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NHL Should Capitalize on Olympics

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Gary Bettman is an idiot.

The commissioner of the NHL is threatening to prevent the league’s players from participating in the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia because the NHL has not received any bump in interest or revenues due to Olympic exposure.

Bettman was the captain of the sinking ship as they went through two work stoppages - the last one that cancelled an entire season - and expanding the league too quickly to the point of dilution. Bettman was in charge when the NHL got television contracts with a dying broadcast network and a niche cable channel that was most noted for airing Lance Armstrong riding his bicycle. Bettman was in charge during the dead puck era from the late 1990s until the lockout in 2004 that saw scoring plummet lower than the stock market did in 2008.

However with the Olympics, the interest in hockey in America has seen a huge uptick. The gold medal game drew a 17.6 rating with a 33 share in the overnight ratings according to Sports Business Daily, the highest rated hockey game since 1980. It beat every World Series game since 2004, every NBA Finals game since 1998 and every Final Four game since 1998. Basically the ratings have been up around 50% from the 2002 Salt Lake games and 2006 Torino games.

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In fact the interest in the hockey tournament grew to such a fever pitch, executives at NBC were forced to relinquish their tape delay broadcast control in favor of airing the US semifinal and gold medal game live on NBC. Not Lindsay Vonn, Apolo Anton Ohno, Bode Miller, Evan Lysacek nor any other American athlete or team commanded that sort of bargaining chip.

A lot of the interest can be attributed to Twitter and Facebook which were not mainstream social networking tools in the Salt Lake City and Torino games. In an instant one user would post about how great the US-Canada game was last week and slowly people trickled into the MSNBC broadcast of the game. In the gold medal game tweets starting with, “I don’t follow hockey but…,” littered my friends feed. Even subversive queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, a Canadian national with a huge distaste of macho culture and nationalism, took notice of the gold medal game albeit with disdain. “In lieu of watching the Neanderthal hockey game I am viewing The Happy Ending starring the late great Jean Simmons, scoring major gay points,” LaBruce tweeted.

Of course a lot of interest here in the States wouldn’t have happened if not for the US team that general manager Brian Burke put together. Burke with his usual strong will assembled a youthful team with only Brian Rafalski, Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner as players with Olympic experience. Burke was heaped with a lot of controversy especially in his decision to include Drury, but he got players who would sacrifice their bodies and hustle to block any offensive flurries to keep Team USA in the game. Rather than putting together an All Star team, he assembled a Stanley Cup team with players who knew their role.

And what can be said of that gold medal game that hasn’t already been said. Heart racing. Epic. It was an exhibition of hockey played at its finest.

If the NHL can’t capitalize on the great marketing goldmine they have stumbled upon, then it will further prove how inept those at the top are. But judging by the history of the league it won’t be surprising if they fumble this away also.