Some familiar faces will be absent at the 2018 Winter Olympics: NHL players representing their countries in the men’s ice hockey tournament.
After months of negotiating with the IIHF, world hockey’s governing body, the NHL announced on Monday that its players would not be participating in the Pyeongchang Games. The NHL is opposed to a 17-day break in the NHL schedule to accommodate the matches.
The NHL said in a statement: “In an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, our intention [is] to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 regular-season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games. We now consider the matter officially closed.”
Olympic participation has been a hot-button issue among fans and players. And even though a decision has been reached, that doesn’t mean the debate won’t continue.
With last year’s gimmicky World Cup of Hockey drawing mixed reviews, and the annual world championships still not bringing out the world’s best players, NHL players participating at the Olympics for a true best-on-best tournament has become a celebrated and anticipated event on the hockey calendar.
So while hockey fans are definitely missing out, it’s possible that the NHL could end up suffering in the long-term as well.
So, really: why aren’t players going?
Money, naturally. After Canadian and New York Islanders star John Tavares was injured at the 2014 Olympics and missed the rest of the regular season, team owners and executives realized they were putting their assets at risk.
The IOC is not offering the same deal to the NHL that it did in 2014 in terms of travel and insurance costs – and this is at the centre of the NHL walking away. The NHL and its owners don’t profit from the Olympics the way they do the World Cup of Hockey.
Unless, of course, you deem exposure of its stars and the game at its best as a profit. But that’s not the way this league sees it.
Does the NHL need the Olympics?
Yes. The NHL is still light years away from being a globally recognized league similar to the NBA, and the Olympics are the perfect opportunity to increase professional hockey’s exposure. These tournaments have routinely provided some of the best hockey we’ve seen in recent years and it’s exactly the type of hockey that the league is moving towards: fast-paced, all skill and no fighting.
Since the 2014 Olympics, the NHL has welcomed a crop of generational players, including Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. These are players that the league will eventually try to make the faces of the game and Pyeongchang, would have been a perfect place for them to begin their ascent as hockey’s next Crosbys and Ovechkins.
You see, many hardcore hockey fans know that some of the best players in the world have vanilla-type personalities, and shrug off the notion that any kind of league rivalry could be built between McDavid and Matthews. But nothing says rivalry in hockey like Canada-USA, USA-Russia and Sweden-Finland, all of which would feature the world’s biggest stars.
That’s what you can sell, and that’s what third parties like those in South Korea and China would buy. But that’s not the way the league sees it.
What’s all this about a schedule change?
In 2014, the NHL halted play between 9 and 25 February to allow their players to travel to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. They also had no all-star game.
Had NHL players gone to Pyeongchang, similar changes to the 2017-18 season schedule were expected.
Have there been any recent issues with the NHL’s schedule?
Big time. To allow for the NHL-sanctioned World Cup before the season, the latter-half of the NHL season has featured a cramped schedule. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, will have 11 games in their final 19 days of the regular season. In a league that’s skewing younger, this can be especially taxing on players who have not acclimatized themselves to the late-season grind.
Furthermore, the NHL also gave each team a “bye week” this season to deal with the schedule changes, meaning no practices or games for five days. But even that was met with disdain from players, coaches and executives.
How do players feel about not going to the Olympics?
Maple Leafs and Canada coach Mike Babcock and Buffalo Sabres and USA star Jack Eichel voiced disappointment on Monday night, while Canadian goaltender Carey Price and Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist said similar.
Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson was blunt in his assessment: “Whoever made that decision obviously had no idea about what they’re doing.”
The NHL players’ union released a statement on Monday condemning the NHL’s “short-sighted” decision.
“The players are extraordinarily disappointed and disagree with the NHL’s short-sighted decision to not continue our participation in the Olympics,” it read. “Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season’s schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage.
“The league’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself. NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone. It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.”
Does this mean NHL players won’t be participating in any future Olympics?
Tough to tell. The 2022 Beijing Games, in a market the NHL clearly has eyes on, was the bargaining chip the IOC had. Whether the NHL’s decision emboldens the IOC to not offer any financial assistance in getting players to China remains to be seen. Nevertheless, a serious lack of foresight by the NHL could hurt the growth of the game in market that seems prime for the taking.
So NHL players won’t go: there will still be a men’s hockey tournament, right?
I don’t see why not. There are hundreds of Canadian and American players playing abroad and in junior and amateur leagues, not to mention some of the best non-NHL players in the Kontinental Hockey League and Swedish Hockey League. This just won’t be a best-on-best tournament, and given the time difference to major North American and European markets, the ratings are likely to suffer.
Is there the possibility that some players will go rogue and still compete in the Olympics?
I hope so. The NHL deserves to be publicly embarrassed on this, and if there’s a player that believes playing for his country trumps playing for his club, he should book his ticket to South Korea.
Some NHL owners, such as Ted Leonis of the Washington Capitals, have backed his players desire to go, telling ESPN.com late last year: “(Ovechkin) knows I have his back on this one. If this is what’s so important to him and he wants to go to the Olympics, he should be able to do that. Alex has meant so much to us. He doesn’t ask for much back. I’m not shy about saying it, I would support the player in this instance.”
This all sounds bad for hockey.
That’s because it is. South Korea might not be China, but for a league and game that should be focused on overall growth, this is a serious missed opportunity.
The NHL has further driven a wedge between themselves and their star players with this decision, the majority of who seem to want to go to the Olympics.
It’s a league still drenched in a conservative mentality that has prevented proper player safety with regards to its backwards-ass prevention of headshots, fighting and concussions.
The players lose because this is a tournament they truly love to play in. And those players who do go, NHL or not, won’t be given the proper fan attention, possibly out of spite. And finally, just when the visceral hate for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was slowly starting to subside, he will again become the punching bag for so many fans.
OK, but does this mean someone other than Canada could win the gold medal?
Canada won the gold medal at the 1952 Winter Olympics and didn’t win again for 50 years. Most of those tournaments were played by amateur players.
Canada has since won gold at the 2002, 2010 and 2014 tournaments.
Given that this decision likely opens the door for professional players in the KHL and Swedish Hockey League to participate, arguably the second and third-best leagues in the world, I would wager Canada won’t add to their recent gold medal haul.