NHL participation in future Winter Olympics will be determined in upcoming CBA talks, but the league could face serious consequences if it opts out of going to the Sochi Games.


Hockey Canada’s announcement on Monday it was bringing back the same management team – headed by Steve Yzerman – for its Men’s Olympic hockey team spurred speculation over the NHL’s participation in future Winter Olympics, including the 2012 Games in Sochi, Russia.

In the wake of Monday’s announcement, various sources reported participation in future Olympics by NHL players will have to be determined in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement.

Previous participation in the Winter Olympics has been what one scribe called a “mixed bag” for the NHL.

The 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and 2010 Games in Vancouver were a huge ratings success, generating considerable positive publicity for the league, especially in North America, in large part owing to Team Canada and Team USA squaring off in the Gold Medal games.

On the other hand, the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan and 2006 Games in Turin, Italy garnered lower ratings and interest in North America, largely due to the early elimination of the Canadian and American teams from the tournaments.

While NHL players remain keen to continue Olympic participation, a number of team owners are said to be unhappy with shutting down the league for two-three weeks in mid-season for the tournament, with the biggest complaint being the time change for European- or Asian-based Olympics won’t make for prime time coverage in North American.

The grumbling over a lengthy break in the NHL schedule, travel and broadcast times seems petty on the part of the team owners. They knew these issues when they made their decision, in the mid-1990s, to use the Olympics to showcase their best talent and garner more attention to their product. Their complaints about travel and broadcast times weren’t as prevalent when the Games were staged in North America.

A more relevant complaint by the league was the International Olympic Committee blocking it from showing Olympic hockey highlights on the NHL Network. Since the NHL was providing the players, the IOC should have allowed them broadcast rights.

The league will undoubtedly try to use Olympic participation as a bargaining chip with the players in the next round of labor talks.

Most observers believe the NHL will ultimately agree to participate in the Sochi Games, but there’s no guarantee it could happen.

Quite frankly, the NHL has little choice but to participate in the Sochi Games to avoid a public relations disaster.

The NHL has had a contentious relationship with The Ice Hockey Federation of Russia and the Kontinental Hockey League for several years.

Barring NHL players – especially Russian-born players – from participating in the Sochi Games would be considered unforgivable, not just by their hockey people, but also the Russian government, which could potentially pressure the American government to try to force the NHL into attending the Sochi Games.

The NHL would also incur the anger and resentment of its Russian stars, who would be furious at being denied the opportunity to represent their country on home ice.

Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin has repeatedly warned the NHL of his intention to participate in the Sochi Games, even at the risk of suspension, if the league decides not to participate. The Capitals captain also has the support of team owner Ted Leonsis, who said he’d fly Ovechkin to Sochi even if the league forbade him to go.

Ovechkin and New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk have been named Sochi ambassadors, so attempting to bar them from those Games would be a major black eye for the NHL.

Kovalchuk hasn’t threatened to play in Sochi if the NHL doesn’t participate, but has made it clear he’d like the opportunity to compete for Olympic gold in Russia. The fact he’s also a Sochi ambassador suggests he, too, could bolt if push came to shove with the league on this issue.

Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin stated in the fall of 2009 he not only supported Ovechkin, but would join him in Sochi despite the risk of suspension and hefty fines.

It would likely take the International Ice Hockey Federation to rule against Russian NHL stars from participating in the Sochi Games, but that’s not a guarantee, as the Russians could retaliate by threatening to withdraw its support and participation from all IIHF-sanctioned tournaments, including the World Hockey Championships, and the World Juniors.

That might not seem like a serious threat to NHL fans, but for the IIHF, it would be a serious blow.

The NHL would face significant embarrassment in having some of its best players ignoring any edict barring them from the Sochi games during a critical period in the season, forced to constantly justify its stance to a ravenous media and blogosphere.

A mutiny of notable Russian-born NHLers could also have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the league, as stars of other hockey-playing nations could also decide they wish to represent their countries, consequences be damned

That possibility seems unlikely, but shouldn’t be fully discounted.

NHL fans on both sides of the Atlantic could put their sympathies with the players, rather than with the league and the team owners, on this issue.

At the very least, it would generate far too much negative publicity for the league, especially if it comes following yet another contentious, and possibly lengthy, work stoppage.

If the NHL owners want to put the kibosh on future Olympic participation, it would be best to do so for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be held in South Korea. That nation isn’t hockey-mad like Russia.  There’s no SouthKorean superstars to upset, so the absence of the NHL from those games won’t create much of a stir.

The betting here is the NHL and NHLPA agreed to participate in the Sochi Games, then decide to revisit their collective position to determine if they’ll participate in future Winter Olympics.