By Kalyn Story | News Editor
For the first time since 1994 the NHL did not send its players to the Olympics. This was a decision based largely on money and is negatively affecting NHL players, hockey fans and the sport as a whole.
Before the 1998 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the NHL agreed on a deal that would bring NHL players to the games with their costs and insurance covered by the IOC. As reported in the National Post in 2016 the IOC had paid for the travel, insurance, accommodations and other costs for NHL players in previous Olympics, but refused to continue to do so for 2018. The NHL also cited reasons such as not wanting to pause the season or risk injuries to players as reasons for not participating in the games.
Covering insurance was an obstacle for the IOC; insurance for NHL players cost the organization $7 million during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, according to the New York Times.
The NHL has been said to be a business first and a sport second, and that has never been more clear than in it’s decision to not participate in the 2018 Games and it is time for that notion to change.
The National Hockey League Players’ Association put out a strong statement against the decision in April.
“The players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision not to continue our participation in the Olympics,” the statement said. “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 United States Olympic Committee responded to the decision with a statement posted on its website: “We’re disappointed that the N.H.L. has decided not to participate and feel for the players who were looking forward to the Games. That said, we’re confident U.S.A. Hockey will build the best-possible team to compete and win in Pyeongchang.”
One of the most outspoken proponents of playing in the Olympics is Russian star Alex Ovechkin. Originally, Ovechkin said he would leave the Washington Capitals to play for Russia even if the NHL did not break for the Games. However, he has since said he would stay with the NHL this season.
“I see the news this week and I am very disappointed that IOC, IIHF and NHL put me and all NHL players in this position when some of the best players in world do not have chance to play in the Olympic Games,” Ovechkin said in a statement released in April. “This is not just about me but all the NHL players who want to play and have a chance to win Gold for their country. Our countries are now not allowed to ask us to play in the Olympics. Me, my teammates and all players who want to go all lose. So do all the fans of hockey with this decision that we are not allowed to be invited. NHL players in the Olympics is good for hockey and good for Olympics. It sucks that will we not be there to play!!”
Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist told ESPN there is no better hockey to be part of than at the Olympics.
“As a player, the level of hockey there, when you’re in a one-game-takes-all and you’re on Canada playing the U.S., there’s no better hockey you’re going to be a part of,” Keith told ESPN. “As a competitive guy, I want to be part of those games. And obviously I want to represent my country again and bring home the gold. On top of all that, it’s good for hockey to have the best players in the world at the Olympics. Otherwise, what is it, really?”
Although pausing the season to participate in the Olympics may not be the best immediate financial decision for the league, it is the best decision in the long run. The appeal of playing for one’s country can be an intensely powerful thing, and not just for the athletes. If the average fan is given the choice between watching Team USA face off against Canada or a meaningless game 40 of an 82-game season, even for their favorite NHL club, the league may struggle to hold viewers.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was a big proponent of getting NHL players to participate in the 1998 Games. In an interview with the New York Times in 1997 Bettman stressed the importance of exposer during the Olympics. He related the potential benefits of the NHL going to the Olympics to the international fame the NBA received after the Dream Team participated in the 1992 Olympics.
NHL players participating in the Olympics puts over a hundred of the world’s elite hockey players on an international scale, playing with pride for their countries. Bettman said NHL players in the Olympics would give the world a compelling hockey tournament of high magnitude, without them the quality of the game plummets.
The future of the NHL’s participation in the Olympic Games is unclear. The NHL’s refusal to participate so far only applies to 2018. In the NHL’s statement announcing that they would not participate in the 2018 Games they said the the IOC made it clear that the NHL’s participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing was contingent on its participation in PyeongChang.
China, the most populous nation in the world, used to be one of the poorest nations in the world, but this is no longer the case. China is finally reaching a level of economic development that would allow hockey to exist and thrive in China, making the NHL very interested in sending it’s athletes to China.
The question going forward is: will the IIHF and by extension, the IOC cave and improve the quality of the 2022 games by allowing the NHL to participate?
Only time will tell, and the answer likely depends on the success of the NHL-less 2018 Olympic tournament. If no one cares about or watches the 2018 Olympic hockey tournament without the best players in the world, the IIHF will want to increase it’s revenue by allowing the NHL to participate in 2022.
But if the 2018 games are a business success and if the IIHF determines that the additional profits of allowing the NHL to participate in the Olympics are not worth the headache of collaborating with the NHL, we may not see NHL players in the Olympics for the foreseeable future.
The NHL has missed it’s shot at sending players this year, but they need to do whatever it takes to get players back in the tournament as soon as they can.
Each country should send it’s best athletes in every sport to the Olympics. Sometimes that is going to be professional athletes, sometimes it will be a mix, but professional athletes should not be denied the opportunity to compete for their country.
Ovechkin said it best, there is nothing like the Olympics, but until the NHL allows its athletes to participate, Olympic hockey will be sub-par.