The NHL participated in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi mostly because a few players like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin said they’d be willing to risk suspension for the honor of playing for their country. Since then, the NHL has been stubbornly saying that they don’t want to participate in future Olympic games. The sticking point for the NHL really seemed to come down to the International Olympic Committee refusing to pay for travel and insurance costs, which resulted in (seemingly) a staring match. The NHL blinked first.
On Tuesday afternoon, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced what many fans were dreading:
BREAKING: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on 2018 Olympics: "Assume we're not going."— Tom Harrington (@cbctom) March 21, 2017
A good majority of hockey twitter was not pleased with this. It really is disappointing not to have the world’s best players play on the biggest stage in the world. The NHL talks a big game about growing the game but when it comes to this kind of thing, greed overrules everything else. The owners are deathly terrified of their star players getting hurt overseas.
Melnyk pointed to the 2005-06 season, when the Senators lost goaltender Dominik Hasek to a mysterious adductor injury after he was hurt while playing for the Czech Republic in the Turin Winter Olympics.
Hasek never returned to the net and the Senators lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Buffalo Sabres with Ray Emery in net.
“I had a Cup in 2006 parked for me and waiting for me,” Melnyk said. “We were arguing about whose name was going to go on the (Cup). We were there and what happens? Hasek. I’m not going to do that.
“Can you imagine if (Karlsson) goes and he gets a permanent injury? You know what I’m saying? That’s my view,” Melnyk said.
Despite Melnyk’s reputation for his tight grip on the purse strings, he does have a fair point about potential injuries. It is a risk when an athlete goes and plays in their sport, regardless of what it is. In fact, in 2014, there was even an injury when the Islanders’ John Tavares tore his MCL during the Olympics. But here’s the thing: injury can strike anywhere at any time. To deny someone the chance to play for their country just because he might get hurt is awfully selfish.
On November 11, 2013, star center Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning broke his leg while jostling for position with a Boston Bruins player. Stamkos lost an edge and his momentum carried him into the net’s steel post, snapping his tibia.
A player may suffer a concussion thanks a dirty hit from behind. Or he may get hurt crashing into the boards. Or, during a routine save, the goalie hits the post with his skate and misses 60 games with a severe groin strain.
A player may get pneumonia, the mumps, or mono; the whole team may suffer from the flu. The mumps and flu are (oddly) everyday ailments that occur within NHL locker rooms. To use the “what if he gets hurt” potential as an excuse to hold back from Olympic participation is weak and not very creative.
But it’s expensive.
Yes, yes it is. Owners may have to dip into their pockets and shell out some money once every four years for a special event. You know what else is expensive? The league not generating enough profit to see the hard cap that the owners insisted upon go up. That means that it’s more difficult to control assets long term, it’s more difficult to retain talent and it’s more difficult to win. Sure that creates parity, but when you’re a cap team that’s not producing (ahem Los Angeles Kings), ownership grows weary of paying for continually disappointing results.
It disrupts the schedule.
The NHL introduced a “bye week” this season where teams get four full rest days and one practice day. It’s a 10-day break for those who aren’t representing their respective countries and many players cited it being a much-needed break. Remember, these people are humans who want to see their families and have a little time to relax every once a while. Besides, this only occurs once every four years.
But for those who don’t go, their conditioning might suffer.
This is something that then-Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle brought up and to be honest, these are professional athletes. If they don’t take care of their bodies while they’re away on vacation, then chances are they’re slacking on their regular routine anyway. It’s not like they’re going to forget that after their break, coaches will put them a good conditioning skate and expect them to get jump back into their regular routines. They didn’t get to the highest level in their sport by accident. Give them a little bit of credit.
It should be amateur only.
OK here’s the thing, especially with hockey—no one really wants to watch a bunch of non-professionals play in the Olympics. It’s just not that interesting. If they were really into college, they’d watch the NCAA. And maybe a bunch of them already do, but for the average viewer (the non-diehard fan who can’t already name every player/athlete on the rosters/teams) they want to see a best-on-best competition.
Also, sending professionals levels the playing field and drives opponents/rivals to be better. Take the USA: They’ve actually created an entire program that’s designed to just beat Canada. Team USA’s brain trust spends hours poring every single detail, agonizing over which players they should take for which reasons (heart or lack thereof in some cases) just so they can say they put together the best roster to beat their northern neighbor. Not to mention the fact that most of these guys know each other fairly well having been in the league and played with and against each other for a long time. Amateurs can’t say that. I know what you’re thinking: “But what about the World Junior Championships?” That’s completely different since they’re teenagers. Again, casual fans who only tune in every four years don’t want to see a repeat of the WJC. They want blood, so to speak.
The interesting thing about the NHL not going to the Olympics next year is that the IIHF made it very clear that the road to Beijing (the site of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games) goes through South Korea.
“I consider [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman as a smart person so he knows that not coming [to PyeongChang] would then put in danger participation in Beijing.” Fasel said Tuesday, according to insidethegames, echoing his similar reported comments from 2016. “It [the Olympics] is a strong brand. Not using this platform would be a mistake and, as I said I consider him [Bettman] as a very smart person. I think it’s a risk if he’s not coming.”
That’s International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel speaking to NBCSN in an interview on March 14, 2017. Fasel further clarified his statements when he chatted with a Russian paper.
Fasel makes strong points. 2018 Oly (and 2022 FWIW) won't be primetime in NA, but it will be primetime in 3 billion households.— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) March 22, 2017
That exposure may be impossible to point to on a spreadsheet as a tangible benefit, but as Fasel says, it's not worth nothing.— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) March 22, 2017
The IIHF is the world “governing body of international ice hockey and inline hockey.” They can block the NHL’s participation in the 2022 Olympics if they want to. Note that they preside “over ice hockey in the Olympic Games, and over the IIHF World Championships at all levels” (but this does not include the World Cup of Hockey, which is an NHL invention that attempts to replace the Olympics).
But there’s another reason why skipping South Korea would be a huge, stupid mistake: According to Yanhap News Agency (a local news outlet), several brands are “gearing up to debut a number of cutting-edge technologies and products, some of them unheard of [...] Athletes and visitors to various Olympic venues in PyeongChang [...] and nearby areas will be able to experience a wide range of advanced technologies and products in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector designed to contribute to its successful hosting of the global sport festival [...]”
That’s huge news! The NHL and its players thrive on cutting edge technology. Skates are designed to be lighter and faster; sticks have specific degrees of flexibility for maximum shot potential, depending on what individuals are looking for; goaltending equipment is made specifically to absorb pucks to help netminders control rebounds; heck, even the skaters’ protective gear is lightweight. While the FoxTrax puck of the ‘90s failed, it showed that the NHL was taking steps towards something new, something different. Broadcasting games in high-definition isn’t just good business sense, people actually love to watch the game in HD.
Here are some other excellent points courtesy of Helen (@helenskiii):
There are a number of companies partnering to sponsor and competing to get a chance to have their technologies used.— Helen :D (@helenskiii) March 22, 2017
In a continent where they are the smallest of the Big 4 leagues, to me, that just sounds like a big opportunity for differentiation.— Helen :D (@helenskiii) March 22, 2017
What I'm trying to get at is that it makes it a lot easier to sell the NHL if they can call themselves "most tech advanced league," or w/e— Helen :D (@helenskiii) March 22, 2017
While everyone else is dipping their toes in super cool stuff for the future, the NHL still can't even get Game Center Live to work right— Helen :D (@helenskiii) March 22, 2017
Worst case scenario is IIHF tries a bunch of stuff that everyone hates, so you say "great, that's a good list of stuff we won't do now!"— Helen :D (@helenskiii) March 22, 2017
Or the NHL identifies some technologies that people liked and work on a potential integration to their content. Companies will be around!— Helen :D (@helenskiii) March 22, 2017
Bettman indicated that the biggest thing standing in the way of NHL participation is the IOC’s lack of financial assistance. The NHL absolutely refuses to send their players “officially” (we may end up with players like Ovechkin who defy the league and go anyway) until the IOC agrees to pay for the insurance and travel costs, which is about $14 million according to the Commissioner. Then he complained about not being treated like a top sponsor as the IOC has also refused to give the NHL a cut of the advertising revenue. But, as Helen pointed out, the potential for future sponsorships or partnerships is huge.
As far as China goes, Bettman and the league’s front office practically salivated like Pavlov’s dogs when Beijing was announced for 2022. They have an eye on it, yet they seem to be trying to stubbornly do everything their way, the hard way, to get there all the while passing up prime opportunities that would more than benefit the league.
China is a massive, virtually untapped hockey market. Even though they do have one professional team that joined the KHL as an expansion team, the Beijing Kunlun Red Stars doesn’t feature any actual professional Chinese players on the team. In fact, no one born and raised in China has actually been able to play at a professional level. Chinese fans are reluctant to give hockey a chance, so imagine what it would do for them to see big stars from all the over world play in their country.
The NHL talks a lot about growing the game. Now it’s time for them to walk the walk.