This past Friday night, the Olympic cauldron was lit high above the streets of Pyeongchang, South Korea, to mark the opening of the 23rd Winter Olympics. The world’s greatest winter athletes from 92 nations were in attendance, or, at least, most of them were. There was one group of athletes that was absent: NHL players.
The reason for this is that the NHL announced in April 2017 that it was not participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Typically, the league inserts a 17-day break into its schedule to allow players to compete for their countries in the ice hockey tournament, but this time around it declined to do so, citing a lack of benefit for the league to disrupt its schedule.
In January 2017, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, “I think the realities of Olympic participation are more apparent to our Board [of Governors] now and I think it just leads to less enthusiasm about the disruption. Quite frankly we don’t see what the benefit is from the game standpoint or the League standpoint with respect to Olympic participation.”
Daly is correct in his assertion. While not seeing NHL players at the Olympics is a disappointment for those who enjoy watching ice hockey at the Olympics every four years, the NHL made the correct decision from its perspective. The past few Winter Olympics show that the NHL stands to gain very little from participating in the Olympics.
The most glaring reason why the NHL made the right call is the risk of injury. The last thing the NHL wants is to have some of its star players receive season-ending injuries at the Olympics, two months before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the 2014 Games, several important players got hurt in Sochi, Russia, including Islanders center John Tavares, Rangers right winger Mats Zuccarello, Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov. Three of these players’ injuries ended their respective seasons. Severe injury isn’t just something that could happen, it is something that has happened, and the NHL wants to avoid that as much as possible.
Secondly, while most players escape the Olympics without injury, none escape the energy toll that participation in the Olympics exacts. Hockey might not be the hardest-hitting sport, but it is certainly the most grueling. NHL players face a six-month, 82-game schedule, which means the average week contains three or four games. In each of these games, players are skating nonstop, up and down the ice, constantly facing a barrage of hits by players and sticks, as well as frozen rubber pucks moving at 100 miles per hour.
That’s the regular season alone, and there’s still two months of playoff hockey to be played, when many players are already on their final energy reserves. That considered, why would the NHL want to add 2 1/2 more weeks of hard-hitting, tough hockey to these players’ schedule and risk them running out of gas by the time the Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive?
Finally, February is the time of year when the NHL season begins to heat up. The All-Star break is over, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are fast approaching and the teams and their fans are buckling in for an exciting playoff push. The NHL risks disrupting that momentum by pausing its schedule, especially during a time when the Super Bowl has just been played, the MLB season is still two months away and casual sports fans are looking for something to watch on an average Sunday afternoon. This is a key time for the NHL to potentially attract new viewers, and they throw away that opportunity by halting for the Olympics.
One could imagine that, while the NHL might have made the right call, hockey fans must have been outraged by the decision. The data, however, shows otherwise. According to the NHL, the league polled fans to find out if they favored taking a break in the NHL schedule to allow players to participate in the Olympics. Fifty-three percent of Canadians were against it, and 73 percent of Americans said the same. The league and the fans are on the same page.
For those who are fans of Olympic hockey, though, do not fret. Having amateurs and non-NHL players comprise the Olympic hockey teams is how the tournament was supposed to be played, and it was like that as recently as 1994. Similar teams have provided lots of excitement in the past, most notably the 1980 U.S. team that gave us the legendary Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. Hockey is hockey, after all, and the 2018 Pyeongchang tournament will have plenty of exciting action. Just leave the NHL out of it.