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.
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.