The NHL and The Olympics

AP

If you are a hockey fan of a certain age, you have seen professionals and non-professionals representing their respective countries. Perhaps the greatest moment in Winter Olympic history came in 1980 when 25 college kids shocked the world, by defeating the Soviet powerhouse. And amateur players were the standard for the Olympics until 1998. Only since then has the NHL sent its players to the Olympic games. But while everyone is out arguing for and against, let’s look at what they are fighting about.

If you are the NHL, you have many things to consider. First, the Olympics take place every four years during the NHL season. This would mean forcing a break in the schedule for 2-3 weeks, which in it of itself means a couple things. It means that teams won’t be able to practice at full strength. It also means that any momentum that a team may have built up is destroyed heading into the final stretch of the season. You would also have to be concerned with the possibility of losing your star players to injury. In 2014, Mats Zuccarello broke his hand in Norway’s final game; while John Tavares tore his MCL and meniscus after taking a heavy hit from Latvian defenseman Arturs Kulda. Those are some very real concerns, and shouldnt be taken lightly. In fact, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk argued this very point, saying “At our level for example you lose these guys and you’re done and your fans are the ones that hurt the most because here they are cheering on [the team] talking playoffs then all of a sudden that sinks. I don’t have to tell you what happens when a key player gets knocked out of the games, so that’s my biggest worry.” He said he would respect the league’s decision either way, but when you are talking about the owners protecting their assets, it seems pretty cut and dry.

If you are the players, you want to represent your country. And players have been very outspoken about that. Alex Ovechkin has said “The Olympics happen only once every four years, and you defend the honor of your country there.” And he has maintained that he has full intentions of playing in Pyeongchang, in spite of what the league has said. Erik Karlsson called it “crap”, adding that “we have no say in the matter and it’s very unfortunate for the game of hockey around the world.” His fellow countryman Henrik Lundqvist said on Twitter that it is “disappointing for all the players that can’t be part of the most special adventure in sports.” All of these points are valid and well taken, and it shows strong signs of the distrust and displeasure of the NHL and its players. Carey Price took a slightly different approach to showing his displeasure with the league’s decision, saying “I feel like we’re short-changing some of the younger players that haven’t had that opportunity; it’s tough to swallow for some of those kids, I’m sure. At a human level, this is a big worldwide event that the world takes part in and you know, we want to shine our light too.”

It really boils down to this: the players want to go and represent their countries, while the NHL wants to make sure the integrity of it’s product doesn’t get diminished by taking a 2-3 week break as the season starts to wind down. And here’s the thing; there is no right way to go about this. If Gary Bettman decided to let his players go to Pyeongchang and a superstar had gotten injured, it takes away from the NHL’s product. And if Gary Bettman decided not to let his players go, which is what he has done, the players and the NHLPA become incensed with the league and threaten a work stoppage when the CBA is up.

If you ask me, I don’t mind the NHL not sending it’s players to the Olympics. And I agree with the players who are adamant about representing their countries, and playing for national pride. But the Olympics were always intended as a display of high level amateur athletics, and introducing pros into the various sports has diminshed that. Every fourth summer it is a given that the US basketball team will be in the gold medal game. And every fourth winter it is a given that the Canadian hockey team will be in the gold medal game. And people are watching the Olympics less and less. The NBC primetime coverage of Sochi in 2014 had the lowest TV ratings in the network’s history. Which tells me one thing: fans don’t care what the name is on the back, just what the crest is on the front. It doesn’t matter if it’s Matthews vs Crosby any more than it would if it was two amateurs from rival nations. It is a shame that the NHL’s leading talent won’t be able to represent their countries, but it is ultimately in their best interest.

5 comments

  • I love the Olympics as well as hockey. That said, I always enjoyed the competitiveness of the Olympics when it was the amateurs competing- it gave the countries competing a special kind of “magic” for lack of a better word.

    When they started to allow “pros” in- something was lost. I felt letting Professionals in took away from those amateurs who were training for years for their “dream” in the Olympics.

    The professional basketball and hockey players have already realized their “dream” as they play on the professional level with professional teams. I feel that having pros compete in the Olympics takes away from the competitiveness- and fairness of the Olympic games.

    However, I find it “telling” that suddenly the NHL is against it. There is more to it than them suddenly being concerned for their players getting injured- it seems to me that it’s more about money and they don’t feel the money is there in S. Korea.

    If the Olympics were going to be in Canada or Russia, for example, (as previously, Sochi and Vancouver), this would not be an issue.

    Going forward, if they NHL keeps the pros out- will this be consistent? Or will they allow them to compete in another winter olympics down the road if the country is a more “hockey hotbed” country?

    That’s the issue that I have with all of this.

    Anyway, I’m all for pros being out of the Olympics. Give others a chance to compete. Pros already compete- there are plenty of worthy players vying for a special spot in the Olympics in other countries. Give them a chance. Make it fair like it used to be.

  • As a fan I personally enjoyed the amateurs (at least the Americans) playing in the Olympics. Honestly what was the difference between the last Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey? I grew up with a bunch of unknown college kids beating a group of professionals from America’s biggest political rival at the time to advance to the Gold Medal Game. American hockey grew expodencially after those games and a new generation of American kids turned to hockey after the Miracle On Ice.

    The NHL has not gained 1 new fan since the inclusion of professionals in the Olympics. That fact along with shutting the season down just before the playoffs, stars getting injured and rediculous time change should have made it an easy decision.

    America has a boatload of talent at the junior level to made them a perennial challenger for the Gold Medal. I know I’m probably the minority but I love the fact the amateurs are back to representing their country.

  • I agree with you Mike O…. growing up and playing hockey through the 70’s, I was always looking forward to watching an incredible group of U.S. college kids with the NHL dream still a glimmer in their eye’s compete to just make it into the medal rounds.

    Then in 1980 the Olympics brought a whole new fan base to watch hockey and the NHL because of that special group of kids and one hell of a coach in Herb Brooks. My father was a huge supporter of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Program and was lucky enough to be at the 2nd most incredible game of his life that year in Lake Placid.(The first being that wonderful June evening in 1994)

    Kids today had no chance to play in the biggest world competition in hockey until now. I grew up on the ice 12 months a year and even went to several hockey camps where they even trained us by the Russian Olympic training program for 2 years. It was an awesome experience for me and even though I wasn’t the most talented player on the ice, I always had that dream of playing for our country one day. Bringing the TRUE Amateur status back to the Olympics will bring more attention back to the amateur level that has been getting lost for the last 20 years. With players being drafted right out of High School or as College Freshman the amateur glimmer has gotten lost.

    Yes, some NHL players will be disappointed but again they are being paid to be NHL professionals. Plus it will open the door for younger European players to be seen and come to play in the NHL before their 25th or 26th birthday. Bringing a whole new extension of earlier developmental programs for these younger more exciting players to enter the NHL……

    • I’ll never forget Ray LeBlanc standing on his head in ’92 leading Team USA to within 60 mins of a bronze. That year also introduced hockey fans to future NHL’ers Eric Lindros, Teemu Selanne, Alex Kovalev, Sergie Zubov and Keith Tkachuk

  • I also miss the college or juniors playing in the Olympics. I fear country’s that sent pros in the past to compete against college kids will start to do the same again but that is what made the 1980 team so special, they beat the pros from other countries.

    Maybe the Olympic committee needs to limit players to one Olympic games…

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