Overtime With BSC: The NHL’s Olympic Problem

By now, everybody knows that after many months of deliberation and speculation, the NHL has officially announced that they will not be competing in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. While the discussion has been on-going for months, the league’s ultimate decision still comes as a major blow to the entire hockey community. The NHL has participated in every Winter Olympic game since the 1998 games in Nagano.

The NHL’s full statement read as follows:

We have previously made clear that, while the overwhelming majority of our Clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players, we were open to hearing from any of the other parties who might have an interest in the issue (e.g., the IOC, the IIHF, the NHLA) as to reasons the Board of Governors might be interested in re-evaluating their strongly held views on the subject. A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialized.

Instead, the IOC has now expressed their position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018. And the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussions that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the Clubs.

As a result, and in an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 Regular Season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games. We now consider the matter official closed.

Understanding the NHL’s Perspective

While it may be hard to understand for the players and the fans, the NHL is still a business. Creating a 17-day halt in the middle of the regular season to send players to the Olympics isn’t something that the NHL or the owners of NHL teams want. In doing so, they are halting the progress of their league and potentially creating shifts in momentum for teams that could be trending upwards.  The owner’s standpoint can’t be ignored. Turning a blind-eye to any lost revenue during the Olympics wouldn’t be wise. Not only are teams sending their best talents to represent their countries – risking injury and potentially costing a team a playoff race, or more, but teams are also losing revenue during the Olympics due to the lack of home ticket sales and game broadcasts.

There is a trickle-down effect as well.

Triple Gold Club
Photo: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If a player like John Tavares gets hurt at the Olympics – the reality that the New York Islanders had to face in 2014, then the money that the Islanders’ will make moving forward will be diminished. People pay to see Tavares. Additionally, people pay to see good teams. If the Islanders are unable to ice their best team due to an injury that occurred to Tavares on international soil in a tournament that ultimately meant nothing for their franchise, then it’s easy to see why the owners of the Islanders would be upset. Additionally, if an injury such as the one to Tavares was to seriously jeopardize the chance of the Islanders missing the playoffs, then the team would also lose revenue for playoff games.

Exposure Lost Without Participation

For Gary Bettman, the job is clear: make money. The NHL owners pay Bettman so that he in return can increase revenues – something he did by signing the monumental deal with Rogers to give them exclusive rights to cover NHL action. If Bettman has done such a good job in the past from the owners perspective, then the calls to have him fired will always go unacted upon due to the owners’ personal agenda. In business, this is normal – despite the fact that there are millions of fans and hundreds of players affected, it’s the 31 owners that determine what happens. Still, the best way to grow the sport and increase revenue is to gain exposure.

The NHL’s participation in the Olympics provides multiple benefits for the league, its players and the sport of hockey in general. Playing for one’s country is a huge selling point for the Olympics. Though there has been concern about how valuable oversea Olympics are due to the time difference from North America, the exposure that the sport of hockey has gotten as a result of Olympic participation cannot be ignored.

Who could forget TJ Oshie’s performance in the 2014 Olympics in a shootout against Russia

Many players grew up watching their favorite players competing in the Olympics, wearing their countries sweater with pride. Pulling that very same jersey over their own head is something that players covet throughout their careers – an opportunity that many players will certainly miss as a result.

Lack of Participation Causes Internal Issues

The most obvious issue with a lack of Olympic participation comes in the form of the players missing their opportunity to play in the tournament. With so much deliberation taking place over the last few months, players have made their cases known. While some players are taking it upon themselves to speak out now that the decision is apparently finalized, some players have made their intentions known for months.

In September, Alexander Ovechkin made it clear that he would be playing in the Olympics one way or another.

Much went into the discussion of whether or not the NHL would agree to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics. One thing was certain, however; whether the NHL decided to participate in the Olympics or not, Alexander Ovechkin intends on representing Russia either way.

https://twitter.com/ESPN_NHL/status/776507477806321664

When asked about whether or not he plans on playing by ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, Ovechkin made his intentions very clear at the time.

“My decision is the same,” said Ovechkin, the captain of the Washington Capitals. “So, I don’t know what’s going to happen right now, but we just have to wait what they say and we’ll see.”

Ovechkin at the time, went on to mention that the situation was still up in the air.

“It’s a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen. But obviously, I said I’m going to play.”

Talking about it following the announcement of the NHL’s decision to not participate in the Olympics, Ovechkin repeated the sentiment.

With a superstar like Ovechkin making it clear he wants to play, others have also expressed their thoughts.

NHLPA Statement

The NHLPA’s statement on the matter was straightforward and to the point:

The Players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision to not continue our participation in the Olympics. Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season’s schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage.

A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia. The NHL may believe it is penalizing the IOC or the players, or both, for not giving the owners some meaningful concessions in order to induce them to agree or to go to PyeongChang. Instead this impedes the growth of our great game by walking away from an opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide.

Moreover, it is doing so after the financial issues relating to the insurance and transportation have been resolved with the IOC and IIHF. The League’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself. NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone. It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.

Player Responses

The players very clearly want to represent their native countries. In barring the player participation from the Olympics, the NHL is creating an issue that will back both sides into a corner. Still, the dialogue might not be as finalized as the NHL initially indicated.

Some of the game’s biggest stars made their opinions known in interviews, as well as through Twitter posts. New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist expressed his disappointment. San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic made a silent, but powerful message known with the simple posting of a picture to his own Twitter feed. NWHL star Amanda Kessel stated the decision was “extremely disappointing.” Additionally, Sidney Crosby and Carey Price also discussed their thoughts.

Door Not Slammed Closed Yet

While the NHL may have closed the door on the talks of Olympic participation, the story may not be done quite yet. When talking to Rene Fasel, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Igor Eronko learned that both sides hadn’t yet closed the door on the potential for the NHL’s participation.

As Fasel mentions, the NHL could be heading towards another CBA dispute. This time, however, the Olympics would be a prominent talking point. The NHL and the NHLPA have had their differences in the past. Preventing the players from participating in the Olympics could be another tipping point that pushes both sides over the edge.

The dialogue leading up to the NHL’s decision to not send its players to the Olympics ended in disappointment. Moving forward, teams and players will have to decide how they will handle the situation. For a player like Ovechkin who is heart bent on going to the Olympics to represent Russia, many factors come into play. His owner could sign off on him taking a leave and playing overseas. This could cause issues, however. The Washington Capitals have been the NHL’s best team over the last two seasons. By losing their best player for one month, that success could falter. In leaving, Ovechkin could also create a divide in his locker room – the opposite effect a captain is supposed to have on a team.

If players do decide to play in the Olympics, they will have to realize the consequences that come with that decision. If for example, the Washington Capitals do not agree with Ovechkin’s decision, he could face supplemental discipline from the team as a result. The situation is on-going, and though the NHL wants to project a sense of finality, they may have just created more questions than answers.