Is Olympic Hockey Worth The Price For The NHL?

Hockey is a mainstay of the Winter Olympics, but its timing conflicts with the NHL calendar. Some suggest it should join the Summer Olympics. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Mike Pesca of Slate.com.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for sports

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MARTIN: Forget for a second about medal counts, judging scandals and speedskating suits - the final event of the Winter Olympics wrapped today. Some might even call it the main event. Canada beat Sweden in the gold medal men's hockey game. Here to break it down for us is Mr. Michael Pesca. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi. I know a country slightly to the north of the U.S. that would it the main event, yes.

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MARTIN: So, besides inventing the sport of hockey, what gave Canada the edge here?

PESCA: Defense. They knew coming in that this was going to be the key to the tournament. All teams preach this about the Olympics - bigger ice, defending that ice, going to be an issue and they weren't that confident with their goalies. You know, they only gave up three goals a tournament. Their goaltender, Carey Price, was brilliant. But it was everyone in front of him. And no one doubted that they had the firepower except during the tournament, they were only winning games, you know, 2-to-1. But they were just brilliant. The Swedes, a good team, couldn't really get anything going all game.

MARTIN: So, we didn't, of course, see the American team in the final. The lost the bronze medal game yesterday against Finland after losing to Canada in the semifinals. Now, most of these guys - all of these guys, I mean - play for the NFL, right? So...

PESCA: Yeah, NHL, yeah.

MARTIN: ...NHL rather. But is it worth it for the league? I mean, are they reassessing when they can't even win a medal?

PESCA: They really are. And it's not just the U.S. team, I mean. Obviously, Team Canada, most - Team Russia, Team Sweden - either all or the majority of those players are NHL players. And the problem for the NHL is, hey, it's a great event for us the viewers and for the players. But there were $3.2 billion worth of contracts skating around there in Sochi. And the possibility of an injury is a real one. John Tavares of the Islanders got hurt, is lost for the season because of this sort of extracurricular activity. Owners or team chairmen, like Ed Snider of the Flyers, just says flat-out I hate it. This season is interrupted. And even though we might think because we love Olympic hockey, you know, the fans do, the players do, we might think the NHL is churlish, they are the ones paying these guys so much money. They are interrupting their season. No other sport is asked to do that, right? When the NBA sends its players, it's to the Summer Olympics and there's no season going on.

MARTIN: So, there's no upside at all?

PESCA: You know, I think there is an upside. I know that. So, I mentioned Ed Snider. Eugene Melnyk, who's the owner of the Senators, he says he's done studies and he says that there's a negative correlation with how players do when they come back and if they played in the Olympics. Teams that send more players do worse. But that was a really small sample size. So, maybe we'll see a lot of Olympians, if they go to the Stanley Cup, I think that that could be almost a snowballing of the story. The ratings, after the 2010 Finals, which was the highest-rated hockey game ever, the ratings for the NHL went nowhere, but still we've never seen a United States team win a gold. And if that happens, I think that maybe it really would give the NHL a shot in the arm. And the other big thing is the players really insist on it. And one reason they were in Russia this year is that Alexander Ovechkin, a Russian, said I am definitely going to my home country. There are no South Koreans in the NHL, which is where the Olympics are next year, but...

MARTIN: That's fine.

PESCA: Yeah, I know. But it'll be good to see hockey, NHL hockey, still in the Olympics.

MARTIN: OK. You got a curveball this week?

PESCA: I do. The Dutch speedskating team was so awesome - they won 23 out of 36 medals. But really the maximum that they could have won was 32 because four of those medals had to go to the silver and bronze medalists in the teams. However, if you go back to 1972, the East German luge team won eight of nine medals. The women swept. The East German women from 1972 to 1988 - that's five Olympics - won 13 out of the 15 medals. Now, they did cheat. They did heat their runners and they did also pump their athletes full of drugs. But, man, what a run.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. Mike Pesca. You can hear his weekly podcast, Hang Up and Listen, on Slate.com. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: Oh, you're welcome.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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