Do The Olympics Need The NHL?

The Olympics are but a memory, all the medals have been handed out and the grandstands have been dismantled. That’s it for another four years. We’ll see you in Beijing in 2022. But will we see NHL players? Does it matter if we don’t?

Cards on the table: I’ve already said on this website that the NHL should take a break so its players can represent at the Winter Olympics. My position hasn’t changed. The fear, when the decision was announced, was that teams would be hamstrung by the denial of top talent. This concern was mostly North American-centric, understandable given that 70.7% of NHLers are from the USA or Canada. As the NHL is considered the best league in the world, it also attracts top players from other countries so almost every nation in the competition had been affected somehow.

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Another, slightly more selfish concern, was that without the world’s top talent, the tournament simply wouldn’t be as good, especially to neutral fans. As a Brit, I’ve no dog in the fight because my team didn’t qualify, so every game I watched was as a neutral.

The immediate problem is that the NHL’s refusal to play ball flies in the face of everything the Olympic competition stands for. Namely that the tournament should be about the best talent that each nation has to offer. It was impossible not to look at Team Canada and Team USA and think ‘you’re not good enough for the NHL but you’ll do for your country’. If this was a rule implemented by the IOC then it would still be dumb, but at least there would be actual parity, instead of the illusion of parity. To win Olympic gold means that you’ve beaten the best the world has to offer, not the best the world agreed to send due to Gary Bettman’s financial responsibilities. Not to take anything away from The Artist Formerly Known As Russia, but the competition wasn’t as tough this year. 

TV viewing figures for the Mens’ hockey took a hit, thanks in part to the time difference, but mostly because a final without Team USA or Team Canada (or both) doesn’t have the same level of appeal to the two largest hockey markets. Without regular hockey taking a break, the Olympics also has to battle the NHL in the fight for TV attention. It’s also unclear whether or not the lack of NHL talent affected ticket sales, as quite a few events suffered from poor ticket sales.

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What the 2018 Olympic ice hockey tournament managed to be was interesting, for a neutral anyway. Canada is still the highest ranked team in the world and to see the team turn up without the likes of Sidney Crosby, Carey Price and Nathan MacKinnon, gave the rest of the teams a fighting chance. As an experiment, that was interesting to watch, and to see Canada as an underdog was an intriguing switch-up.

International tournaments are not always everybody’s cup of tea. To some they’re a great opportunity to root for your country, while to others they’re an unnecessary interruption to the regular season. Personally I don’t think a two week break every four years is too much to ask for. I also think it’s safe to say that the IOC needs the NHL to send its top talent, not just to sell tickets and jerseys, but also to restore the quality of the competition. The NHL’s reputation took a hit by banning it’s players from going to Pyongchang, but so did the IOC’s for agreeing to the ban. The two organisations really need to get their act together before the 2022 competition in Beijing, because the Olympics and the NHL need each other.

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