The NHL might be dragging its feet on future Olympic participation, but the players might not give them much choice.
On January 24, 2015, the NHL announced plans to resurrect the World Cup of Hockey in September 2016. And the entire hockey world reacted with a collective yawn. While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his spokesmen tried to ramp up excitement over this tournament by promising it will be “one of the best competitions in hockey history,” it remains to be seen if it will live up to Bettman’s expectations.
Nine months later, and one year from when the World Cup is slated to take place, not even the unveiling of the schedule or roster projections mustered much elation among hockey fans, most of whom are probably too busy enjoying what’s left of the summer or focused upon the upcoming NHL season.
Several NHL superstars trotted out to hype the tournament recently claimed they’re looking forward to it. Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who’s won gold at the Olympic, World Championship and World Junior levels, claims playing for Team Canada never gets old. Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, whos also won gold for Canada at the Olympics and WJC, has no doubt it’ll be exciting hockey.
Every NHL star undoubtedly looks forward to the opportunity to represent their country in international competition. Perhaps the World Cup of Hockey really will be exciting hockey. The inaugural tournament in 1996, which culminated in a best two-out-of-three final between Canada and the United States, was very entertaining. It also firmly established the United States among the world’s dominant hockey nations after years as an also-ran.
But it’s apparent that NHL players don’t consider the World Cup of Hockey as a replacement for Olympic participation. Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara calls playing in the Olympics “very exciting” and “a proud moment”, believing it’s worth the scheduling conflicts the NHL faces to accommodate mid-season participation. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said he’d be delighted to play in the World Cup, but his heart is set on representing Canada in the Olympics.
It’s been suggested the NHL is resurrecting the World Cup of Hockey in hopes it’ll become so popular among hockey fans that it will one day replace Olympic participation. That’s because the Olympics wasn’t as lucrative a means of selling the NHL product as originally hoped.
During the 2014 Winter Olympics, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly claimed that historically NHL ticket sales and TV ratings didn’t go up following the Olympics, nor does the league receive any revenue from those tournaments. Shuttering the NHL for three weeks in midseason to accommodate Olympic participation isn’t popular with team owners and general managers, who complain about lost revenue and risk of injury to star players.
So, now we know why the NHL is resurrecting a fall hockey tournament that hasn’t been missed by fans or players since the last one was held over a decade ago in the looming shadow of a season-killing lockout. League headquarters and team owners believe they will make money (at least in high-priced ticket sales) in a World Cup of Hockey staged before the start of an NHL season, and perhaps enjoy a nice boost to preseason TV ratings.
Of course, there’s obvious flaws in that train of thought. Since the NHL’s Olympic participation began in 1998, there’s been no need for a Cold War-era relic like a September international tournament, when the Canada Cup series provided the only opportunity for hockey fans to see the world’s very best players face off against each other.
Those players also face the same injury risk in the World Cup as they would in the Olympics. It could also prove difficult to entice today’s North American sports fans to watch a meaningless international hockey tournament during baseball’s pennant races and the final days of summer.
The biggest flaw, however, is the assumption that the players will forsake the Olympics for the World Cup of Hockey. It’s clear that participating in the Olympics is dear to the hearts of the NHL’s best players, regardless of their country of origin. They won’t consider the World Cup a viable alternative.
Even if the NHL arbitrarily decides it won’t participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, they could face a potential mutiny from some of their star players.
When the league was footdragging on participating in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russian stars like Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin made it very clear they were going to Sochi no matter what the league decided. Ovechkin has already reportedly stated his intent to play for Russia in the 2018 Games, claiming other players will also be there. That was an obvious shot across the NHL’s bow.
And that’s the NHL’s Olympic conundrum. If the 2016 World Cup of Hockey turns into such a popular tournament that the league decides to pass on future Olympic participation, superstars like Ovechkin could decide otherwise.
Sure, the league can threaten to fine or suspend those players, but if a sizable number of NHL stars from various countries head to Korea, the league will have a huge PR nightmare on its hands. Imagine the NHL staging its February 2018 regular-season schedule without several of its top players because they’re playing in South Korea. Imagine the embarrassment for Bettman, the team owners and general managers. Imagine the potential hit to their revenue if fans opt to watch those players in Olympic competition instead of the long grind of mid-February NHL matchups. Imagine the bad press for the NHL.
As The Globe & Mail’s James Mirtle recently observed, it’s hard to imagine the World Cup of Hockey will be anything but a pale imitation of the Olympics, and nowhere close to a suitable replacement.
The NHL got into the Olympics on the assumption it would boost its revenue and ratings. While that didn’t materialize, Olympic participation became very popular among the league’s star players.
And its those stars, rather than the league commissioner, the team owners or general managers, who will determine the NHL’s ongoing participation in the Olympics. Or at least they will until the next round of collective bargaining in 2022, when this is bound to become a hot-button issue between the owners and players.