The NHL and The Olympics
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.