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NHL Declines 2018 Olympic Participation

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Zach Parise (Photo: Reuters)

Zach Parise (Photo: Reuters)

The NHL declared February as Hockey Is For Everyone month, and Double G Sports’ very own Chip Gianni reported on the story. Pursuant to the news, I pitched the importance of the NHL’s players’ participation in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. I explained the potential impact to grow the game to new markets as the factor with the most significance in weighing the decision.

Despite the NHL’s position that its decision was not about the money involved, the sequence of events suggests otherwise. In the past, the International Olympic Committee by way of funding to each country’s national governing body would foot the bill for travel expenses and insurance for the players. When the IOC expressed that it would no longer pay for such expenses, the NHL speculated that the IOC no longer desired NHL participation in the Olympics. In other words, if the IOC would not pay for the expenses anymore, the NHL’s owners would not send their players to the Olympics.

After months of speculation, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman beating around the bush on the issue, the NHL released the following statement on Monday:

“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 NHLPA) 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 the 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 discussion 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 officially closed.”

Finally, a clear answer regarding the matter! The problem, however, is that the decision is foolish. But before I explain why, let’s examine some of the arguments against sending the players to the Olympics.

The most common argument relates to the health and safety of the players. Adversaries to NHL participation – the biggest being the collective 30 (soon to be 31) teams’ owners – worry that the players will suffer injury at the Olympics. This argument is undoubtedly grounded in fact, and somewhat meritorious.

In 2014, four players suffered season-ending injuries: John Tavares (captain, New York Islanders), Henrik Zetterberg  (captain, Detroit Red Wings), and Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky (both of the Florida Panthers). Furthermore, several players were forced to miss some NHL games due to injuries incurred at the Olympics, including New York Rangers’ forward Mats Zuccarello, and Pittsburgh Penguins’ defenseman, Paul Martin, who sat out for eighteen games before returning to action.

But players are just as easily susceptible to injury playing in NHL games. For example, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos suffered a broken leg in November of 2013, forbidding him from representing his home-country, Canada, at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. He played all 82 games of the regular season in 2014-15, but he suffered blood clots at the end of last season which kept him out of the lineup for all but one game in the postseason. Four shifts into his 17th game of this season, “Stammer” tore a meniscus in his right knee, the same leg in which he broke his tibia in 2013. Sure, participation might exacerbate the risks of a player who is already injury-prone, but the fact remains, the injury bug does not discriminate against its own appetite.

“But at least the injury occurred while he was on the clock, getting paid for being there with the team that pays him,” said the “fictional” person that is debating with me. To which I respond, “wherever and whenever the best players in the world play the game of hockey, they will always be on the clock. Someone is always willing to pay a price to watch the best players perform, whether for NHL team or for country.”

“But the compressed schedule adds unnecessary risk of injury to the players.” Then why did the players require the league to give all teams a five-day “bye-week” which results in more back-to-back games on the schedule in exchange for the league changing the overtime format to three-on-three? What about the five days of All-Star break which results in more compressing of the schedule? And for some teams, there were even four-day breaks followed by three games in four nights.

“But the Stanley Cup is more important.” Why? Says who? To whom is the Stanley Cup more important than representing one’s country playing alongside the best players against the rest of the world’s best players? Had it ever occurred to you that winning the Stanley Cup and winning a Gold medal are both important in their own right? Players may find both accomplishments equally as desirable in achieving. For some players in the NHL right now, when they were growing up, NHL players were not participating in the Olympics. But for others, the opposite was the case. Every four years, NHL players had the opportunity to represent their countries proudly, and winning Gold was just as glorious as winning the Cup. Players and coaches alike took pride in capturing Gold in international tournaments as well as winning the Stanley Cup.

For instance, there’s even a title for it: the Triple Gold Club (Stanley Cup, Gold at Olympics, and Gold at IIHF World Championships). The IIHF has even said that the three championships are the most important ones available to the sport. So, weigh the factors all you want as to which is more significant. At the end of the day, they all matter. And now, only two will be “readily” available. I use the term “readily” loosely, as the Triple Gold Club is exclusive to only 27 players and one coach (Mike Babcock, currently with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but accomplished the feat with Canada and the Red Wings). No goaltender is found within the club, and none will join for at least five years, if ever.

Then there’s the argument about how the Olympics should only feature amateur athletes. Well, those days are long gone. I dare someone to convince me that Michael Phelps is an amateur swimmer. While many of today’s athletes make nowhere near the money that Phelps and others have made from endorsements and other deals, many athletes’ training regimens are being funded by large corporate sponsors. The Soviet Union is to thank for this trend, as many of the athletes were paid full-time to train for the Olympics to give Soviet athletes a clear advantage. Sure, some athletes today have regular jobs. But they are “full-time amateur athletes” in the months leading up to the Olympic Games, and are being paid to train and compete. Only NCAA athletes do not get paid, but they are few and far between. By 2012, only boxing and wrestling were amateur-only competitions for summer games, and in 2016, the IOC had loosened its rules regarding professional boxers in qualifying rounds.

If you think Russia does not plan to send its professional hockey players to the Olympics in 2018, you are naïve. Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk could very well participate. Washington Capitals’ Captain Alex Ovechkin has proclaimed that he will participate whether other NHL players go or not. And Caps’ owner Ted Leonsis fully supports Ovi’s decision. So, the idea of “amateurs only” is an archaic practice, set up only for Russian domination in South Korea (sounds a lot like the Cold War, doesn’t it?).

The NHL might complain about the negligible change in ratings and revenue generated from Olympic participation. But then, we catch them in a lie. Let’s call a spade “a spade” here; it is about the money to the NHL. But to the players and the fans all over the world, it’s not.

An article on NHL.com points out that the NHL was able only to capture Olympic moments with words, and not video footage. Could this not have been a negotiating point for the NHL? The league could have asked the IOC for permission to use the material if they were not willing to cover the expenses of the players. Instead, the NHL seems to have taken an apathetic approach because, again, it’s all about the money. And who suffers most? Either the players do, or the fans.

Bettman pointed to the various locations of host Olympic cities and the interest in the game as a result of the NHL’s Olympic participation. The NHL has participated in five Olympics since 1998: Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi. Bettman pointed out that the interest generated from Salt Lake City and Vancouver was good in North America, but the interest in other countries at for the other three was not as good.

No kidding! Of course it was good in North America. Americans were interested in Salt Lake City because SLC is in America, and the Vancouver games in 2010 saw the United States take on Canada for Gold. In Sochi in 2014, neither Russia nor the United States made it to the finals (Canada vs. Sweden). Canada has dominated almost every international tournament since the dawn of international tournaments. Perhaps if the game was marketed better in other countries, there would be better competition elsewhere.

The NHL participated in Nagano in 1998. 19 years later, we are finally seeing Japanese professional hockey players. Goaltender Nana Fujimoto signed with the New York Riveters in July 2015 for the upcoming season, but did not return for the 2016-17 season due to her obligations to the Japanese national team. Nevertheless, she was named best goaltender for the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championships.

But growth does not generally occur from one-time exposure. It is a snowball effect. The NHL must continue to expose new markets to the game to continue to spur interest. The league must invest in the market. If the NHL participated in Pyeongchang, it would need to make return trips in the future to foster the spark of interest that the Olympic competition potentially creates.

The NHL is already following that model in China, as the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks are set to play two preseason games in China this September. So why not follow this model in South Korea? Again, there’s only one answer: the NHL was told by the IOC that the NHL would have to cover the expenses on its own now. How pathetic that Bettman is cutting off his nose to spite his face.

The IOC is not free and clear of misbehavior here, though. To the NHL’s credit, there seems to have been no meaningful dialogue from the part of the IOC, either, as the NHL suggests. Rather, the IOC threatened the NHL’s invitation to the 2022 Olympic Games if the NHL failed to participate in Pyeongchang in 2018. Rather than present threatening ultimatums, the IOC should have offered the NHL something beneficial to at least show good faith and continue the conversation.

After the media battle between the NHL and IOC, the fans are left to pick up the pieces. Casual viewers from America will pretend to care until not a single player steps forward early in the tournament from the group of unknown kids and creates a new “Miracle” storyline. I know, the name on the front matters a helluva lot more than the one on the back. I saw the movie, too, and multiple times (loved it; my eyes may or may not tear up every time I watch, I can’t remember).

But if people cannot identify a hero, especially face-to-face with those tough Russians and other European teams, not many people will care enough to even open the newspaper to read what is happening. At least with NHL players, fans in North America on a drastic time zone difference would want to know how their favorite NHL stars were performing. Regardless, “case closed,” as the NHL said.

Evan Schleifer

Evan Schleifer

Evan is the NHL Analyst for DoubleGSports.com providing coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.
Evan Schleifer

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