The Olympics Corner: The loss of the NHL for men's hockey
With the 2018 Winter Olympics kicking off in 11 days, athletes around the world are preparing to travel to Pyeongchang, South Korea for the experience of a lifetime. This year, however, players from the National Hockey League will not be lacing up for men’s ice hockey. For the first time since before the 1998 games, the NHL will not be sending players to the Olympics. Over the course of five Winter Games, the league has had 706 players take the ice for their nations and an average of 141 athletes per season.
When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the decision, the league cited several reasons for restricting players from hitting the ice for their countries. The 17-day break in the schedule needed to accommodate the Olympics is seen as a burden to the League and the potential for players to get injured while playing could sideline them for the rest of the season, such as when the New York Islanders’ captain John Tavares suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Canada-Latvia game in 2014.
Additionally, the International Olympic Committee had paid for costs associated with the Games in the past but informed the NHL that this year it would not be covering these. While the International Ice Hockey Federation offered to take on the $29 million, the league declined the offer in favor of the money being used to work on developing hockey. However, what better way is there to grow the game than display it for the whole world to see?
The Olympics is not a small event by any means. In 2014, the USA-Russia men’s hockey game became the NBC Sports Networks most-watched half hour of television and its most-watched hockey game in the network’s history. In contrast, the average NHL game has 336,000 viewers on the network. If the league is truly invested in growing the sport, it would not let a two-week break in the schedule hold their players back from showing off their talents to the entire world.
It is also important to consider that players want to be able to take the ice for their countries, as it is one of the greatest honors endowed on an athlete. When news broke that the NHL would not be participating in the games, the NHL Player’s Association released a statement in response to the decision, stating, “The players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s short sighted decision to not continue our participation in the Olympics.” By not allowing players to participate, the NHL is depriving them of the opportunity of a lifetime. The purpose of the Olympics is to put the greatest athletes in the world on display, and that’s exactly who NHL players are. They are premier athletes, the most accomplished in their sport, and they deserve to take their spots in Pyeongchang.
Having these big name NHL players on the ice would also draw in viewers who want to see their favorite skaters face off, such as the Chicago Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews, representing Canada, and Patrick Kane for Team USA. Sidney Crosby will not be resuming his position as captain of the nine-time gold medal-winning Canadian hockey team, while Connor McDavid, the fastest skater at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition for the second year in a row, won’t be making his Olympic debut. For Team USA, Ryan Callahan, Kane and Phil Kessel will no longer have the chance to redeem themselves after placing fourth and failing to medal at Sochi in 2014. For Zdeno Chara, the captain of the Slovakia 2014 Olympic team and the bearer of the country’s flag at the 2014 Opening Ceremony, the NHL’s decision means he will not be able to take his 108.8 mph slap shot to Pyeongchang.
The caliber of NHL players can be seen on the ice and in the locker room, as all but two of the 2014 captains were once NHL players, from the Minnesota Wild’s Zach Parise leading Team USA to the former member Detroit Red Wing’s magic man Pavel Datsyuk leading the Russian team. The significance of the NHL on the Olympics does not come as a shock, considering the league’s status as the premier hockey league in the world with players from 17 different countries.
NHL players also made an impact in Sochi. Canada had an entire roster of NHL players and claimed the gold, while Sweden, which has all but one player coming from the NHL, placed second. Finland, took home the bronze medal and had 12 players from the NHL and 13 from other leagues, including nine from the Kontinental Hockey League. Additionally, Team USA, which was completely composed of NHL players, took fourth place.
The prohibition of NHL players has left countries looking toward the AHL, KHL, and college leagues to fill their Olympic rosters. While these players are still incredibly talented, the absence of players such as the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin or the Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard will be noticed.