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Amid Olympic spectacle and movement toward unity, the NHL misses out

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The NHL’s decision not to participate in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang is a major loss for the sport of hockey around the world.

PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games - Opening Ceremony Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

First things first—in case you don’t know, Korea is a bona fide winter country. When people think Asian vacations, they often think of the lush jungles, exotic beaches, and clear waters of Thailand, Vietnam, or the Philippines. Korea doesn’t have much of that. But it has winter, and the beauty that comes with it.

There are many Korean snow videos on YouTube, but here are two. (The first location, Nami Island, was used in the filming of the 2002 drama Winter Sonata.)

By now, Olympic competition is well underway, including in hockey. The women have already played a few games. The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have already made their mark in promoting harmony through sport. The mountain county’s previous two Olympic bids stressed the role the Games would play in reunifying the peninsula, but it was the charisma and elegance of gold medal figure skater Yuna Kim that would bring them there. Not only did Kim perform and light the torch in the opening ceremony of the Games she brought home, but North and South Korea marched together, and have combined to form a joint women’s hockey team. Though Korea lost 8-0 to Switzerland, the game was attended by Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—the first visit by the Kims to the South since the Korean War. Earlier in the day, North Korea invited the president of South Korea for talks in Pyongyang—representing an exciting development in what has been a 60-year stalemate.

So much has happened already in Pyeongchang. (Please don’t confuse the host’s name with that of the North Korean capital, and no, the names do not sound similar to Korean speakers.) Yet the NHL could not be bothered to participate in what has already been a pivotal Olympics, a chance to take a big step toward peace in the world.

How did the NHL end up missing out? As Emily Kaplan of ESPN wrote on January 29, 2018:

The crux of the issue is a power play between the NHL, NHLPA and the International Olympic Committee. The league wanted the IOC to make concessions [compensation for the three-week interruption to the NHL season], which it didn’t. The NHLPA wanted the sides to get it done [that is, it was not willing to concede much in its collective bargaining agreement negotiations to participate in the Olympics].

Perhaps the NHL was justified in its requests for concessions, as Barry Petchesky of Deadspin wrote in September 15, 2017:

The IOC demands that the NHL halt its schedule, risk injury to its best players, and receive nothing in return. Even less than nothing: This Olympic cycle, the IOC decided it would stop paying for travel and insurance costs for NHL players taking part in the games.

The NHL has made entirely reasonable requests, such as allowing the league to use Olympic trademarks in its own marketing, or even just to have the NHL listed as an “official sponsor” of the Olympics, but the IOC said no to both. The IOC rakes in money hand over fist, and relies on promises of “exposure,” and of emotional to players’ patriotism, to get what it wants without making any concessions. The NHL is a business, and it’s increasingly bad business to play by the IOC’s rules.

Though Alex Ovechkin boldly claimed that he would play anyway in the Olympics even if the NHL does not officially participate, even Ovechkin conceded he could not in September 2017:

Our countries are now not allowed to ask us to play in the Olympics,” the six-time NHL goals leader wrote. “Me, my teammates and all players who want to go all lose. So do all the fans of hockey with this decision that we are not allowed to be invited. NHL players in the Olympics is good for hockey and good for Olympics. It sucks that will we not be there to play!!

It was a clear affront to Korea, as the NHL basically indicated it is not interested in the fast-rising country and the 12th largest economy in the world, but is instead eager to market to China:

While the league isn’t particularly interested in marketing in South Korea, it does have its eyes on China and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, where Bettman is scheduled to be next week to announce two 2017 preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks.

With that as background, let’s cover the biggest reasons why the NHL, the sport of hockey, and Team USA fans, are missing out by not participating in Pyeongchang.

1. This was perhaps the best opportunity for Team USA to beat Canada

If you’re a Team USA fan, you missed out on how good your team could have been, as Greg Wyshynski of ESPN wrote on February 1, 2018:

The carryovers: RW Patrick Kane, with nine points in 12 Olympic Games; RW Phil Kessel, 10 points in 12 Olympic Games; C Joe Pavelski, eight points in 12 Olympic Games; D Ryan Suter, a plus-11 in 12 Olympic Games; then you have Sochi Games goalie Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider in the net, and NHL vets like James van Riemsdyk, Blake Wheeler, Max Pacioretty and Ryan Kesler to fill out the roster. And if there’s a shootout, T.J. Oshie.

The new blood: C Auston Matthews, C Jack Eichel, LW Johnny Gaudreau, C Dylan Larkin, C Vincent Trocheck, LW Brandon Saad, D Shayne Gostisbehere, D Seth Jones, D Zach Werenski, D Jacob Trouba, G Connor Hellebuyck. That’s without D Charlie McAvoy and F Brock Boeser, rookies that would have also challenged for spots.

2. There have been Koreans in the NHL...yeah, really

Remember Los Angeles Kings alum Jim Paek? He was a stay-at-home defenseman that won the Stanley Cup twice with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is the only Korean player to have his name engraved on the Cup.

Remember Richard Park? In a 15-year career, he scored 102 goals and 139 assists, including some memorable playoffs goals with the Minnesota Wild.

Today, the two players are now the coaches of the Korean Olympic team, which features naturalized North Americans to shore up its ranks, including Mike Testwuide formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers, and former Edmonton Oilers third-round pick Brock Radunske. Richard Park has spoken in a podcast about his thoughts on hockey in Asia.

As a kid in Los Angeles in the 1990s and as college student in the Bay Area from 1998-2002, when avid basketball fans—many of them Asian—ridiculed me by saying hockey is a “white sport,” I told them that there were (at the time) more Asians in the NHL than in the NBA. Jim Paek and Richard Park vindicated my choice to continue enjoying this great sport, and made it clear in my mind that hockey is for everyone. Including me.

3. Other leagues have marketed to Korea—so can the NHL

Baseball has been introduced to Asia decades ago. Many Asian players are in the MLB, and the MLB helped organize the World Baseball Classic, in which Korea is a regular participant. The visit of Hines Ward, partly of Korean descent, to Korea in 2006 after winning the Super Bowl was emotional, fitting for a man who played with raw emotion on the field. But the NBA has done something unique to take the cake:

...[W]hile the NBA has done an impressive job of appealing to the markets of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, the Philippines, and India, it is what they’ve done in South Korea that’s the most interesting and fun. The league inked a partnership deal with MK Trend, a South Korean retailer with 56 stores across the country—and, in a rare move, gave the company permission to alter NBA team colors and add all sorts of funky designs to league merchandise.

Hey NHL, are you really saying that the Korean market is not that important, when other leagues are taking the effort to market to individual Asian countries? It wasn’t that long ago when California was seen as too exotic of a place for ice hockey. Forget Nevada. Then the NHL expanded west, the Los Angeles Kings were born, and they would be the ones to host an outdoor exhibition in Las Vegas in 1991. Fast forward and now the Vegas Golden Knights are contenders to win the Stanley Cup, in a league featuring a top young Hispanic star from Arizona.

Yao Ming entered the NBA, and basketball forever changed. The San Antonio Spurs have attracted global talent for years. Do you get it now? Let’s prove that hockey truly is for everyone. But to do that, you need to grow the game all over the world.

4. Though Korea is nowhere near as big as China, it has corporate soft power that reaches the world

Automotive brand Kia has signed a multiyear sponsorship agreement with the NBA in October 2017.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) and Kia Motors America, Inc. today announced a new multiyear marketing partnership extension across the NBA, WNBA and NBA G League...Kia will become more involved with the NBA Draft as an associate partner and will remain the title partner of key oncourt platforms, including Kia NBA Tip-Off, Kia NBA All-Star MVP and the Kia NBA Performance Awards (MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man and Rookie of the Year).

To further reinforce the brand’s association with top NBA performances, Kia will enhance its Top Plays platform and continue as the title partner of the monthly Performance Awards, recognizing the top player and rookie from each conference. Also, the seasonlong #KiaWhoYaGot sweepstakes, which gives fans the opportunity to predict the winner of key matchups on NBA social channels, will resume during Kia NBA Tip-Off.

“The partnership between the NBA and Kia has been pivotal in increasing brand and consumer awareness and an uptick in consideration of the Kia brand, and we are excited to extend our partnership and continue connecting with the league and its passionate fans,” said Saad Chehab, Vice President of Marketing Communications, Kia Motors America. “Both Kia and the NBA have a broad appeal across a large segment of the consumer public and through this partnership we hope to keep Kia top-of-mind among the confident, independent NBA fans and drive them, literally to Kia’s showrooms.”

Do you get it now? Associate yourself with top brands that make everyday products that impact lives around the world. Then the world—not just the cold north—just might be intrigued by hockey.

Hyundai has done a great deal to assist the fledgling Korean bobsled team, even designing a bobsled for the athletes. What can it do with its technology for the game of hockey? Perhaps Samsung might be the company that can connect fans with its communications technology, fix flaws in the replay system, or track statistics better for the league. But maybe I dream.

5. The world is missing out on the high-charged spectacle that is Olympic hockey with NHLers

Perhaps the best reason—the game of hockey misses out. Forget the gimmicky All-Star game which has had to resort to a 3-on-3 format to keep things interesting. Imagine a tournament of several days, full of stars playing passionately—as national pride is on the line—for a prize so unique, opportunities to win it only come once every four years. That’s right. It’s called NHL participation in the Olympics, and we won’t get to see that this year.

I guess I won’t have to worry about Anze Kopitar overworking himself for his native Slovenia, or Jonathan Quick risking another groin injury as he tries to defeat Canada or Russia in the medal round. But it was only four years ago that the Olympic break energized Kopitar, Quick, Drew Doughty, and Jeff Carter on their way to the Stanley Cup.