T.J. Oshie dominating in a thrilling U.S. shootout victory over Russia. Sidney Crosby scoring an overtime goal on home ice to lift Canada to the gold medal over the United States. Henrik Lundqvist stretching across the goal line with seconds remaining to secure gold for Sweden.
Some of the more memorable moments in Olympic hockey history have involved NHL players, but new ones will probably have to be forged without them next winter in South Korea.
Citing the majority of owners’ overwhelming opposition to disrupting the regular season, the NHL announced Monday that it would not participate in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, depriving the games of the world’s best players in a showcase sport.
NHL players have participated in every Olympics since 1998, and many players have expressed interest in playing at next winter’s games. Lundqvist, the New York Rangers’ stellar goalie, said on Twitter that the league’s decision wasted “a huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage” and that he was disappointed “for all the players that can’t be part of the most special adventure in sports.”
Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has said he planned to represent Russia at the Pyeonchang Games no matter what the NHL decided, raising the possibility that the next battle for the owners might be with individual players who do not want to obey the league.
NHL owners and officials do not like the idea of shutting down the league for a few weeks. They have argued that they deserve a portion of the revenue that the International Olympic Committee receives from the tournament, and they do not like the injury risk it poses to their players.
Several stars, among them New York Islanders center John Tavares and Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg, suffered season-ending injuries at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“The league isn’t anti-Olympics,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told Chicago business leaders last month. “We’ve been to five of them. The problem is the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there’s no football, no baseball, there’s only basketball and us. To do it where there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com, for all of our social media platforms — we just disappear.”
Bettman has been hinting at a potential Olympic absence for about a year, telling reporters before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final last May that “our teams are not interested in paying for the privilege” of participating.
The NHL endorsed another global event, the World Cup of Hockey, held in Canada in September. The competition ended two weeks before the season began, and, coupled with mandated five-day breaks given to each team, it created a compressed schedule comparable to that of an Olympic year. Players and coaches have complained that the schedule has led to fatigue and poor quality of play.
The NBA is the only other major North American sports league that sends its players to the Olympics, but basketball is contested at the summer Games, during the league’s offseason.
When baseball was a medal sport, from 1992 to 2008, Major League Baseball would not permit its players to compete for similar reasons as the NHL: a lengthy interruption of an inflexible schedule that would cost owners and the players’ association about three weeks’ worth of revenue. Minor leaguers and college players competed instead, as could be the case with Team USA and Canada with hockey in Pyeongchang.
“We knew it was a very real possibility for many months and certainly respect the decision of the NHL,” Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, said in a statement. “The good news is that because of our grass roots efforts over the course of many years, our player pool is as deep as it has ever been and we fully expect to field a team that will play for a medal.”
The NHL’s statement Monday ended with “We now consider the matter officially closed,” but it remains to be seen whether the decision is, in fact, final. Negotiations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics stalled four years ago, but an agreement was reached on July 19, 2013, less than seven months before the opening ceremony.
Furthermore, although the NHL said in its statement that the IOC has expressed that the league’s participation in the 2022 Beijing Games is contingent on its presence in Pyeongchang, the league is striving to make inroads in China, and not sending its players there could ruin an opportunity to grow the game in an untapped market.
Last week Bettman traveled to China to announce that the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings would play two exhibition games there in September, in Shanghai and Beijing, where the Kontinental Hockey League of Russia recently installed a team.
In its statement, the NHL said it had been open to hearing from the IOC, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL Players’ Association on ways to make Olympic participation more attractive to the team owners.
“A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialized,” the NHL said.
The IOC, which had previously paid travel and insurance expenses for NHL players, had said it would not do so for the 2018 Games. The IIHF stepped in to cover those costs instead, but that concession did not satisfy the NHL.