After the Dust Settles: NHL’s Olympic Quagmire

In an expected but not well-received statement, the NHL announced it will not halt its season next February for players to participate in the 2018 Olympics.  Emotions have simmered and the dust is settling, but it’s not clear who will be representing Canada and the United States in the Olympics.  Will their teams mirror the World Juniors rosters?  Will it be players from the AHL, NCAA, CHL or KHL/European leagues?  

Gary Bettman knows that this will contribute negatively to his already tainted legacy, but it is clearly the will of the owners for the league to play hardball.  They see the players as assets with assigned dollar amounts in a salary cap structure, not individuals with national pride and personal aspirations.  At the same time, the IOC is reviled as a horrible example of corruption and collusion.  The NHLPA also could have avoided this situation by agreeing to extend its current Collective Bargaining Agreement beyond the 2018-2019 season, so there is plenty of blame to go around.

While frustrating for fans, this isn’t the canary in the coal mine for Olympic hockey.  With the games in South Korea, it’s only die-hards that will watch the games live, so television ratings were likely going to be low for hockey regardless.  At the same time, NBC can’t be happy about this decision, and as one of only a few networks willing to broadcast hockey on a regular basis, it’s not a relationship the league can afford to sour considering how much more lucrative other sports can be for television networks.

Meanwhile, the NHL is building rinks and scheduling exhibitions games in China, which happens to be hosting the 2022 Olympics.  Trying to tap the Chinese market and its population of 1.4 billion, but not allowing their product into the country flat out won’t happen.  It’s hard to imagine this would be more than a one time abstention.  There’s no guarantee the IOC will allow NHL skaters the next time around, however, and their reaction indicates they are at least considering that as a bargaining chip.  A few players are speculating that this wasn’t a final decision on the part of the NHL, remaining optimistic that the statement is leading to more serious progress in the negotiations.

The league thought it could supplant the Olympics with The World Cup of Hockey this past September, but it failed to garner the interest or ticket sales expected, and its future is uncertain.  It is slated for a 2018 spinoff and 2020 rehash, but that doesn’t mean it will happen or continue after then.  Had it been more successful, the league wouldn’t be perceived as negatively in the media for their Olympics decision.  

From where the rosters fill will be an interesting situation to keep an eye on, and if the decision isn’t reversed, it will still be high level hockey in the Olympics.  The KHL is not only allowing players to participate, but is marketing their league as an opportunity for Russians in the NHL to play pro hockey and the Olympics in the same season.  This is first and foremost targeted at Alex Ovechkin, who stated he is going to the Olympics regardless of the league’s decision.  It’s possible non-Russians will give this alternative some consideration, especially those in the twilight of their career.  It’s not a given the AHL will allow its players to participate, as their parent teams won’t want their top call-ups unavailable, but the league has yet to say otherwise.  Blue chip prospects in the CHL and NCAA will receive consideration for roster spots as well, and unlike the World Juniors, there won’t be age restrictions.  

While not ideal for any of the parties involved, the fallout from the Olympics decision pales in comparison to the damage potentially caused by a play stoppage before the 2019-2020 season.  Any hockey fan would prefer losing the Olympics to another lockout, and the NHLPA’s refusal to extend the contract for Olympic participation is a clear message to the owners.  It’s also not fair to the non-Olympians for the Player’s Association to prioritize a small percentage of its members.  An unexpected consequence of the Olympics decision is the public being reminded of the pending CBA negotiations.

At the end of the day, this announcement didn’t catch anyone off guard, and it’s not going to ruin the sport.  The drama will continue to unfold until the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is in place, but missing the Olympics and locking the players out could be the last straw for many fans.  That could make Portlanders not want anything to do with the NHL.  Borrowing the terminology from another sport, this Olympics decision is strike one.

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