themselves once amateur juniors, will take to the ice this month in Vancouver dressed national colours. For some, it will be the first time in a while they have not been contractually obligated to play hockey. Whether this will ultimately result in a form of hockey that cannot be paralleled by the NHL is yet to be determined. Will the 2010 version of Olympic hockey produce an on-ice product comparable to this past year’s World Junior tournament? We’ll have to wait and see.

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