WATCH: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says a decision will be made in the future but there is no timeline.
This year could be the last time NHL players participate in the Winter Olympics.
While the players all describe it as a huge honour to represent their country, the NHL isn’t necessarily as enthused – the league doesn’t benefit from the international tournament.
The NHL brand has grown drastically since 1998, when they first agreed to send their players to the Olympics.
The league has a much higher profile now. It’s also much more successful as a business. Bill Daly, the NHL’s Deputy Commissioner, suggested that sending NHL players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea may not make sense.
“We are much more visible on the worldwide stage so we are at a different stage in our evolution and development than we were in 1998,” Daly said in an informal press conference at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi. What this means is that the NHL stands to lose more money if they send their players in 2018 than they did in 1998.
The league and the players’ association found themselves in a similar position four years ago, when it was uncertain if the NHL was going to allow players to represent their countries in Sochi.
That discussion started after the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 and took nearly four years: The decision to let NHLers head to Sochi wasn’t made until eight months before the start of the 2014 Olympics. It took a long time because the NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation were unable to see eye to eye during negotiations.
Daly believes that this time around, it won’t be nearly as long.
“It should not take all that long, but I would have said the same thing coming out of 2010,” Daly said before the men’s hockey tournament got under way in Sochi.
“We will have a broader discussion with the players’ association on international competition and what we are doing internationally. That discussion is under way so I would anticipate a quick resolution in respect to the Olympics, maybe six months,” he added.
Key points of concerns last time around were insurance, travel arrangements, media access to players and hospitality for the players, owners and their families.
While those issues will likely be at the forefront again this time, other issues will also be on the table – most of them revolving around money. These include:
The NHL’s lack of control over the tournament. Because the Olympic tournament is controlled entirely by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the NHL has no say in the rules, regulations and ultimate success of the tournament as a whole. More to the point, they have no share in any profits the tournament generates.
“The fact is, we’re guests here. It’s not our tournament. In terms of making it as good as it can be, we really don’t have control over that. There are positives and negatives with everything,” Daly explained.
The NHL sees it as an interruption of their regular season – an interruption that has very little upside to them as a business. In an Olympic year, the NHL schedule loses two weeks of play, meaning the 82-game season gets crammed into fewer days, which could affect players physically.
The risk of injuries is a big issue for NHL owners and general managers. Many NHL teams send their top players to the Olympics. If one of them suffers a significant injury, it could severely hurt the NHL team’s performance in the last portion of the season.
That could mean the difference between making and missing the playoffs. This will likely be a major topic of dicussion this year, primarily because of the injury to Swedish captain Henrik Zetterberg, who is also the captain of the Detroit Red Wings.
Zetterberg suffered a herniated disc in his back in the first game of the tournament and will not return to Olympic competition. Depending how long he’s out, it could seriously harm Detroit’s season: The team sits in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Another problem for the NHL is the lack of recognition in South Korea, not known for being a hockey-loving nation. While they know people back home will be watching the game, the NHL sending players to a tournament that won’t sell out – which it could deem a waste.
“You’re never going to ignore the Asian market,” Daly said, “it’s very important. But I also don’t view it as a realistic short-term objective to make an impact in the Asian market. It’s more of a long-term objective for the sport generally.”
As a potential alternative, the NHL has proposed reviving the World Cup of Hockey, featuring the world’s best players. It would occur in the NHL offseason, the NHL would control it and profit from it – all pluses in the league’s mind.
But the World Cup of Hockey has its own issues.
It has previously taken place in 1996, with the United States defeating Canada in the championship; and in 2004, when Canada won the final over Finland.
Issues with the proposed tournament include the question of whether anyone will care. It doesn’t have the hype that comes with an Olympic tournament. There is no tradition to it and no global recognition like there is with an Olympic gold medal or the Stanley Cup.
With the World Cup of Hockey taking place in the off-season, players’ desire to get involved will likely be lower. Competing in the tournament would mean cutting their vacation short by a couple weeks, something many players might not want to do.
With the Olympics, the players are already in mid-season form. Because they would be playing hockey in mid-February anyway, it is more likely that the biggest stars will agree to represent their respective countries.
Overall, the atmosphere would just not be the same as it is at the prestigious Olympic tournament.
The IIHF is understandably not in favour of having a World Cup replace the best-on-best hockey action featured at the Winter Olympics.
Federation President Rene Fasel President has said he’s going to try his best to get the NHL players to play in 2018 and looks forward to meeting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Daly and other NHL officials. They’re expected to meet several times over the next few months to try to come to an agreement.
In the meantime, hockey-mad fans can watch the best players in the world face off, and hope they get to do the same four years from now.