NHL Players’ Return to the Winter Olympics May be Closer than Expected

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On February 8, 2020, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman tweeted that “the [International Olympic Committee] and [International Ice Hockey Federation] indicated a willingness . . . to address NHL issues to get players to go to 2022 Olympics.” This is a significant change in the NHL’s previous anti-Olympic stance.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea marked the first time in 20 years that NHL players were absent. The players were overwhelmingly in favor of playing in the 2018 games; however, the NHL balked at the idea, citing the risk of player injuries, the lack of business benefit, and disruption of the NHL’s regular season. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has even gone as far as to refer to the Olympics as “incredibly disruptive.” Further, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly had recently stated that Olympic participation was tied to negotiations about the league’s next collective bargaining agreement, indicating that NHL participation in the 2020 games was out of the question. The NHL Players Association vehemently disagreed and argued that the current CBA covered play through the 2022 Games.

The factors weighing in favor of NHL participation in the 2022 games have not changed. NHL players are passionate about participating in the Olympics. With just over 30 percent of league players coming from outside of North America, these international players grew up idolizing players participating in international competitions like the Olympics, World Cup, and other International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) competitions. Thus, for many international players – and some North American players – the highest honor for an athlete is to represent their country at the Olympics. In fact, some believe representing their country and winning a medal is more important than winning a Stanley Cup.

However, some recent developments may weigh in favor of NHL player participation at the 2022 games. First, the 2022 Winter Olympics are in Beijing, China, an area that the NHL has made a push to expand viewership – most recently sending Alex Ovechkin to Beijing as the NHL’s International Ambassador to conduct youth hockey clinics, a media tour, and several business development meetings. Second, according to Friedman’s reports, the International Olympic Committee and IIHF are open to making concessions to the NHL regarding insurance costs, travel costs, and giving the NHL the ability to promote the Olympics on their own platforms.

However, factors weighing against participation have not changed and are likely unsolvable. First, the Winter Olympics disrupts the NHL’s regular season for at least two weeks, at the season’s midpoint, while many teams are either battling for a playoff position or resting their star players for a long playoff run. Second, there is always the risk of injury to many of the NHL’s marquee players. The most notable example occurred at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, when then-captain of the New York Islanders, John Tavares, suffered a gruesome season-ending injury. At the time, the Islanders were 12 points out of a playoff spot and, without Tavares, faced an uphill battle to make the NHL playoffs. Additionally, Florida Panthers forwards Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky, New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, and Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg were also injured at the 2014 games.

Regardless of the NHL’s decision to participate in the 2022 games, it is clear that without NHL players, the Men’s Ice Hockey Competition suffers. At the 2018 games, the Men’s Ice Hockey final was down 76 percent in ratings and 71 percent in viewership from 2014 and down a staggering 96 percent in both measures from 2010. The 2018 games were, instead, dominated by the Women’s Ice Hockey Competition.