The 2018 Winter Olympics kicked off last night with the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. But these games became a source of controversy before the first event even began. A number of headlines have already emerged including news of both the Russian doping scandal and word of South Korea and North Korea competing under the same banner. However, no storyline will be more disappointing to viewers around the world than that of the National Hockey League refusing to allow it’s players to participate in Olympic Hockey. Although the NHL certainly has it’s reasons for passing on the Olympics, the overarching sentiment from fans is that the decision could be detrimental to the future and growth of the sport.
In spite of the fact that soccer and hockey aren’t the most popular sports around these parts, no sporting event has been as capable of galvanizing the nation as much Olympic Hockey or World Cup Soccer. Team sports like hockey, soccer, basketball, etc. are generally perceived as “major sports” and provide some of the recognizable and marketable faces in the Olympics. As such, when these athletes perform it tends to feel more important and usually makes for can’t miss television. Unfortunately the country will essentially be missing out on both spectacles this year as the US failed to qualify for the World Cup and the Olympics will exclude the world’s best hockey players. Like soccer’s World Cup, the Olympics seemed to have a unique propensity to draw in more casual fans. Passing up the opportunity to appeal to a larger base wouldn’t seem the best way to attract more eyeballs. As such, many are wondering whether the NHL will live to regret turning down the opportunity to take center stage at the 2018 olympics. Or on the other hand, might the costs of sending their players to Olympics simply outweigh the benefits for the NHL.
As controversial as the decision has been, we must first acknowledge that the National Hockey League has a legitimate gripe with the International Olympic Committee. Chatter suggests that IOC was essentially unwilling to work with NHL on a number of levels. Taking a rather confusing stance, the committee apparently refused to allow the NHL to advertise at the Olympics in virtually any capacity. Logic serves that if the league is sending its employees to play and potentially get injured during the Olympics, the NHL is justified in expecting something in return. However, a major sticking point in negotiations was reportedly the fact that IOC wouldn’t even allow the NHL to advertise on the boards of the rinks. Participating in the Olympics only benefits the Olympics, while tangibly hurting the NHL’s product with injuries. In that regard it is quite easy to see the league’s point of view. For all their stubbornness, the IOC may end up regretting denying the NHL those advertising opportunities, with the lack of intrigue surrounding these hockey games. It’s hard to imagine fans getting excited about rosters full of players who’ve never sniffed the NHL or are long past their primes.
As I touched upon before, the injury risk for players also had to have been a huge roadblock to negotiations. Especially when considering that the Olympics cut right into the middle of the NHL season. Aside from the obvious inconvenience of having to put the NHL season on hold, the potential for injury during these games is a logical concern of NHL teams. Islander fans surely couldn’t have been happy when John Tavares sustained a season ending injury in 2014. Examples like this stand to reason that the Olympics may be more trouble than they’re worth for the NHL, as injuries to flagship stars could obviously hurt the league’s product when the season resumes. Furthermore, the fact that the Olympics elongate the NHL season and shorten the offseason also increases players’ odds for injury. The Olympics bare no burden for these any of these injuries nor do they insure for them. In this relationship they incur none of the cost and none of the liablity. From this lens, allowing players in the Olympics frankly makes no sense for the NHL’s business.
But if the terms of this deal never made sense for the NHL, why would they have ever agreed to them in the past? The answer to that question is that the Olympics present an invaluable opportunity to grow the game of hockey; something the NHL could get on board with. As I alluded to before, the intrigue of Olympic Hockey attracts new eyeballs and casual fans. Quite frankly, it is the only time time all year that most Americans care about hockey. This idea is evidenced by the fact that the Olympics has the power to turn players like TJ Oshie into household names. But will the same viewers turn up when the players competing aren’t the best in the world. Players normally plying their trade in leagues like Switzerland’s or Slovakia’s likely will not move the needle. Nor will players who are 5 or 6 years removed from playing at the highest level. The reason that the Olympics generate so much buzz is because it is a meaningful competition soaked in national pride; keywords meaningful and pride. There was something magical about seeing million dollar athletes competing for more than just money, but rather out of patriotism. What it meant to those players and what it means to a country’s fans transcends the sport of hockey. It’s difficult to ascribe any of that meaning or pride to this competition when it is not “best against best”. Nor will fans be able get up for these hockey games when the players aren’t household names. To put it plainly, even as a diehard hockey fan I have very little interest in watching these games. I can’t imagine the casual fans or the general public feeling any differently.
The NHL’s decision is expected to not only adversely affect the level of talent on the ice, but also the competitiveness of these contests. The KHL is far and away the next best hockey league in the world, and as such, the Russians ( or should I say the “Olympic Athletes from Russia”) will now be heavily favored in this tournament. Moreover, the decision disproportionately hurts nations who’s top talents ply their trade in the NHL. In addition to Russia, other countries like Sweden and Finland with strong domestic leagues are also at an advantage despite losing NHL players from their rosters. Canada and the United States will still field competent rosters, but the stage is certainly set for a country like Russia to win Gold. After watching “Miracle” six times in the last 24 hours, theres simply no way I’m about to allow the IOC to serve Russia up a gold medal on a platter every four years.
Certainly, the powers at be need to figure out some sort of resolution. One option that the IOC and NHL didn’t seem to explore was some sort of compromise. In that regard there are a number of avenues to explore. The most obvious and most popular solution would be to allow NHL players to return to the Olympics with no restrictions. Although the players want to play and the fans want to see it, the league has obviously been unwilling to budge. An though this format seemed to work relatively fine for a number of years, a different play will be necessary.
One course of action that I’m shocked was never realistically considered is moving hockey to the summer olympics during the NHL offseason. I know the NHL is typically considered a “winter sport”, but so is basketball. The NBA runs concurrent with the NHL season and yet basketball takes place in the summer olympics. For the most part, this method has seemed to work the NBA. Furthermore, I’m sure team owners and GM’s would be far more fond of a proposal that lets players compete in their free time, rather than in the middle of the NHL season. However, with this plan, there will still be the lingering concern of players getting injured while not on company time. Additionally, this format would shorten the NHL offseason, and increase the likelihood of injuries.
Thus, a more reasonable approach might be to adopt a format similar to that of olympic soccer. In olympic soccer, each nation fields a team of players all age 23 and under but for three overage exceptions. This approach allows countries to field exciting teams full of young stars, while not requiring an NHL team to risk all of its established superstars. Additionally, the overage players exception allows for marquee players and household names to also have a place on rosters. In the past we’ve seen youth hockey tournaments like the World Junior Championships enjoy commercial success, so this format should have no trouble drawing eyeballs. Especially considering that the age limit at the World Juniors is 20. A minimum age of 23 would allow teams to fill out rosters with an eclectic mix of blue chip prospects and young NHL stars. Whatever route the higher ups choose to explore, let’s hope 2022 Olympics look a whole lot different than 2018. I gave you your choices NHL, now figure it the fuck out!!!