An Olympic Showdown

By now, all hockey fans who haven’t been living under a rock have heard the news that the NHL will not be sending its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Citing a lack of growth, increased risk of injury, and more, the NHL Board of Governors and Commissioner Gary Bettman decided that the negative effects of participating in the upcoming 2018 games far outweigh the benefits.

While the corporate side of the NHL may feel as though skipping the Olympics is the better option, there has been a strong pushback by both players and fans who feel that skipping out on the Olympics cheapens the international competition, as the best players in the world are no longer representing their teams. The effects of skipping the Olympics are already beginning to manifest themselves in the NHL, with star players such as Alexander Ovechkin, Henrik Lundqvist, and Carey Price voicing disappointment with the decision, and NHL caliber players in the KHL, namely Ilya Kovalchuk, opting to stay in the KHL for the upcoming season in order to compete in the 2018 Olympic games.

However, while skipping out on the Olympics is almost universally opposed by the fans and by many of the players, the logic behind the decision is perhaps more sound than many fans are willing to admit, as the Olympics do not come at no-cost to the NHL. So before one comes out as staunchly opposed to the NHL’s decision on the 2018 Olympics, let’s take a look at some of the factors that led to this decision.

Why the NHL should skip out on the Olympics

One of the first things that comes into play is that, in order to participate in the Olympics, the NHL has to halt all action for a solid two weeks in the middle of February to allow its players to take part in the games, which further extends the season. While this may not seem like the biggest deal, one has to consider that a regular NHL season is already a grueling 9 months long, and that by the end of the playoffs, the players on the two teams left standing are almost always bruised and battered. Just think about how often we hear about how players fought through injuries in the playoffs, injuries we only hear about until after the season has ended, or after the injured player’s team is knocked out. It happens every single year, without fail, and the additional two weeks of hockey just adds to the wear and tear experienced by NHL players.

This leads into a second issue that the NHL faces with the Olympics: injuries sustained at the Olympics. It may not be as physical as the NHL, but international hockey is still hockey, and someone is always injured in the two-week tournament. As these are the best players in the world competing, a player being injured at the Olympics usually means it is one of the NHL’s bigger stars being sidelined for a period of time. In 2014, four NHL players sustained season-ending injuries, including John Tavares for the Islanders and Henrik Zetterberg for the Red Wings. In 2006, it was Dominik Hasek being injured in the Olympic games, and in 1998, it was Joe Sakic who had to go home early due to a knee-injury. All of these players were star players, some of the biggest names in the game, and they all went down in the Olympics, which would go on to have repercussions in the NHL.

However, even with the delay in the NHL season and the risk of NHL players getting injured, the Olympics may still have been worth attending merely to grow the game and the league, as the game of hockey itself receives the most international attention while at the Olympics. Just take a look at the 2010 gold medal game between Canada and the USA; the game was the most-watched television event in the history of Canada, and it was the most-watched hockey game in the United States since the 1980 gold medal game between the USA and Finland, which was the epilogue to the Miracle on Ice. And yet, even with an influx of viewership, the TV ratings achieved in the Olympics has not translated to higher ratings for the NHL. While the 2002 and the 2010 Olympic games, which both featured a Canada-USA final, were high points in the history of ice hockey, they did not effectively boost NHL viewership. Meanwhile, the 1998, 2006, and 2014 games not only did not strengthen NHL viewership, they also struggled to garner strong TV ratings on their own.

Additionally, the case for the NHL skipping the Olympics is only supplemented when looking at contract and rights forfeited by the NHL when sending players to the games. Everyone remembers that historic moment in 2010 when Sidney Crosby, the Captain of Team Canada and a player considered to be one of the best players in the history of the game, scored the Gold Medal winning OT goal over rival Team USA, right? Now do you remember seeing that replay on the NHL network? Or on Or on any NHL owned media source? Well, you wouldn’t, because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t allow the NHL to use highlights from the Olympics. Additionally, it costs roughly 15 million dollars for the NHL to send players to the Olympics, with the cost of travel, room and board, insurance, and more adding up quickly. The IOC has been willing to cover these costs in the past, but for the 2018 Olympics, they refused, telling the NHL to foot the bill. The business model the IOC runs has historically been strongly one-sided in their favor; the only reason the NHL had been able to send players in the past is because the NHL has managed to get some concessions from the IOC. However, these concessions were not made for the 2018 games, and coupled with the other factors mentioned, the NHL has decided that too much is being asked of the league, and that it is not worth sending players to the games.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Why the NHL should send players to the Olympics

All that being said, there are still some pretty good reasons as to why the NHL should send players to the Olympics. It is true, the business-side of the NHL-IOC relations may be a bit unbalanced, but there is still plenty to gain from going to South Korea.

For anyone who has ever rented/bought/leased an apartment or house, the idiom “location, location, location” makes complete sense; the same apartment set-up in the downtown district of a city will cost three times of that in the suburbs. In terms of the NHL and the Olympics, “location, location, location” has a slightly different, yet equally important, distinction. It is no secret that the NHL is trying to grow its brand in the Far-East; in fact, during the 2017-18 preseason, the NHL will kick-off its first ever “NHL China Games”, which will feature NHL teams (this year, the Kings and Canucks) playing preseason games in China. The logic in doing so is simple: there are over 1.3 billion people in China. That is more than all of the USA, Canada, and Europe combined, and then some. Even if only 1% of the Chinese population were to follow the NHL, that’s an additional 13 million people right there. The NHL should be trying to get a foot in the door in China, just as other sports, such as the NBA or the numerous European Football (Soccer) Leagues, are. There is money to be made there. And what better way to stir some excitement and get some positive press for hockey in the Far-East than by sending the best hockey players in the world there for the Olympic games? This isn’t like having NHL participation in Olympic games being held in the USA or Canada, places where the NHL already exists and thrives, this is an opportunity to grow the game in a region of the world that hasn’t experienced NHL caliber hockey before, something that the NHL is already trying to do.

Furthermore, and keeping with the theme of growing the game in the Far-East, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games are going to be held in Beijing, China, and the NHL clearly will want to participate in these games, and has already expressed its interest in doing-so. However, as it stands, the IOC is playing hardball with the NHL, and has expressed the position that NHL participation in the 2022 games is contingent upon NHL participation in the 2018 games. Now, 2022 is still 5 years away, meaning there is still a long time left to negotiate on those games, but the NHL is taking a risk by stepping away from the 2018 when the IOC has publicly expressed that the 2018 and 2022 games are a package deal. Basically, the NHL is betting that the IOC is merely bluffing, which is a legitimate possibility; however, that seems like an awfully big risk to take. Only time will tell what happens with the 2022 games, but if the IOC stands true to its word, then the NHL will have blown a major opportunity in its hockey-evangelization efforts.

Finally (and perhaps the reason that will resonate the most with NHL fans), the NHL should allow its players to go for a simple reason: the fans want it and the players want it. Again, it is no secret that the fans want to see NHL players in the Olympics, and why wouldn’t they? The Olympics is the arena where bragging rights are won, it’s where national pride is on the line; players are not playing for money, they are playing for glory. When it comes to the Olympics, it doesn’t matter if you’re an Oilers fan or a Flames fan, because during those two weeks in February, you are a Team Canada fan. The fans want to see it, and the NHL, which purports to care about its fans, should give the fans what they want to see. And if that isn’t enough, the players also want to play. Numerous players have voiced their disappointment with the NHL for skipping out on the Olympic games, and not just your run-of-the-mill guys, but NHL superstars such as Ovechkin, Price, Lundqvist, Karlsson, Savard, and more. The players understand the risks associated with playing, they know what is at stake, but they want to represent their native countries, they want to play with their flags on their sweaters, so let them. Quit catering to the owners, give the players, the guys that are actually stepping out onto the ice every night, the guys who the fans are paying to see play, the right to decide their own fate on this one. They have earned that right.

Closing Thoughts

While the NHL has adamantly stated that the door has closed on the 2018 Olympic games, there is still the possibility that the IOC and NHL reach an agreement before the season begins. There is no doubt that both sides would like to reach an agreement that benefits both organizations, but that will require both compromise and competency, something that neither side has a great history of. As it stands, the NHL does have a lot of strong reasons not to send its players to the games, and the IOC does shoulder a lot of the blame. However, there are also a lot of good reasons to send players to the games. Whether the Cons outweigh the Pros, I’ll leave it up to the individual to decide; however, the NHL has taken the stance that there is more to lose than to gain, and from the looks of it, the Olympics will return to its pre-1998 format of having Eastern bloc pros beating up on North American amateurs. But who knows, maybe another Miracle on Ice will come out of it; at this point, that might be our best hope.

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