As Olympic hockey in Sochi rages on in the present, a familiar dark cloud hangs over the sport’s international future. The NHL is once again weighing whether or not to allow its players to compete in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. It is a discussion that has been held before, most notably after the 2006 Olympics in Turin during which a handful of high-profile players sustained serious injuries.
Health concerns are the chief reason the NHL and its owners are wary of continuing to permit players to represent their countries in Olympic hockey. It is a simple and understandable case of wishing to protect an investment — owners’ primary hockey interest lies not in patriotism but rather in their direct financial interests; that is to say, the players on their payrolls.
Further, there are considerable logistical difficulties inextricably linked with NHL participation in the Olympics. Sovereign among these is that the league must go on hiatus during the Games, an issue that is both unavoidable and exclusive to the NHL among all major North American sports. This extended period of midseason inactivity necessitates the compression of the rest of the year’s schedule, which only exacerbates owners’ injury worries.
Suffice it to say, there are numerous challenges associated with the league maintaining its presence in Olympic hockey. Nevertheless, allowing continued NHL participation is a must for several reasons.
Injuries Are Trending Down in Olympic Hockey
According to the Internal Ice Hockey Federation, the injury rate in the 2010 Vancouver Games was less than half of what it was in Turin four years prior. There exists the possibility that this was a fluke, but in all likelihood it was not; the decline in injuries at international hockey tournaments has been predominantly constant since 2006.
The biggest problem, then, seems already to be partially wiped off the table. Obviously eliminating all risk of harm is unattainable, but the situation appears to be headed in a definitively positive direction.
The Benefits of a Compressed Schedule
82 games stretched over a lengthy 7-month period can easily turn into a monotonous slog for fans. The presence of the Olympics indirectly magnifies the attractiveness of each individual regular season game, and also adds a compelling element of excitement to the otherwise unremarkable middle of the season.
Additionally, the impact of condensing the season is almost certainly overstated. The subtraction of three weeks at face value sounds as if it would make a sizable difference in terms of games per day (GPD), but the difference between an Olympic year and non-Olympic year amounts to a mere 0.12 GPD. An extra game every eight and a half days is not a titanic proposition. Whatever extra wear and tear players might accumulate as a result of this can easily be canceled out by reductions elsewhere.
The Olympics as a Platform
If hockey is ever to truly escape the “fringe sport” label, it needs the stage that the Olympics offer. For the business-minded readers out there, this is not only in the sport’s best interest but in the the owners’ as well; the more popular the sport, the fatter their wallets become.
The 2010 Canada/USA gold-medal tilt drew the highest television ratings of any hockey game since a certain matchup from 1980. There is limitless potential for growing the sport via the Olympics. Hockey is, despite its prevailing “fringe” stamp, one of the most recognizable activities during any year’s Winter Games. Each game lasts longer than most Olympic events, and it is hard not to be entranced by the diverse blend of skill, speed, and physicality that the sport offers.
On that note, it is crucial that the best players in the world be the ones competing. A casual fan is much more likely to latch onto hockey for the long term as a result of watching Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane rather than North American amateurs (European leagues do not appear to have any Olympic qualms). Any argument resembling “the NHL pulling its players doesn’t mean there won’t be Olympic hockey” is irrelevant and falls flat; the major concern here is growing the game in North America (namely the United States), and this is significantly jeopardized if the region’s best talent is not a part of the tournament.
The NHL Must Remain a Part of the Olympics
Taken aggregately, the arguments in favor of NHL participation are powerful. The Olympics offer immense promise for growing the game, especially in an increasingly technologically-dominated world.
Continuing to allow NHL players to represent their countries also has the aforementioned potential to facilitate a snowball effect that could very well culminate in relative business nirvana for the league and its team owners.
Whether or not they will choose to embrace that potential, however, remains to be seen.
Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu
Sean covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers and Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @seansarcu.