Today, the NHL released a press statement that they wouldn’t be stopping their season to allow players to participate in the Olympics (the first time they’ve come to this decision since 1998, when NHL players first began participating). This column went up on NHL.com explaining some of the logic behind it.
And I’m going to tell you, the real reason is simple – the NHL (in this case, the owners) can’t make money off sending its players. They’d been trying to bargain with the IOC (who is notorious for making sure that nobody can make money off the Olympics except for itself), and that didn’t go anywhere.
The NHL’s argument comes down to a few points.
First, that the Olympics as an event doesn’t grow the League. You don’t gain committed fans, you get casual fans who watch the Olympics. If so, that failure lies with the NHL who clearly aren’t doing the right kind of marketing post-Olympics. (You don’t need the rings to mention Team Canada, Team Russia, Team USA)
If the issue is that international tournaments don’t attract fans, then why would the NHL have put on the World Cup of Hockey – which used International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) eligible players, not just NHL talents? Why would they be promoting the NHL with a “global” game in China?
The answer is simple – international gameplay doesn’t matter to the NHL unless they’re making money on it.
Another concern raised was player injury, both due to the additional games or compressed season. Which again, if this was the case, they would contest NHL players going to any IIHF tournament. And wouldn’t have run their own the month before the NHL season started.
They cited a ridiculous poll of fans who ultimately said they didn’t want players to go to the Olympics. I don’t know of a single hockey fan (casual or serious) that wouldn’t want them to represent their country, or enjoy seeing them on the international stage. Much less 53% of Canadians or 73% of Americans polled. (Though that last statistic might be bitter Team USA fans)
I can understand that the month break is disruptive to the season, since it does happen just as things are ramping up towards clinching playoff berths. But, it’s once every four years. We aren’t talking about an international tournament every year. It’s the Olympics.
And frankly, I’m not sure that the NHL wants to see what happens to their ratings when their games are put up against the Olympics – especially since NBC’s family of stations (which broadcast NHL games) will be covering nothing but the Olympics, both live and time delayed for major events.
The NHL Player’s Association (NHLPA) issued their own statement that made it clear that they disagree with this decision. Since it’s a great honor for any player to represent their country.
Which brings me to the thing that nobody seems to have considered at the NHL – implications for the future. The IOC made it clear that if the NHL won’t allow players to attend 2018, then 2022 would be off limits, too.
Update: The IOC issued their own response:
It’s a huge honor to represent your country, and certainly something that young athletes dream of. Would you play in a league, no matter how popular, if it meant that you might never get that shot because the League doesn’t make enough money off the Olympics? Or would you go perhaps go to the KHL if it mean you could still represent your home country in the Olympics?
It’s obvious that some of the heavyweights in the NHL will be able to represent their country, regardless of what Bettman’s decided. Alex Ovechkin already said he’d be representing Russia, no matter what the decision was. He’s a face of the franchise- the Capitols would never say no to that. I doubt the Penguins could tell Sidney Crosby or Geno Malkin no, either. But that isn’t a luxury that a young prospect would have, and certainly an aspect that might figure into where they go in the end. And one wonders whether or not the team owners in favor of skipping the Olympics considered that.
But one thing is clear. The NHL might be talking a big talk about ‘growing their appeal’ – but this is the sort of a decision that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. It’s a sort sighted decision that will impact the growth of the game beyond their immediate fanbase.