The NHL said Monday that it will not take a break to accommodate players’ participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, citing club executives’ opposition to “disrupting” the 2017-18 season.
In a scathing response, the NHL Players’ Assn. called the decision shortsighted and added, “Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season’s schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage.”
Starting with the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, the NHL has halted its operations and allowed players to represent their homelands. On those occasions the International Olympic Committee paid for players’ insurance as well as travel and accommodations for players and their families. However, Thomas Bach, who became the IOC’s president in 2013, said it would no longer foot those bills, which are believed to exceed $20 million. The International Ice Hockey Federation said it would pay insurance costs for the 2018 Games but its offer wasn’t enough to sway the NHL, which derives no direct profits from the Olympics.
In a statement the league said its board of governors opposed going to South Korea but was open to hearing arguments from the IOC, IIHF and NHLPA.
“A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialized,” the statement said. “Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018. And the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs.
“As a result, and in an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games. We now consider the matter officially closed.”
There is time to reach a deal that might give the NHL some revenues or promotional rights, but this is the strongest language the league has used regarding its plans. The NHL announced last week that the Kings will face the Vancouver Canucks in two exhibition games next autumn in China, which it considers a potentially lucrative market. However, skipping the 2018 Games might jeopardize the chances that NHL players would be allowed to compete in the 2022 Beijing Games.
The NHLPA cooperated with the NHL last year to stage the World Cup, which shared revenues with the league and the union. A few months ago the NHLPA rejected a proposal in which the NHL would have agreed to let players play in PyeongChang if the union agreed to extend the current labor agreement until 2025 and drop an opt-out clause it can invoke in 2019.
“The league’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself,” the NHLPA statement said. “NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone. It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.”
Unlike the NBA, which is in its offseason during the Summer Olympics, the NHL has halted its operations for the Winter Games. The tradeoff has been global TV exposure for a sport that doesn’t generate huge local or national ratings in most U.S. cities. Hockey has been a marquee sport for Olympic broadcaster NBC, which said last week that it would air its PyeongChang programming live across all U.S. time zones for the first time.
“The Olympics have long been the world’s greatest international hockey tournament irrespective of whether professionals or amateurs are playing,” the network said in a statement. “Although we’re disappointed that NHL players will not get the chance to experience and compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics next February, we’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country.”
The U.S. roster could be composed of minor leaguers or pros based in Europe. “In the end, we’ll have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations,” said Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey.
Many prominent players have expressed a desire to compete in PyeongChang. Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin has said he intends to play even if the NHL doesn’t take a break, and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has supported him.
The NHL didn’t say how it would handle such situations.
Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler, a 2014 U.S. Olympian, said players were disappointed with the news.
“From the business aspect, as the Ducks as our employer, we understand the risks that are involved with going to do something that, quite frankly, doesn’t benefit this organization at all,” he said. “But then again, as players. ... to wear that red, white and blue and be a part of something much bigger than yourself is pretty special as well.”
New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, a three-time Olympian who led Sweden to gold in 2006, lamented the decision.
“A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted,” he said via Twitter. “But most of all, disappointing for all the players that can’t be part of the most special adventure in sports.”
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