The NHL’s Olympic Saga

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the National Hockey League (NHL) have had their back-and-forths for what seems forever now. Professional hockey players from the NHL have participated in the Winter Olympics consistently since the Nagano Games in 1998.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman last month determined a fee for player participation in Pyeongchang 2018 and the NHL owners would provide their consent if the players (through the NHLPA) were to agree to the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and extend the contract for a further three seasons. That would put the current CBA in play until the 2025 season. That proposal was rejected on December 2nd. The players are in favour of playing in South Korea, yet the league remains skeptical and continues to demonstrate uncertainty on the opportunity of sending players.

“The NHL has wished for the IOC to do more in exchange for using the NHL’s athletes”

As North American franchises continue to expand their brands abroad, it seems the NHL would be interested in doing the same. In fact, the league’s headquarters has recently been recruiting for the position of senior vice-president focused on its international strategy. Yet with its strong participation in the last five Winter Olympics, the NHL has wished for the IOC to do more in exchange for using the NHL’s athletes, at the risk of injury, and lost business from postponing the league for a two-week period in mid-season. But the league understands the Olympic stage offers a global spotlight, at least for that two-week time frame.

The IOC is dealing with another beast altogether. Normally engaged in negotiations with international governing bodies of each sport, in this case the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), when faced with the prospect of a commercial-driven, owner-focused entity like the NHL, well, negotiations can turn sideways in an instant. The Olympic governing body has refused to pay for transportation or insurance costs of NHL players but the IIHF assures it can cover those expenses. Let’s not forget, the NHL isn’t the only source of talent, as the IIHF has done its part in growing the game in other parts of the globe with international tournaments like the Champions Hockey League, World Championships and other domestic leagues.

With the wealth of talent NHL’ers would bring to the Olympic tournament, fans would be missing out on remarkable moments like T.J Oshie’s four shootout goals in 2014, or Sidney Crosby scoring the gold medal-winning overtime goal in 2010. The game at an international level holds interest in the eyes of not only the NHL, but also its fans and, hopefully, prospective new fans too. A brief glimpse at international ratings from Sochi 2014 shows approximately 8 million Canadians watched the tournament, while last year’s Stanley Cup Finals averaged just over 2 million Canadian viewers.

The deadline looms for the NHL to take a stance and come to a decision so national federations may begin to plan their rosters. It is anticipated an announcement will come post-holidays to determine if fans will see their hockey heroes in Pyeongchang 2018.

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