Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Marc Thiessen doesn't seem to be a very good columnist (aka Hockey Fact Check #1)

There seems to be a lot of people upset that the Washington Post has hired former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen as a new weekly columnist, primarily because he's been a strong proponent of torture and has even written a book defending it (although if you read the comments bashing him below his first column, you'd think he'd personally waterboarded prisoners at Gitmo.)

Sure, I find it a little odd that after hiring former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson to write an op-ed column, the Post would a couple years later hire another former Bush speechwriter -- but if the guy has something interesting to say and a fresh way of saying it, why not? Unfortunately, I read his first column, which is about hockey -- something I know a lot more about than torture. And if it's a preview of what's to come, Thiessen won't be a very good columnist, because all he does is demonstrate that he has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to hockey.

Thiessen's argument in his column, "Don't expect miracles in Vancouver," is that it's too bad professional hockey players now participate in the Olympics, because we can never have a repeat of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team, where a U.S. team of college kids and other amateur players knocked off the greatest hockey team in the word from the Soviet Union. As he writes:

If Team USA defeats Russia in the Vancouver Olympics, Max and I will be cheering -- but I doubt a generation of children yet-to-be born will be celebrating the victory decades from now. The Miracle on Ice is considered one of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history not just because of the cold war backdrop, but because a bunch of college kids took on the greatest hockey team in the world and won. If the American squad had been made up of NHL players, it's unlikely that they would have inspired a blockbuster movie, or that we'd be marking the anniversary of their win.

That's a noble, good-hearted sentiment, but it completely ignores reality -- and history.

First of all, the Olympics now, as opposed to 30 years ago, doesn't require amateurism (or not earning money from your sport) in order to participate. All the top Olympic athletes in every sport are professionals. But even if the NHL decided it won't allow its players to participate in the Olympics, that wouldn't mean that we'd ever get a repeat of anything close to the "Miracle on Ice." Back in 1980, while the Western nations could only send amateurs, the Eastern bloc nations were somehow able to skirt those rules and send their best professional hockey players to the Olympics (I think they claimed, for instance, that their top team, the Soviet Red Army team, actually earned their money by working for the army or something--I never really undestood this, but somehow the Soviets got away with it.) But 30 years later, with no Iron Curtain, almost all the best Russian hockey players are now playing in the NHL. So if the NHL didn't send its players to the Olympics, you'd have a bunch of U.S. college kids competing against a bunch of Russian college kids, young players who haven't left for the NHL yet -- and maybe a few past-their-prime Russians now playing in the top Russian league, like a 40-year-old Sergei Fedorov. You think that would inspire a movie or an anniversary commemoration? Don't think so.

But more than that lack of knowledge of history or hockey, what annoyed me about Thiessen's piece was his line that "for the sake of hockey fans and for the sake of the NHL," the NHL should decide not to send its players to the next Olympics. Now there is a solid argument -- even if I don't agree with it -- for why the NHL should consider not sending NHL players to the Sochi, Russia Olympics in 2014. Thiessen doesn't even really make it.

He does mentions the risk of injuries -- which is of some concern but I think is somewhat blown out of proportion. At the most, it's six extra games, and of course there is the risk of injury. But there's a risk of injury in every game when the players return to the NHL, too. That's just sports. The actual good argument that the NHL has in its quiver is its concern that shutting down its league for two weeks during the stretch run of the season in February may not be worth it financially, considering the lack of benefit the league gets from it. The NHL originally agreed to shut down the season every four years for the Olympics because they hoped it would show off their most talented players to the much bigger television audience that the Olympics provides. But with the games either being broadcast live in the middle of the night (as in Nagano in 1998 and likely in 2014 in Sochi) or never being shown -- or on most nights even mentioned -- on the NBC prime-time broadcast but instead totally shunted off to NBC's sister networks like USA and CNBC like this year, they wonder whether they're getting any exposure except to diehard hockey fans. The disrespect from NBC has gotten even worse in the last two days--six out of the seven games played as I write this have been joined in progress in the first period either because curling went into overtime or CNBC was showing the last five minutes of a 13-0 women's hockey game. I actually think even with the indignities heaped upon the NHL, though, this Olympic tournament will help the NHL in the long run. The league hasn't had this many young, exciting stars in as long as I can remember, and a potential Russia-Canada meeting in the gold medal game would only pump up the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry even more for what hopefully will be meeting this spring in the playoffs.

But even if the NHL doesn't get that much benefit from these games, I don't care -- because I'm a hockey fan. That's what makes me so angry about Thieseen's piece, that he claims that not sending NHL players to the Olympics is somehow the best thing for hockey fans. Thiessen is apparently not an actual hockey fan, because any true fan of the sport wants to see the best players in the world. And he's not going to be a very good columnist, because he doesn't even try to refute -- or even acknowledge -- his opponents' best argument.

Thiessen argues that the Olympics should be reserved for seeing up and coming stars in college and junior hockey, because that level of hockey doesn't get the exposure that college basketball and football get. Well, yeah, because hockey in the U.S. just isn't as popular a sport as football and basketball are. But if you want to see college and junior hockey, ESPNU and ESPN broadcast the Frozen Four and other games in the NCAA hockey tournament, and the NHL Network broadcast much of the World Junior Championships this past December and January. If Thiessen wants to see those tournaments, he now knows where to find them.

In the Olympics, why shouldn't we want to see great hockey? The Olympic hockey tournament is any hockey fan's dream -- Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the USA all with teams loaded with NHL stars playing not in some all-star game where no one cares who wins, but for an Olympic gold medal. It features great skating, skill and goaltending and intense games. Missing out on such games would be good for hockey fans? How exactly? People have been talking about this tournament for weeks--and have you seen how excited Canadian fans are for it?

Thiessen argues that NHL players wouldn't trade a Stanley Cup for Olympic gold. That may be true for most players, but it's not a clear-cut call in many cases. (In fact, Alex Ovechkin has repeatedly refused to say which is more important, saying he wants to win both, and saying only, "The Olympics is first, then the Stanley Cup.") This isn't like tennis, for instance in the Olympics, where any player would rather win Wimbledon than a gold medal. Hockey has a great tradition of international games. One of the most famous moments in Canadian sports history in Paul Henderson's goal with 34 seconds left to win the 1972 Summit Series for Canada over Russia. That led to the international Canada Cup tournaments in the 1970s and 1980s featuring professional players. And of course, being part of Team USA still is a huge thing for any American hockey player who lived through or even heard stories of the Miracle on Ice.

I'm going to watch the end of the USA-Norway game and get excited for the Russia-Slovakia game later tonight. I hope if Thiessen really is a hockey fan he'll be watching too. I can only hope that Thiessen decides to write about torture in his next column for the Post. He's got to know more about that than he does about hockey, right?

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