Examining the NHL’s Olympic ban

The Winter Olympics bring together the world’s best athletes on one grand stage. Big names in winter sports from around the world to compete for what is arguably the most prestigious athletic honor: an Olympic gold medal. This year, however, the National Hockey League has decided to strip hockey players in the league of any possibility they may have had to gain that honor. A recent NHL decision now prohibits players from competing in the Winter Olympics.

The NHL officially made the decision last year, but the consequences are only now becoming a reality as the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have just begun. To the disappointment of many fans, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid — all big names in the world of hockey — will be staying home for this year’s Olympics.

There are several reasons why the NHL made this decision, some more significant than others. The interesting commonality between all of the reasons is the strong consideration for the league’s business interests over player satisfaction.

Reason 1: Inconvenience for the league. The NHL would need to shut down for 17 days to accommodate this year’s Olympics. A shut down for that long would cause havoc and require intense scheduling changes. The NHL is currently in the middle of its regular season, and having to break that up for three weeks would be a logistical nightmare.

The NHL doesn’t want to miss games in February, so they would be forced to either push the season back or squeeze in more games per week.

Reason 2: The NHL is already international and doesn’t need the global sphere of the Olympics. A common criticism of the league’s decision is that preventing hockey players from competing in the Olympics cuts opportunities to build international following for the NHL. However, the NHL counters with the fact that they are already international; the league consists of 31 teams, 24 of which are in the United States and seven of which are in Canada. The NHL has already invested many resources into global outreach, so they believe that they don’t really need to go all the way to South Korea to tell the world they’re interested in expanding globally.

Reason 3: Fear of injuries. Because the NHL is a highly competitive league, any player’s injury would bring a significant disadvantage to the respective team. The difference between a top team and a team that missed the playoffs could come down to a few points. Injuries sustained at the Olympics could ruin a team’s season, and the NHL believes that risk of injury is just not worth taking.

Reason 4: No quantifiable gain in popularity. The NHL considers this to be one of the larger issues of going to the Olympics. While it may seem logical and desirable to have the NHL in the Olympic spotlight to grow the sport internationally, the NHL claims that previous Olympics appearances haven’t significantly increased popularity for the sport. TV ratings don’t go up, sales of merchandise don’t rise, and as a result, the NHL doesn’t see a benefit in sending its players to the Olympics.

“Quite frankly we don’t see what the benefit it from the game standpoint or the League standpoint with respect to Olympic participation,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly when asked about this matter.

Additionally, although the NHL is interested in international growth, they believe they can achieve it on their own.

Reason 5: Cost. The decision to pull out of the Olympics came after a series of conflicts between the NHL and the International Olympic Committee. The two organizations disputed who would pay the costs incurred by NHL athletes going to the Olympics.

In the past, the IOC has paid for the travel, insurance, accommodations, and other expenses of the NHL players traveling to the Olympics. However, this year they refused to do so. In short, the IOC feels that there is no need to give special treatment to the NHL over other, growing sports leagues that may need the money more.

“The IOC, which distributes 90 per cent of its revenue for the development of sport in the world, obviously cannot treat a national commercial league better than not-for-profit International Sports Federations which are developing sport globally,” said the IOC in an official statement.

After the IOC declared that they would not be funding NHL players who wanted to travel to Pyeongchang, the International Ice Hockey Federation stepped up to the plate and offered to pay 20 million USD for the costs and insurance of NHL players in an attempt to bring them to the 2018 Olympic Games. The NHL declined, claiming that even without the issue of cost, they maintain the attitude of the reasons above.

Although the NHL as an organization has reasons for their decision, they have failed to take into account the attitudes of players, most of whom would have wanted to attend the Olympics.

A number of NHL players have expressed their frustration with the organization’s decisions publicly.

“Obviously we all dream of winning a Stanley Cup, and then the next is literally right there: winning a gold medal for your country,” Winnipeg Jets star center Mark Scheifele told ESPN.

“I’d love to be there. It’s a great experience for everyone involved. Everybody gets up for it. It’s too bad that we’re not going,”said Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in an interview with the Post-Gazette. Crosby led Canada to gold medals in the 2010 and 2014 games.

Additionally, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist told the media that he feels as though something has been taken away from him.

“He wants to be here, for sure. It is a big tournament, and he is really disappointed he is not playing. I think all the NHL players want to be here. I always thought they would do something so they would come and play,” said his twin brother, Joel Lundqvist, who is on the Swedish Olympic team.

Despite the common player sentiment against the NHL’s new policy, the organization’s decision is firm. No NHL players will be attending this year’s Winter Olympics, unless they want to face severe consequences such as contract termination.

It will be interesting to follow the NHL and its policies when the next Winter Olympics come around in four years. The 2022 games are being held in Beijing, and the NHL may see more value in having players in China rather than South Korea this year. Having players in the capital of a global powerhouse like China would definitely benefit the NHL as a whole. Lifting the ban for the next Olympics would truly reveal the NHL’s value of publicity and money over the spirit of the game of hockey.

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