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The Gradual Improvement in Olympic Hockey...

The Olympics have gradually changed from a purely amateur tournament at its outset to a partially-professional tournament in the 1980s and early 1990s and finally, its present format as the top hockey tournament in the world. This table shows the number of players in each Olympic games who ultimately played in the NHL and the number who played in more than 20 games that same season or in the next season:

Year NHL Plyrs Yr0/Yr+1>20
1956 1 0
1960 6 0
1964 8 1
1968 17 1
1972 15 3
1976 14 3
1980 49 14
1984 58 27
1988 78 26
1992 92 43
1994 89 21
1998 136 104
2002 165 118
2006 161 132

Obviously, many of the European - particularly Eastern Bloc - players took many years to come to the NHL. I have to admit that I don't understand the rules and conventions regarding professionals and how they changed in various years prior to 1998. The Russians and Czechs obviously fielded full professional teams, while the Swedes and Finns played younger pros. Canada would sometimes send a team of university players - or, as it did in 1988, it would send a team of almost entirely experienced professionals. I know it's a sacrilege to bring this up, but even the 1980 US Olympic team had several professional players on it, and they had to re-acquire their amateur status in order to play in the games.

At any rate, what I wanted to know is how the level of play has changed in the Olympics over the years. We can answer this using league equivalencies. That is, we look at players who played in the Olympics and then played in the NHL during the same season or in future seasons and determine how their scoring changed on a points-per-game basis. Only in the last eight Olympics were there enough players who made the jump:

Year Eq Yr0 Eq Yr+1 Eq Yr+2
1980 0.80 0.94
1984 0.95 1.05
1988 0.80 0.73
1992 1.07 1.01
1994 0.75 1.06
1998 1.43 1.56
2002 1.21 1.24
2006 1.64 1.50

An equivalency of 1.00 means the level of competition was just as tough as the NHL; anything above 1.00 means the tournament was more difficult than the NHL. Obviously having all of the world's best players play in the last three Olympics has substantially raised the level of play. In the five Olympics before that, the level of play averaged 90% of that of the NHL, with 1992 likely the strongest and 1988 the weakest. So even though the Russians sent seasoned pros to each of these tournaments, the overall level of play did not consistently exceed the level of play in the NHL.