As we understand it, one of the primary reasons that NHL players are allowed to compete in the Olympics is to grow the sport beyond its core base of die-hard, lunatic fans. (And by “grow the sport,” we mean “increase the exposure of the NHL.” And by “increase the exposure of the NHL,” we mean, “make the NHL some money in the long term.”) It’s a smart plan, and we’re sure someone, somewhere will tune into Sunday’s NBC game of the week because it’ll feature American Patrick Kane and Canadian Jonathan Toews playing for the same team. And there’s surely at least one casual sports fan out there who hasn’t watched hockey in forever, heard what he was watching last week described as a playofflike atmosphere, and decided to watch his hometown team’s postseason games come April.
We’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about those people over the last week, starting with when the United States upset Canada last Sunday and suddenly, for the first time in a long time, hockey was at the forefront of the national sporting dialogue. But the more we think about it, the real winners over the last fortnight (besides, you know, Team Canada) were those die-hard lunatic fans, who got to spend two weeks watching the sport they love, played at the highest possible level, in a hypercondensed tournament that lends itself to the type of drama a late February NHL game can’t produce. Better still: They got to obsess over these games without judgment, because everyone else was obsessing over them, too.
The only problem, really, is that when those die-hards return to watching NHL action this week, the quality of play won’t really compare to what we’d grown accustomed to during the Olympics. Tape-to-tape passing, for example, or simply gaining the offensive zone, has looked so effortless for two weeks. (And when it hasn’t, it’s been because of stellar defense.) Tomorrow night, the Rangers will make it all look incredibly difficult. But after the drama of the last two weeks, we’re willing to struggle with that transition. It’s certainly worth it.