Last Monday, baseball Opening Day was Olympic hockey Closing Day. After months of speculation, the NHL declared it would not participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
While some believe the NHL is still privately amenable to participating in the Winter Games by leaving this summer open for last-ditch negotiations, it is far more likely that what’s done is done. The epitaph is essentially engraved: “NHL Olympic Era: 1998 – 2014”.
My esteemed Pensblog colleague Leah M. Blasko is making her case for why the NHL should go to the Olympics. A postcard is worth a thousand words. Here is the likely reason Leah wants the NHL at the Olympics:
In contrast, here is my argument for why the NHL should not go to the Olympics:
First, procuring NHL players for national Olympic teams inherently puts a strain on the best clubs. The top NHL teams obviously have more star players than lowly NHL teams. Consequently, a lot of those star players are selected to their respective national Olympic sides, thus increasing fatigue caused by long-distance travel and intense, high-level, playoff-like Olympic hockey games.
Over the five “NHL” Olympics combined, there were nine teams in total who either led or tied for the lead in terms of most players sent to the Olympics. Only three of those teams even made it past the second round of the playoffs in the season they were the leaders in Olympic player contribution. Fatigue? Definitely.
Often, when those star players return, if they did not suffer direct Olympic injuries, their pre-existing conditions are exacerbated from lack of rest. This has a negative effect on those players’ NHL teams at the very critical pre-playoff portion of the schedule. Also, trade deadline decisions become even more difficult if a returning Olympic player is less than 100% and needs an indefinite amount of time on the shelf.
Second, the original goals of the modern Olympics included celebrating “pure amateur sport”. Avery Brundage, an International Olympic Committee president in the mid-20th century, believed that “Athletics were not to be a career … a supplement and not the goal.” Obviously, Brundage was not blind to established professional leagues. However, he was referring to how the Olympics were supposed to be a sanctuary where amateur athletes – including hockey players – who did not have lucrative professional careers to fall back on, truly played for the love of the game.
Let me be clear: no one can deny that the explosion of emotion from lucrative professional Sidney Crosby and his lucrative professional Canadian teammates after he scored the 2010 gold medal-winning overtime goal in Vancouver, was anything but a real demonstration of love for hockey. Yet even without the Olympics, Crosby and all the NHL stars will always have their day in the spotlight. Before and after the NHL Olympic Era, there has been, and always will be, periodic best-on-best global hockey tournaments. The relaunched World Cup of Hockey may be that new premier worldwide hockey event.
The old Canada Cup/World Cup featured some of the greatest best-on-best international hockey moments. Many believe that Mario Lemieux’s winning goal against the Soviet Union in the 1987 Canada Cup was his coming-of-age moment. Was it diminished because it didn’t occur under the Olympic umbrella? Absolutely not.
So let’s re-open the door for Olympic glory to amateur up-and-coming Miracle On Ice-type players or even fading former NHL players currently playing elsewhere in the world (*cough* Max Talbot *cough*) and allow them a fortnight at the Olympics to shine.
If the NHL does not soon issue a league-wide policy, then this is a disaster waiting to happen. Disregarding the PR nightmare of stars such as Alex Ovechkin possibly ignoring the league’s decision and leaving for the Olympics, the integrity of the NHL’s schedule in February 2018 is at stake. If well-meaning teams like Washington permit their players to participate in the Winter Games while Ottawa, for example, holds firm on its decision to not permit their players to go, the competition in NHL games during the Olympics will be artificially compromised.
Imagine if Washington allows Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and Braden Holtby to join their respective countries. Meanwhile the Penguins decide not to allow anyone – not Crosby, not Evgeni Malkin, not Patric Hornqvist – to participate. How competitive would a Washington vs. Pittsburgh game be in this scenario? How many games would Washington win in two weeks without all their stars?
In summary, it’s been a great run for the NHL at the Olympics, but in consideration of many factors, now is a good time for the league to step back, sit this one out, and re-evaluate its future participation.