Trying to make sense of
the NHL's Olympic decision
April 4, 2017 | 12:45am ET
TORONTO, ON -- By now, you should be well aware of the NHL's decision
to screw over the players and keep them from representing their
countries in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
And while I share the players' disappointment -- to an extent, since I
certainly won't be playing in the games (knee injury being the main
reason, of course) -- I understand where the League is coming from. I
don't agree with it. I don't like it. But I get it.
The NHL truly wants nothing to do with a 17-day break in the middle of
their regular-season. No other sport has to halt action mid-season to
accommodate an international competition. And you can be sure the last
thing the League or the Vegas Golden Knights want is a timeout smack
in the middle of the Knights' inaugural season.
There's also the risk of injury argument that Ottawa Senators
owner Eugene Melnyk fudged up using when he made a bonehead comment
about not wanting Sens captain Erik Karlsson to go play for Sweden and
potentially beat up on Canada. Despite Melnyk's silly public comments
(keep that crap to yourself, dude), injuries are a factor for just
about all of the teams.
There's the condensed schedule, which potentially takes money away
from certain owners' pockets, the ones who own their arenas (less
opportunity for concerts, other events, etc. -- you can only squeeze
so much in that 17-day window, pending tour dates and all that jazz),
and also has teams worried about injuries, again.
At the end of the day, the NHL's owners are worried about money. It's
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's job to look after his owners' best
interests, no matter unpopular he's become in the public eye. And
while the IOC and IIHF met the NHL's demands when it came to
insurance, transportation and accommodations, as the NHLPA pointed out
in its statement released Monday evening, it wasn't enough -- frankly,
I'm not sure the NHL originally expected them to meet their demands.
It's why Bettman offered the NHLPA the option to extend the current
Collective Bargaining Agreement by two years in exchange for allowing
the players to participate in the 2018 Games. What's in it for the
The League certainly doesn't care what NBC, their U.S. broadcast
partner, thinks. NBC voiced its disappointment, like everyone else, on
Monday, but the NHL isn't generating any additional funds from them
for Olympic participation, so what do they care? The NHL knows its
given NBC a sweetheart television deal, and they're not afraid to
From a fan's perspective, are you really going to watch games at 7am
ET / 4am PT? The NHL doesn't seem to think so, as it claims to have
held a fan poll in Canada and the U.S. to determine if fans wanted to
see a break in the season. How many fans were polled is not clear, but
according to Dan Rosen's piece on
NHL.com, 73 percent of Americans said
"they were not in favor," while 53 percent of Canadians who
participated "were against the break."
Playing in the Winter Olympics is a privilege, for any athlete, and
being told you can't represent your country is a bit of a dick move.
But playing Devil's Advocate, which is basically what this article is
trying to do, these particular athletes make millions of dollars each
year to play a sport for an owner that wants to protect its
investment. Decent consolation prize, but shitty politics, right?
Most North American players I've spoken to in the past have said
they'd take winning the Stanley Cup over an Olympic gold medal any day
of the week. That doesn't diminish the value of participating the in
Winter Games whatsoever, it just illustrates where the priorities
fall; and playing in the Winter Olympics doesn't eliminate the Stanley
Cup Playoffs. The sentiment among European players, from my
discussions with them, is about 50/50, while Russians aren't messing
around when it comes to representing their nation. But they used to
have a choice. Now, it appears they do not... or at least not without
the potential of being penalized for it.
And on a similar subject, if Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis
allows Alex Ovechkin to suit up for Russia, what's stopping Evgeny
Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov from doing the same? Or Swedish center
Nicklas Backstrom. Or Canadian goalie Braden Holtby? Or American
defenseman John Carlson? The Caps could end up losing six-to-eight
players to the Olympics. Is Leonsis okay with the prospect of losing
eight straight games in a 17-day span?
If the NHL holds firm on its decision and allows teams to govern their
teams themselves, things could get really ugly, behind-the-scenes. And
that's not something the NHL should want to see happen. Monday's
decision was already a kick in the shin as it relates to future CBA
Oh, and by the way, even though the last sentence in the NHL's
statement ("We now consider the matter officially closed"), until the
IOC locks the door, it's still open. In 2014, NHL player participation
wasn't finalized until July of that year. So, we'll see.
The NHL was wise in making its decision now, though, versus next week
or the one after that. The NHL Playoffs get underway April 12, and
based on how some of the first-round matchups are looking, this
Olympic chatter is probably going to take a backseat until the summer
-- it'll probably poke its head during the World Championships, but
that'll fizzle once the Stanley Cup Final gets underway, followed by
the NHL Awards, the Expansion Draft, the NHL Draft, and then free
As popular as it is to hate on Bettman and the League, and they can
make it seem easy sometimes, you've got to give them some credit; they
know what they're doing -- they'll take the week-long assault knowing
it's going be on the backburner once the post-season gets underway.
And frankly, the NHL will use these "distractions" are added
ammunition, if they need to.
Again, as I stated off the bat, I don't agree with the NHL's decision.
I'd like to see the best go up against the best in the Winter
Olympics. But I don't own a team. I don't have the luxury of not
giving a crap how shortsighted my choices may be. At the end of the
day, the NHL is concerned about the NHL, and I get that.
What about growing the game in Asia? I've got news for you, the NHL
doesn't care about that, either. They care about one part of Asia, and
that's China. That's why, with the help of some very deep-pocketed
corporate sponsors (which, at the end of the day, made the League's
decision pretty simple), they're playing two exhibition games, between
the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, in Beijing and Shanghai
in September. And all signs point to them doing that again in 2019 and
2020 (barring another anticipated lockout). And they're re-entering
the European landscape with two regular-season games, between the
Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators, in Stockholm, Sweden, in
November. And all signs point to them continuing that trend in 2019
and on, especially if the dollars match up.
So, from the perspective of expanding the NHL brand and the sport of
hockey overseas, the NHL can argue that it's got that covered.
And they'll also argue that they're growing the World Cup of Hockey,
pegged for 2020 in (likely) Edmonton, if everything aligns itself and
there's no lockout. But they better enhance the crap out of their
marketing strategy for that tournament, as the event in Toronto was
poorly promoted, the fan village was in the wrong part of town, and
the lack of buzz in the city was felt up through the championship
game. But they've got a few years to figure that out, especially if
the tournament is indeed hosted at Rogers Arena in Edmonton, and
they'll also use the fact the NHLPA shares in those revenues as
another way to combat anti-Olympic participation.
The door, for now, is closed on Olympic participation, but it's not
locked shut. Until the IOC deadbolts the door, we'll reserve hope.
After all, everything is negotiable.
David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of
The Fourth Period. Follow