Thoughts on the NHL Dropping Out of 2018 Winter Olympics
After months of speculation, the National Hockey League announced Monday it would not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Among the reasons cited by the league in its statement was an overwhelming lack of support for the Games among most NHL team owners to and concern over injuries to their players taking part in the tournament.
NHL players weren’t happy with the decision, which also received widespread condemnation from the media. Some pundits hold out hope for a last-minute resolution, but the league seems to have slammed the door on that possibility in its statement, calling the matter “officially closed”.
Money is the real reason why the team owners don’t want to participate in the Pyeongchang Games. For years, they’ve been grumbling that they aren’t seeing a sufficient return for shuttering the schedule in midseason and sending their best players to the Olympics.
Neither the league, the NHL Players Association, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) handled this situation well.
The IOC doesn’t want to give the NHL a bigger share of the revenue generated from the Men’s Olympic Ice Hockey tournament. As of last year, it also announced it wouldn’t pick up the transportation and insurance costs of the players. The IIHF was willing to absorb those costs, potentially at the expense of funding for international hockey development, something the NHL was opposed to.
The players claim they had no say in this, but that’s not true. Despite the seeming reluctance of most team owners in future Olympic participation, league commissioner Gary Bettman last fall proposed extending the expiration date of the current collective bargaining agreement by three years to 2025 in exchange for taking part in the 2018 and 2022 Games. The NHLPA, however, rejected this.
It’s been suggested the PA could use the league’s decision as a reason to trigger an early opt-out of this CBA in September 2019, bringing the agreement to an end a year later and setting off another lengthy lockout. But if the Olympics are the hill they want to die on, it’s a meaningless one. Escrow and other salary issues, not the Olympics, are of greater concern among the players.
Fans and pundits can be upset with the league and its apparent shortsightedness in putting aside short-term revenue ahead of growing the game internationally. Still, this is a business and the owners are within their rights to make that decision.
But while they don’t want risk adversely affecting next season’s revenue and the health of their best players by going to Pyeongchang, they’re apparently interested in taking part in the 2022 Games in Beijing, China.
That’s because China is a huge untapped market for hockey. The NHL is already starting to make inroads in that country and sees the Beijing Games as another significant building block in growing their product there. Of course, that’s if the IOC is willing to allow them back into the Games again.
One also wonders if the team owners would be agreeable to taking part in the 2026 Winter Olympics if the city of Calgary wins the bidding to those Games. The lure of another Winter Olympics in North America and the televising of those Games in prime time could prove enticing, provided they can get some additional revenue out of it.
The NHL’s decision raises questions over how it’ll handle its individual stars wishing to take part in the Pyeongchang Games. Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin has made it clear he intends to play for Russia in that tournament. Indeed, he suggests the league is bluffing.
Will the NHL leave that up to the owners of each club to decide if they want to allow their best players to go to South Korea? Will it implement a league-wide ban? If it’s the latter, will an NHL superstar such as Ovechkin risk breaching his contract and perhaps fines and a lengthy suspension to play for his country? We’ll have to wait until next season to learn the answers.
It remains to be seen what consequences will emerge from the league’s decision not to go to Pyeongchang or how long they’ll be felt. The most immediate effect is to remind hockey fans that the NHL is a business. And business can sometimes be an ugly, unhappy thing.