It appears the 2018 Winter Olympics will lack the star power of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews after the NHL announced Monday it will not interrupt next season to accommodate the Pyeongchang Games.
Instead, hockey will likely be represented on the global stage by many players with unrecognizable names – think Brad Schlegel, David Harlock and Dwayne Norris from Canada’s silver-medal winning team at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
“Disappointing news @NHL won’t be part of the Olympics 2018,” New York Rangers goaltender and two-time Olympian Henrik Lundqvist said on Twitter. “A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted.”
It was the hope of superstars like McDavid, Jonathan Toews and Alex Ovechkin that the NHL would come around to the big picture appeal of the 2018 Games, but the league never found the answer it was looking for.
What exactly might have swayed their opinion toward letting players attend isn’t clear. NHL owners never bought into the idea that shutting down the season for 17 days in February would benefit the league in the long run.
Their angst was most certainly sparked by the International Olympic Committee’s insistence that out-of-pocket payments for players to attend in 2018 would no longer be covered.
“I think when the IOC said ‘You know what, we don’t think it’s worth it we’re not going to pay,’ I think that may have opened a whole can of worms,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at one point in the process.
And from there, the owners dug in there heels and never moved – even when the International Ice Hockey Federation found apparent money to cover costs like travel, accommodation and insurance.
But it was beyond just dollars and limited growth potential from South Korea. Owners were wary of the season disruption and impact of a compressed schedule, along with increased risk for player injury.
Bettman said in March that “there’s somewhere between fatigue and negativity on the subject.
In a statement announcing their decision, the NHL said “no meaningful dialogue has materialized,” pointing fingers at both the IOC and NHL Players’ Association.
The league revealed a relatively new position from the IOC, suggesting that participation at the 2022 Beijing Games hinged on participation in 2018 and adding that the NHLPA had demonstrated “no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs.”
What the players’ association could have presented is unclear. Perhaps a counter-offer to a late-2016 proposal that swapped Olympic participation for an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement may have moved the needle.
The NHLPA balked at that proposal, unwilling to hurriedly alter terms of an agreement reached to conclude the 2012-13 lockout.
Asked in late March how players would react if the NHL opted not to let them go to South Korea, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said they wouldn’t be happy.
“They know we think it’s important,” Fehr said. “They know that we believe very strongly that players ought to have an opportunity to play. They know we think it’s in the long run good for the game. And it’s something that we ought to try and do.”
Fehr suggested then that players might be able to attend the Games in 2018 regardless. He said the union thought it was “very probably an individual club decision” on whether players could go to the Olympics, an avenue that could conceivably allow those like Ovechkin to come to agreements on attending with their respective teams.
Ovechkin has insisted that he’ll attend in South Korea no matter what the NHL decided and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has supported that stance.
The NHL is sure to address that matter at a later date, but it’s worth wondering how the league would react if stars like Ovechkin suddenly bolted mid-season to play for their countries.
The move also came as a blow to broadcasters and individual federations, with rights-holder NBC and Hockey Canada both expressing their disappointment in statements.
Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said that the organziation will resort to “Plan B.” A Canadian roster would likely be built using players from professional leagues in Europe and other minor circuits. Team Canada is the two-time defending Olympic champion.
Fehr noted recently that the Olympics might have to be worked into future CBA negotiations with opt-outs for the current agreements in September 2019 now looming large.
This might not be the end of the story, though.
While the NHL insisted that it considered the matter “officially closed,” the NHL has been working on two separate 2017-18 schedules for months – one that includes the 2018 Games and one that doesn’t. And given the bigger potential implications, it wouldn’t be surprising if an already bumpy process took another turn.
“NHL players should be there and I certainly hope they are there,” McDavid said back in January. “I can’t picture an Olympics without (NHL players) to be honest.”