By Harbour Heather
The NHL has effectively robbed hockey fans of some of the most anticipated match ups the upcoming Winter Olympics could offer, after banning their contracted players from competing in PyeongChang.
The decision, made last year, robs fans of seeing rare best-versus-best hockey. A core group of Canadian stars won’t have the chance to go for a three-peat of gold medals. It also means young players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews miss the chance to represent their countries at the highest level for the first time, after making big waves with their franchises.
Names which will be missing include Patrick Kane, T.J Oshie, Jonathan Quick (USA); Sidney Crosby, Carey Price, Jonathan Toews, Tyler Seguin (Canada); Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Henrik Lundqvist (Sweden); and Teuvo Teravainen (Finland). Russia’s blanket Olympic omission already stopped Alex Ovechkin’s involvement – a player who earlier had said he would ignore the NHL’s ruling and play if his country selected him. He had the blessing of his Washington Capitals owner as well, which would’ve been an interesting storyline to follow in an alternate no-drugs-scandal universe.
So what’s the NHL’s problem? Money, of course.
There’s an ongoing financial dispute between the NHL and IOC. Basically, it all comes back to the costs incurred by the players’ travel, accommodation and insurance, and who would cover them.
For historical context, in 1994, the NHL did not release players, which lead to the IOC agreeing to cover costs since. This time around, they’ve said no, as they’ve drawn comparisons to NBA players in the summer Olympics, and they do not cover costs for basketballers in this way. So the NHL have taken their puck and gone home.
At Sochi 2014, NHL player insurance alone cost $7 million. Which is a substantial cost for the IOC, an organisation meant to use their revenue to develop grass root sport around the world. Ice hockey’s governing body, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), stepped in, offering to pay $20 million to assist with these costs. Gary Bettman, the Commissioner of the NHL, turned down the offer as he feared the money would be taken from funds used to grow the game. He clearly didn’t consider that having the best players taking part in the Olympics would contribute to the game’s growth.
An interesting sub-narrative is that the NHL has an eye on the Chinese market. But the IOC has played hardball themselves, and ruled that if the NHL is not allowing their players to compete in South Korea, they will not be allowed to participate in the 2022 Games, scheduled for Beijing. A lack of foresight may come back to bite the League.
The IOC can’t be blamed here. Since NHL players first played in the Olympics in 1998, the IOC has changed the rules of the tournament to suit the professional powerhouse. In 1998, the first round of games was played without NHL players, or the top six ranked teams, followed by another round with all included. In 2006, the schedule changed again to five prelim games with full use of NHL players. In 2010, the NHL demanded that there were only three preliminary rounds (as a shorter tournament means less interruption to their own schedule).
The NHL claims to be not just concerned with costs, but also injuries. But…… They changed their 2016-2017 schedule for the NHL-sanctioned World Cup of Hockey, with no mention of potential pre-season injuries or worries of a cramped schedule. If the NHL are so worried about their ‘assets’, they need to be consistent in those worries. When the farcical World Cup of Hockey was played in North American time zones, with the addition of an age group “North America” team to boost the number of American and Canadian players in the tournament, and the revenue was going back into North American hockey… no worries at all. Assets aren’t first. Money is first.
To be fair to the NHL, the Olympic tournament falls in a time where the NFL season has finished and the MLB season is yet to start. This gives them a lot more opportunity with sports fans looking for something to fill their time. Having their best teams filled with the best players heightens the chance of grabbing extra television and advertising revenue, as well as converting some new fans. On average, 141 players across the league are involved in the Olympics. This seriously depletes the star power of the League.
To try and put this into perspective down this end of the world, imagine the NRL not releasing players for the Origin period or Anzac Test, or the Super Rugby franchises not releasing their All Blacks – although in this case, the governing body is the same for both competitions.
The hilarious realities of this situation mean someone who is retired from the NHL is captaining Team USA. It has been 12 years since he last played in the Olympics, since he was last good enough to play in the Olympics. He will be joined by players from European leagues, the AHL (minors) and college hockey who are not well known to the general NHL public. US hockey fans on Twitter joked that there should be prizes for those who knew more than three players in their side.
While there’s no hope for PyeongChang, what’s the answer? There is the NRL model, where the teams keep playing without their international stars. It would add an additional layer of interest to the season, and potentially bring hope to downhearted fans. (Similar to how the Warriors tend to win during Origin season.)
NHL is not as popular worldwide as the NBA or EPL, but there are intense international rivalries in the sport just as there are in those we are more familiar with. Canada v USA, Russia v USA, Sweden v Finland – these countries produce the greatest players in the world, who are rewarded by playing in the best league in the world, but punished by not being able to write the next chapter in these age-old rivalries. They should be high-quality competitive games which would pique the interest of casual fans – those honouring the tradition of becoming a two-week expert in an Olympic sport.
The players themselves are rightfully pissed. Nathan McKinnon, of the Colorado Avalanche, had this to say. “It will be weird watching people represent Canada and know they’re not the best players.” This is a key feeling among those who follow the game – will those who win gold really be able to call themselves the greatest team in the world? Especially with no Russian presence at all?
So who is going to win? Who the hell knows! It’ll be an interesting watch.
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