The NHL's Olympics Decision Is a Dirty Hit on Fans and Players

The Winter Games have represented hockey in its peak form since 1998, but the NHL's decision not to send players in 2018 is business as usual for the League That Hates Its Fans.
April 4, 2017, 3:22pm
Photo by Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Since the NHL first allowed its players to compete in the Winter Olympics in 1998, the Games have represented hockey in its peak form. It's the hockey you love with the players from the league you hate; it's hockey unshackled from the entity that seems to actively impede the game from attaining the heights it reaches on the international stage. In a way, you almost put up with the NHL to get the three-week payoff every four years.

And now it is gone.

The news released from the League That Hates Its Fans on Monday evening was such a vicious, unnecessary, dirty hit that you can finally say you know what it feels like to get run from behind by Tom Wilson. The NHL made its intentions crystal clear: it will not be sending its players to South Korea for the 2018 Olympics.

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Even for a league that has come to define shortsightedness, the NHL's lack of foresight has reached a level few thought attainable here.

The decision, of course, comes down to money. No matter from which angle you're looking—insuring the players, covering travel costs, shutting down the league for three weeks, wanting to become a partner and gain the rights to use the Olympic logo—the league felt it wasn't getting enough compensation to release its players.

It's another sure sign that the owners run the league, and that commissioner Gary Bettman is just a mouthpiece/puppet for their interests, but that's fine in its own way. The NHL is a business. The goal of a business is to make money.

The problem lies in how the NHL is willing to kill itself over getting a few million bucks now at the expense of burned bridges and more money later, both by forgoing Olympic exposure for its stars—the NHL claims it can't quantify revenue gained from allowing its players to participate in the Olympics, but come on with that—and by guaranteeing another lost or shortened season when the players are all too happy to opt out of the CBA in two years.

Every NHL argument against sending its players to the Olympics boils down to 30 really rich people not being able to get out of their own way.

Owners do not want to shut down the league for three weeks. Why? Because that's three weeks they aren't lining their pockets with the dollars of fans. Understandable? Sure. What business owner wants to shutter his operation for nearly a month during a time when customers expect the doors to be open? Nobody in any walk of life would throw away three weeks of revenue.

But here's the thing: owners don't lose a cent because of the league being shut down in February.

Everyone understands that when the NHL sends its players to the Olympics, the league still has an 82-game season, right? It's not like when the superstars return at the end of the month, the NHL only has a 70-game regular season and every franchise loses a dozen games' worth of money. Your home arena's turnstiles still do their work 41 times; they just do it at a slightly different time than non-Olympic years.

Bettman always makes a side argument to shutting down the league, that it kills momentum. He uses that word, "momentum," all the time when it comes to the regular season. From October to February, Bettman envisions the NHL as a boulder rolling downhill at a great rate, and going to the Olympics is a gigantic steel wall that crushes that big, beautiful, momentum-gathering boulder.

Sorry, Gary, but if there's one thing an NHL regular season lacks, it's momentum. The NHL regular season is a damned slog. It's torture. It's six months of tedium before the two-month orgasm on ice that is the playoffs. There is not a single hockey fan who is thinking during February, I wish the season were longer, and that February could last forever. Baseball has the dog days of August; hockey has the dear god has the NHL made the season longer days of February.

The break during February is a godsend for NHL fans. If anything, the league should shut down every February and play a World Cup in the years when there isn't an Olympics. It's a hockey vacation from the hockey work that is plowing through the regular season.

You know when the NHL didn't mind stifling its momentum? In 1995 and 2013, when it stifled the first half of the season in an attempt to shake more money out of the pockets of players, or in 2004, when it canceled an entire season for the same reason.

So really, Bettman is OK with stopping momentum for three months up to a year if it means damaging the reputation of the league in a quest for a few more bucks, but he is against doing the same thing for three weeks for the sake of the happiness of players and fans because owners aren't getting enough of those dollars.

There's another argument that sounds good on the surface: players can suffer serious injuries at the Olympics, and no team wants to lose an elite player during an international event. Why should owners take a risk like that? What team wants to submarine its NHL season for an individual's Olympic glory?

The example you'll hear a lot in the coming months is the season-ending knee injury John Tavares suffered in Sochi in 2014. Although the New York Islanders weren't going to the playoffs that year with a healthy Tavares for the homestretch, that's the type of loss no team wishes to incur.

Here's the secret about injuries that few people are willing to acknowledge: they are totally random occurrences that can't be predicted and can happen in either an NHL or an Olympic contest.

You know who got hurt last week in an NHL game? John Tavares! And you know what it did? It ended any hope the Islanders had of making the playoffs this year! Does that allow Garth Snow to sleep at night, because the injury happened in the United States instead of Russia or South Korea?

John Tavares—not a reason to not go to the Olympics, necessarily. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A player is probably more susceptible to an injury while playing an NHL game in February than he is during an Olympic contest in February. For one thing, with all the skill at the Olympics, there are practically zero dudes at the Olympics who make a living with murderous hits. Tom Sestito is not going deliver a forearm shiver to Nicklas Backstrom's skull during group play. Micheal Haley won't be looking to remove Jonathan Toews' head in an attempt to fire up his team.

Another reason the NHL doesn't feel it's important to go to South Korea? The 11-hour time difference. Games will start in the middle of the night in the continental United States, and the league doesn't think there will be enough eyeballs on the live events to make it worth the effort.

And yet, the NHL will play two preseason games next year in China, where there's only a ten-hour time difference, in an effort to grow the game in a new market.

The difference between the two events that will occur at odd hours in the United States and Canada is simple: it's the money. The NHL feels it can get more of it by shoving two preseason games between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks—two teams that aren't going to the playoffs this year—down the throats of locals as opposed to allowing the best the sport has to offer take the stage for the entire world to see for three weeks.

Even though the games in China will be hockey at its absolute worst and the games in South Korea would be hockey at its absolute best, the NHL prefers the former because it will get way more money out of it.

Way more money out of it now, anyway.

What makes the NHL's decision even more ridiculous is that it would have been happy to let players go to the Olympics had the NHLPA been willing to guarantee it would not opt out of the CBA in September 2019, assuring owners that the status quo would remain through the end of the 2021-22 season.

That should give you an idea of how bad the current CBA is for the players. Owners love it so much they would have shut down the league, stifled momentum, risked injury, and dealt with the 11-hour time difference all for financial assurances now.

But because they didn't get enough now, hockey owners will hurt the game and the league in the long-term while alienating fans and players. For the NHL, that's business as usual.

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