The Final Olympics for the NHL?

If you’re a fan of watching NHL players compete for Olympic gold you’d better enjoy the Sochi Games, as it could be the last time the league allows its players to participate in the Olympics.

Lost amid the recent concern about player safety and security against potential terrorist attacks at the Sochi Games is the fact the NHL isn’t committed to future Olympic participation.

While the players obviously enjoy it – those selected to play for their countries are fulfilling a dream, while the rest welcome a two-week mid-season break from the gruelling NHL schedule – league executives aren’t as keen.

Could the Sochi Olympics be the NHL's last?

Could the Sochi Olympics be the NHL’s last?

The problem, of course, is money. Olympic participation isn’t the cash cow the league originally believed it would be when it pushed to allow its best players to participate in a supposedly amateur tournament.

When the Winter Games are held in North America – Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010 – the men’s ice hockey games attract big TV ratings and improve the NHL’s visibility in the hyper-competitive North American sports market. It’s a different story when the Winter Olympics are held outside North America (Nagano in 1998, Turin in 2006), largely because the hockey games aren’t televised during prime time throughout the United States and Canada.

League owners are grumbling about how much money they’re losing by blocking two weeks of their schedule for Olympic participation. The compacted NHL schedule in an Olympic year also raises concerns about player injuries. There’s also the fear a team could lose a superstar to injury during the Olympic tournament. Teams which contribute a large number of players to the Olympics (like the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, who each have up to 10 roster players going to Sochi) fear those players’ performance could be adversely affected over the remainder of the NHL season.

There’s now talk of resurrecting the World Cup of Hockey, a pre-season tournament which was originally staged in 1996 and 2004 and was the successor of the Canada Cup tournaments held in the late-1970s through the early-1990s. The players, however, prefer to continue their Olympic participation.

In a recent interview regarding the Sochi Games and security concerns, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the players’ willingness to participate in the Winter Olympics is among the principal reasons for the NHL’s participation.

That’s what likely determined the league’s participation in Sochi following the recent lockout. Russian superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin stated they would play for Russia with or without the league’s blessing if the NHL opted not to participate in the Sochi Olympics. The last thing the NHL needed was a highly-public feud with their top Russian players, potentially worsening relations with Russian hockey.

The 2018 Winter Olympics, however, will be staged in South Korea. There’s no bevy of NHL superstars from that nation and thus no risk of a potentially embarrassing stand-off with NHL stars. That could provide the league with the perfect opportunity to get out of Olympic participation.

The players could still push for participation in the 2018 Games, but ultimately it comes down to the league owners. If they no longer feel it’s worthwhile and prefer instead a World Cup of Hockey, there’s little the players can do about it until the next round of collective bargaining, which could be years after the 2018 Games. It’s unlikely Olympic participation will be a deal breaker for the players toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

7 Comments

  1. The rest of the world should be thankful if this happened. Where is Canada and the US going to pull its players from? CHL, ECHL, AHL (if allowed), or random leagues around the world? Too many Canadian & American players are drafted and play in the NHL. Teams with strong hockey programs like those seen in Russia & Europe will become the dominate Olympic powers.

  2. there’s been an ongoing debate about the inclusion of professional players in a supposed “amateur” competition, i say it hasn’t been amateur since the Soviets first iced a team. the European and particularly Eastern European have enjoyed an advantage from the very beginning as their players were “soldiers” who played for an Army team, this was complete bu!!$#it as their entire lives were about preparing for Hockey games which basically describes a professional hockey player, that they got their paycheques from the “Army” was nothing more than a smokescreen. on an even playing field the Canadians have won 50% of the Gold medals awarded and it would’ve been 75% had the Olympics not gone to a shootout (absolutely DESTROYING what could’ve been one of the greatest games ever by turning it into an individual skills competition). Canada was dominant when the Olympics were a purely amateur sport winning 5 out of 6 Gold Medals from it’s inception in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics to the 1952 St Moritz games the only blemish coming when a British team (made up of players born in Britain who grew up in Canada) scored a shocking 2-1 upset of Canada in the semis and went on to win Gold in 1936 (Canada beat out the US for Silver). from 1956 onward however the Soviets sent their Red Army team of “soldiers” (who played together all year) up against amateurs with predictable results.

  3. One line of thinking is folow soccer—-world cup vs Olympics. For Olympics FIFA puts an age limit on those who can play…its roughly a U24 event.

    The other option. If the winter Olympics are in a stron Hockey country then NHLers play. If its in a lower hockey country then no NHLers.

    The other option for the NHL to do is limit player selections per team to no more than 4-5 per NHl team that can go to the Olympics. Those 5 are limited even further by position thus a team doesnt lose all their NHL goalies are much of their defense or top 6 players. if they are not in north america. During the Olympics the NHL still occurs but the scheduling is lighter limiting teams to about 5 games over these two weeks.

    • I like this U24 idea, along with the reduced schedule. I have a feeling the league wouldn’t go for this though since teams would be missing players during regular season games.

      As much as I love watching olympic hockey, it does get kind of silly when most of these guys are in their late 20s, 30s and earning lots of money. The women’s game and other sports should also have an age limit.

  4. Play the WJC as Winter Olympic hockey event and Canada Cup every 4 years after Summer Games.

  5. The NHL can not stop it’s players from going to play in the Olympics. There would be a league-wide revolt and the players would go on strike. Age limits are stupid and pointless as well. The best they could do is try to convince the players not to go, or give them some incentives to not go…which would have to be pretty huge, considering how big of a deal the olympics are.

  6. The real issue is that the NHL doesn’t have ‘status’ at the Oly Games. The IIHF and Rene Fasel run the show. The IOC is merely the umbrella organization that handles and organizes the over all competition. Does anyone seriously believe that Gary Bettman wouldn’t give his right arm to be allowed to become an IOC Member.