The NHL has a very brief history with the Olympics. The history is interesting because it exposes the double-standard of amateurism and the “Olympic Movement” as a whole. Let’s start off with the history of professional athletes in the Olympics. Officially professional athletes did not participate in the Olympics until 1992 in Barcelona when the NBA had their players play. This was also the advent of The Dream Team: USA Basketball’s compilation of the top players that the NBA had to offer them. They ran the floor and were undefeated until the 2004 Olympics in Athens when they finished third. The NBA is not in the same situation as the NHL where there always the question of if they will go or not because basketball in the Summer Olympics and not the Winter Olympics even though the NBA season is during the winter.
Now that it has been established when athletes who compete in professional leagues were allowed into the Olympics, let’s look into the greyest area of this history: The Soviet Union and their hockey program. While they did not have a hockey program until the 1946, they soon emerged as a force to be reckoned with under head coach Anatoli Tarasov. Tarasov is an interesting study because most of what he learned from hockey was from a Canadian named Lloyd Percival who wrote two books called The Hockey Handbook and How to Play Hockey Better that were poorly received in Canada. The books were against the common hockey philosophy in the country where hitting opponents was seen as the best way to win hockey games and because Canada was the king of the hockey world, there was no reason to change or evolve this thinking.
In 1954 the Soviet Union won their first gold at the Men’s World Championships. By this point they had found a way to work around all the amateur rules that hampered other nations in international hockey: their league teams were tied to different branches of the military or unions, making it possible for their athletes to dedicate themselves to hockey 100% of the time while still playing under the guise that they were in the military or working for a state company and playing as amateurs. The Soviet Union long gamed the system when it came to amateurs in order to win many gold medals.
Looking at the more recent Olympics, athletes are able to compete professionally and compete nowadays. Sports like athletics, tennis, soccer, golf, curling, snowboarding, and skiing all feature playing for money and professional circuits that involve prize money. Amateurism at the Olympics is only preserved by those going into the NCAA where making money off of being an awesome athlete is forbidden. Outside of that slim number of athletes who forgo earnings to compete at a university level in the US, there is a surprising amount of ways for athletes to make money: from being the best at their sport to being memorable and capable of selling something for that reason. The truth is the Olympics stopped being amateur for a time before professional athletes entered the discussion.
Back to the Olympic hockey of Lillenhammer in 1994 back: the Soviets brought their team of full-time hockey players masquerading in different professions while all the other countries had to keep players from turning professional so they could retain a national team. In Canada, players like Glenn Anderson had to forgo signing a professional contract and live on far less than he could have made in the NHL to play in the Olympics. Canada and other countries advocated the IIHF to change the inequalities that Russia had created by gaming the system and tying all their professional teams to actual professions. Canada’s and Sweden’s hockey teams boycotted Olympics and World Championships because of this odd form of amateurism, but nothing was changed.
In an interesting move, Canada started the Canada Cup in order to create a true best on best tournament where they could play their professional players against Russia’s. The Canada Cup morphed into the World Cup of Hockey. The Canada Cup and the World Cup of Hockey was Canada’s retaliation to the Soviet Union with the idea that they were a superior hockey nation because they were able to beat Canada’s true amateurs with their amateurs who were able to train full time. Remember, the height if this hockey rivalry was when political tensions were high between Communism in the East and Democracy in the West. In a lot of ways hockey was pitting two ways of life against each other and it mattered so much more. At the time the Canada Cup started there was no other avenue for Canada to participate in a best on best tournament.
By 1998, when the NHL and IOC first allowed NHLers to go to the Olympics en mass, the need for the West to prove their superiority over the Eastern Bloc countries, especially the Soviet Union, was long gone. Instead the rivalry is cultural and not political. The tensions between Canada and other countries with the IIHF over who is considered amateur will no longer play out because there is no longer a debate over amateurism and which athletes are amateur. The Olympics and World Championships were for those who did not make money playing professional hockey according to their home nations while the Canada Cup/World Cup of Hockey were open to professionals so the best in the field could compete against each other.
The Olympics have evolved to include many athletes who compete professionally at an elite level. Long gone are the day of the Winnipeg Falcons competing in the Olympics. The Olympics have long stopped aspiring to be the pion of amateur sport and instead have become a place where sport and the human spirit can and is celebrated above all. Canada and Russia still do not get along and the reason for that is still political, but those political reasons no longer spill over onto the ice. The NHL has evolved to feature the best in the world, not just the best in North America. There is no way to have a best on best tournament anymore without the NHL participating.
The history of international hockey shows that politics played a huge role in the lack if best on best tournaments for men. Because of the NHL season runs later than the European season and into the World Championships, it is impossible for any country to send their best team, even if every single available player agreed to go. This is what made the Canada Cup and for a short time the Olympics special. It was best on best and it was simply to show who was the greatest hockey nation in the world. Canada cared about being the best hockey nation that they made the Canada Cup final a three game series after the Soviet Union beat them in 1981. And that is why best on best tournaments mean so much to everyone.
Information in this article comes from The Greatest Game by Todd Denault, The Game by Ken Dryden, and research from a university paper on the 1982 Summit Series.