On Monday, after months of hemming and hawing, the NHL announced that for the first time in 20 years it will not be sending its players to the Winter Olympics, which begin next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “We now consider the matter officially closed,” concludes the NHL’s statement. If only. With 44 weeks to go until the opening ceremony and millions of dollars at stake — not to mention the legions of unhappy hockey fans and the prospect of renegade NHLers participating anyway — this story isn’t over yet. Until then, let’s mark the winners and losers of Monday’s decision.
Losers: The NHL and the IOC
Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman summed up the Olympic impasse in simple terms: “Just billionaires trying to make a few extra bucks.” It’s hard to pick a side when two monolithic organizations engage in a passive-aggressive, public squabble over money. All along, the NHL and International Olympic Committee have been engaging in less of an honest negotiation than an exchange of call-your-bluff ultimatums. At first, it was a fight over who should cover travel and insurance for the NHL players, which the IOC had picked up for Olympics past. Once the International Ice Hockey Federation offered to foot the bill, the argument turned to other lingering issues.
Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows that the present day’s argument is always tinged with resentments past. For the NHL this means two decades’ worth of unhappiness with the IOC about disrupting its regular season for the Olympics, the potential for injury to its prized stars, the perceived lack of a tangible benefit from participation, and — for this Olympics in particular — the added annoyance of traveling across the world to play. (We would not even be discussing this if the 2018 Games were to be hosted in North America.)
I’m willing to concede that last point — as a North American who has an entire side of his family residing in Seoul, I can tell you that there is never a convenient time to fly to Korea. However, I’m calling B.S. on the rest of the NHL’s complaints, which would be more palatable had the league not tried to force the much-ballyhooed (and much-ignored) World Cup of Hockey down our throats last year — same risk of injury and a similar disruption to the regular season (in the form of a compressed schedule). Oh, but the NHL made some money off of it. There’s the rub.
Winners: NHL Players Who May Defy the League and Go to Pyeongchang Anyway
Sidney Crosby: “It’s a difficult situation to be in.” Alexander Ovechkin: “I’m still going.” Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk on the possibility of losing defenseman Erik Karlsson to Sweden: “Maybe if it was a Canadian going to play for Canada, maybe.” Me: Fight the powers that be.
This could get ugly.
Winner: Donald Fehr
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr is to scathing press statements what Drake is to subliminal disses — a veritable master. To wit: “The League’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself. NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly.” Confrontation is Fehr’s comfort zone, and history has proved that he won’t budge if the players don’t get their way. Under Fehr’s leadership last year, the players’ union declined a league offer of Olympic participation in exchange for a three-year extension on the current collective bargaining agreement, which either side can opt out of in 2020. Recall that Fehr is the only union leader to be involved in work stoppages in two different sports leagues. You think he’s going to bow to Bettman or the owners now?
Loser: Hockey Fans
Even the worst Olympic hockey game is more compelling than a regular-season NHL matchup in February. It is the centerpiece team-sporting event of the Olympics — and I include here the Summer Games, where the basketball is only intermittently competitive and the soccer is restricted by age requirements. Canada will always be the presumptive favorite in hockey, but the sport’s elite nations are evenly matched. Over a quarter of active NHL players hail from outside of North America.
In a Breitbart-esque column on the NHL’s official website in support of the league’s rationale for skipping Pyeongchang, the writer notes that in past Olympic years the NHL “has been shutting down its season in February — a time of year when it isn’t competing with football or baseball — and lending its players to someone else’s tournament.” Losing a couple of weeks of the season would hurt owners’ pockets, sure. But the suggestion that the NHL needs to have games in February because that’s when offseason football and baseball fans suddenly become puckheads is ludicrously far-fetched. Take a moment and try to recall your favorite NHL memory from a February regular-season game. I’ll wait here for you …
Instead of having the chance to cross-promote two of its major properties — the NHL and the Olympics — NBC now has to pump up a decidedly less appealing Olympic hockey tournament while also broadcasting NHL games featuring the stars that should be in Pyeongchang. Awkward.
Losers: NHL Players Who Aren’t of Olympic Caliber
They just lost a free, two-week vacation in the middle of February.
Losers: Korea and Hockey’s Growth in Asia
Pyeongchang is now the host of a party whose most-celebrated guests have declined its invitations. The event must go on — and it could still be entertaining — but everybody will know it could’ve been better.
Meanwhile, with the 2022 Winter Olympics slated for Beijing, a billion potential hockey fans lie in wait. In March, the IIHF threatened to attempt to box the NHL out of Beijing in ’22 should the league refuse to send its players to Pyeongchang. Two weeks later, the NHL announced two preseason games to be played in China next season. Greedy and powerful Westerners jostling to win the heart of Asia — sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Winner: South Korean National Team
That said, the lack of NHL players in Pyeongchang will benefit the Korean team, which has already naturalized a half-dozen foreigners in an effort to bolster the nation’s first Olympic hockey squad. Korea is in the same group as Canada for the opening round. Even with minor leaguers replacing Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Co., the Canadians will still be expected to stomp the hosts. But the Koreans — who, since 2007, have jumped nine spots to 23rd in the IIHF world ranking — will no longer be awed by their opposition. They’ll be more competitive than you might think.