The Stanley Cup or Olympic Gold? Which is more coveted?
There is a great difference between growing up in the United States and Europe when it comes to sports. For one you don’t have to know what baseball is if you’re from Europe – one of the few benefits (sorry baseball fans). The second one is a bit more complicated and rather a big deal to me.
I grew up in Russia in a small town called Saint Petersburg. To you it may seem strange for me to call one of the major cities in Russia small, but it is when compared to where I live now – New York City. I have now lived in North America longer than I have in Russia, but because I left when I was 13, there are certain things that have been instilled in me that have not left. Drinking vodka is probably is one of them, but the sport culture is the more important one.
National sport pride and Olympics.
Olympics were by far the most important sporting event in Russia/CCCP. I remember watching every single event with my grandparents, both of whom served in the Soviet Army. We watched all of the events from figure skating to gymnastics to ice hockey to skiing. Naturally, we were much better at winter sports as a country and since everyone loves winners, more attention was given to the events for which we had a chance for a gold medal, but it would not take away from the overall interest in how other nations performed. After all, by the time I could appreciate sports, the Soviet Union broke up and we were introduced to new countries that would be participating independently.
So what made our country care about the Olympics? Simple – Geography. European countries are a spit-shot away from each other and this creates ideal conditions for multi-national tournaments. Every sport has a European championship tournament with soccer holding the most prestigious ones. It is instilled in you that at some point during each year you will be rooting for your country in a competition against rival countries.
In the past, the Olympic competitions also carried political weight, creating more heightened anticipation. This competition comes from the thousand of years of war between countries that are so close to each other, but now instead of swords they battle with hockey sticks and victories are counted by the amount of gold medals a country can win, not by death tolls.
In North America, hockey competition is mostly between cities. The only time the Olympics were heavily hyped was during the Cold War when USA/Canada had to defeat Russia due to political reasons in the USA’s case, or for hockey pride for Canadians (where major hockey competitions such as Olympics and the World Juniors are still MUST SEE TV). Tell me, was the Summit Series not infinitely more important to Canada than any Stanley Cup? Once the Soviet Union collapsed these rivalries lost their lustre, and even Hollywood had to find a new enemy to replace the Ivan Drago‘s of years past. Sure, the USA beating Canada in the 96 World Cup of Hockey created a buzz in the United States, but it’s not the same. It didn’t carry over. The United States’ losses in the 2002 and 2010 Olympic Gold Medal Games to Canada did not create a sense of national failure among hockey fans, the way it would have in Canada or in Russia if they were on the losing end.
Another blow to the Olympics importance in the US is how often the games are played. The Olympics will never draw the same attention of American fans, because it only happens once every 4 years unlike every other major sports that is available in North America – NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB.
Some may argue that the USA hockey program participates in international yearly championships, but only the hard-core fans pay attention due to time differences and lack of coverage by the mainstream media. There is an obvious lack of American coverage of the Hockey World Championships. Canada is a hockey crazy nation and even hosted the World Championship in 2008, but even then it takes a back seat to the Stanley Cup Playoffs which are being played at the same time. For myself, living in New York it is tough to catch a glimpse of the action, except, thankfully, on the lovely internet, which saves many a day.
So here is the question: which is more cherished the Stanley Cup or Olympic Gold? The answer is simple – the Gold.
While that answer is simple for me, some will undoubtedly disagree. Having been removed many years from my home country (thankfully so) and having really no true national pride for my homeland when it comes to politics, I do still root for Russian athletes. I root not just for the bragging rights, but because I somehow still care. It has been beaten into me to care. More than just the athletes and teams, I cherish those tournaments. To me the value is in the fact that it is once every four years. It is pure sport, pure competition, and just because you are good enough, does not mean you will be called upon. One of the greatest players to ever play in the NHL, Nicklas Lidstrom, recognizes the importance of the Olympics gold, even after winning almost every award possible in NHL.
Olympics also are a tougher mental competition. While in the Cup playoffs a goalie can be pulled and come back to win the next 4 games to advance to the next round, or if a player misses a one-timer into an open net, he can still rebound the next game. They call this mental toughness, resilience, and an ability to learn from your mistakes. In the Olympics’ elimination round, every mistake is final. There is no tomorrow and your entire country, not a city or a state, is depending on you to win. When entire countries shut down to watch the game, missing an empty-net one timer, giving up a 20-metre goal, and not winning leads to tremendous heart ache and disapointments.
This is why the European players care about the Olympics and will always participate. It blows my mind that NHL would even think about not letting these players play for their home country. This epic event happens once every four years. Schedule around it and let the best players play – not for money, contracts, but for the flag on their sweaters. It should unite people nation-wide. We need that unity sometimes. Our daily lives are already filled with people who are usually divided by sports, politics, and whether to eat at a Chic-fil-A or not. The Olympics gives a chance to forget about that and share a beer over a common interest, common goal, and a common flag.
To me, in the United States we do not get behind our national teams as we should, most people are apathetic towards the Olympics. Some will say that this is just because Hockey does not have national prominence in the United States. However I don’t see the same American pride to any of their Olympic Teams. The Dream Team is a national curiosity in Basketball due to the talent there, but it is not the source of passion that national teams are in Europe. To basketball fans an NBA title means much more. I guess because we are such a big country or because there are so many city vs city rivalries that we get bored by the national teams, which sucks. National events lack history, perhaps because we no longer have a villain to beat. But what we are missing is something wonderful. There is nothing like going into a bar for a FIFA World Cup game and have everyone in the bar rooting for team USA. Singing the national anthem before the game, jumping up at the missed opportunities, and celebrating with strangers when your team scores. I wish the same carried over for every sport, especially Olympic hockey, because the gold is not just a win for that player, that team, or that city…it is a win for the whole country.
So Stanley Cup or Olympic Gold?
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