The National Hockey League wanted to make a decision on its participation for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week. They didn’t want it to overshadow the postseason, or be a distraction.
But now that they’ve officially declared that NHL players will NOT be going to PyeongChang to represent their countries in men’s ice hockey, it’s hard to imagine this discussion still won’t dominate the weeks and months ahead.
From the NHL, 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.”
Some of you that haven’t been following this issue might have some questions about this stunning decision, so here are the broad strokes:
Why isn’t the NHL going to 2018?
A combination of factors, all tracing back to the owners’ desire to get more out of shutting down their season for three weeks to send their assets to the Olympics, for not tangible financial benefit.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was the guy who first brought to the NHL to the Olympics in 1998. Since then, the League has seen support for the initiative fade among the owners. They don’t see any bump in ticket sales. They don’t see any financial incentive to them to shut down the season. They don’t see the IOC giving the NHL rights to marketing, sales and video assets that could generate revenue.
That was compounded by the fact that they don’t see PyeongChang as a viable market for the growth of hockey – unlike China, site of the 2022 Games.
Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee decided to pull all funding for the NHL players after the Sochi 2014 Olympics. That meant the International Ice Hockey Federation had to scrounge up the money, which it did, but only to get that initial funding back. The NHL, which was asking for more as was detailed here, wasn’t going to get it. The pot would not be sweetened for PyeongChang. So they’re not going.
(There’s also the fact that the NHL Players Association wasn’t going to allow Olympic participation to be a chip the NHL played in extending the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which would have been another “game-changer” for the owners.)
Why did the IOC cut its funding?
Greed. But also because it didn’t want to have to add additional incentives to the NHL and then have to do the same for every other pro sports league that sends players to the Olympics, including the NBA. Give the NHL rights to sell Olympic-branded merchandise, and they’ve have to cut similar deals. That’s a lot of money being spread out, and the IOC hates spreading the wealth. (They like being given bags of money to bring the circus to town, in fact.)
The NHL also wasn’t happy that the IIHF found the funding by taking it from member nation’s hockey development programs.
Can the NHL go to China in 2022 if they aren’t going in 2018?
That’s the bluff they’re calling with the IOC.
What are the national teams going to do?
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have both discussed a “Plan B” that could include junior and NCAA players.
Hockey Canada, for the moment, is focused on Canadian players that are playing professionally overseas. Sean Burke, former NHL goalie, is scouting them for Hockey Canada.
One wonders if minor leagues like the American Hockey League will make their players eligible.
How do the TV networks feel about this?
The NHL has a long-term contract with NBC. NBC has the Olympic rights. They are, according to a source, “not too happy.”
Finally, what about the players?
Players like Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals said they would leave to play with their nations in 2018 regardless of NHL participation. As of now the NHL does not have a policy in place to deal with players under contract leaving to play. It could be hands-off, and let the policy be a team-by-team decision. Or it could made a draconian ruling that suspends players who leave. It’s not settled.
What is settled, apparently? The NHL is out of the 2018 Olympics.
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