Viewpoint: NHL’s hard bargaining with Olympics has hurt everyone

By Nathan Bragg

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has announced that the NHL will not take a break for the Olympic Games next year in Pyeongchang, meaning NHL players — or at least most of them — will not participate in the Olympics for the first time since the Nagano Games in 1998.

The decision is a frustrating one for fans who want to see the world’s best on display and who have become accustomed to seeing NHL stars at the Olympics.

The move has also frustrated many players who look forward to the opportunity to represent their country on the biggest stage in sports, and to get a chance to win an Olympic gold medal. Now they’ve seen that opportunity taken away by their employers.

Make no mistake: this is all about money. The NHL brass and the team owners who direct the league’s decisions are focused on their bottom line. And while the International Olympic Committee’s big-money proposal for NHL participation would have covered travel and insurance costs for players like they did in 2014, the two sides couldn’t come to a deal. Why? Because the league wants compensation for the three-week break in the NHL schedule that playing in the Winter Games requires.

The NHL is a business, and from a business perspective the move makes sense since taking an Olympic break means forgoing tens of millions of dollars in revenue. But the move also harms the league’s image and angers its consumers — hockey fans — and many of its star players.

Some players, such as Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin, have vowed to play in the Olympics no matter what — and his Washington Capitals’ bosses have said they’ll back his decision.

But with no formal league announcement yet on whether individual players will be authorized to play in the Olympics, national hockey federations and the IOC must prepare for a Winter Games in South Korea without hockey’s top stars.

While far from ideal, it’s not the end the world nor the death of men’s hockey at the Games. Olympic hockey has and will continue to exist with or without NHL players — as it did for decades before Nagano — and the lack of top talent could even lead to a more intriguing tournament as fans will be introduced to many talented players without the big names or NHL exposure.   

For Canadian hockey lovers, this is a great opportunity. At every Olympic Games, fans of lesser-known sports are introduced to lesser-known athletes who suddenly grab a national or global spotlight.  If the NHL isn’t participating in the Olympic hockey tournament, it will give Canadians a chance to learn about hardworking players plying their trade in other pro leagues, including some highly competitive European circuits.

In terms of the Olympic competition, it will make the winners more difficult to call. Over the past eight years, when Canada’s best players have been available, they’ve been an unstoppable juggernaut en route to the gold medal game. That’s what made the NHL’s World Cup of Hockey, held last year, less exciting than it could have been.

Olympic hockey was played for more than 60 years without NHL players and still produced some compelling storylines, including the famous 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at the Lake Placid Games, where a U.S. team with mostly college players upset the heavily favoured Soviet Union in semi-final action then won gold at home for frenzied American fans.

The removal of the big-name stars turns many of the established favourites — Canada, Sweden and the U.S. — into more of an underdog behind the Russians, who even in the NHL Olympic era have frequently relied on players from the country’s top-calibre Kontinental Hockey League.

The few potential positives still don’t outweigh the disappointing fact that the NHL is prioritizing profit over the interests of the fans and players. It’s true that eight of the 30 NHL teams did not turn a profit last year, according to recent statistics from Forbes. But those struggling teams are mostly in markets where hockey is an afterthought: Florida, Arizona and the like.

The Olympics, however, would put a spotlight on hockey bigger even than the NHL’s media coverage. And having NHL stars compete in front of a global audience, with increased American television viewership, would only help grow the sport and the league.

In reality, the NHL’s business decision might make sense for the league in the short-term, but it sends the message to fans and players that the league executives and team owners care more about their wallets than the global growth of the game.

But the Olympics will carry on with or without the NHL. And perhaps the league will come to regret opting out when hockey fans around the world do what many NHL players are now wishing they could do, immersing themselves in a competition between countries instead of just professional clubs.