A few weeks ago, in a conversation with Sean Burke, who played goal for Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team during the so-called “amateur” era, I had a change of heart about the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and whether NHL pros really need to be there.
Burke made a telling point: Even though he twice played Olympic hockey for Canada before the NHLers took over, he’d forgotten how meaningful that experience could be – for Canadian players to pull on the national team jersey and represent their country at a major international event.
It made me wonder if that yesteryear scenario wasn’t such a bad idea – or, more precisely, if the Olympic hockey competition wouldn’t benefit from a little freshening up. Olympic soccer is limited to the 23-and-under generation. Maybe the IIHF could co-opt the idea and do the same for Olympic hockey.
Once upon a time, when NHL players first participated in the Olympics – in 1998 in Nagano, Japan – the novelty of a best-on-best tournament sold the event. It was fun to anticipate the roster. Wayne Gretzky was mobbed like a rock star at the Nagano train station. When things didn’t go well – Gretzky sitting on the bench for the decisive shootout loss to the Czechs – it created all sorts of opportunities for second-guessing.
Four years later, when Canada won gold in Salt Lake City to snap a 50-year championship drought, the country celebrated.
Eight years after that, when Canada won again in Vancouver, a hometown Olympics, it was a sight to behold.
But the ardour had cooled by the time the Sochi Olympics came around in 2014. The cool, methodical way in which Team Canada rolled over the field made the win seem almost anticlimactic.
So now here we are, with 11 months to go, and the NHL has finally made its decision: It will give the Olympics in Pyeongchang a pass.
The knee-jerk response was predictable: It will be a disaster. But really, is it?
The IOC upped the negotiating ante last week, threatening that if the NHL skipped the next Olympics, it wouldn’t necessarily be welcome in 2022, when the Games will be held in China – where the NHL is in the early stages of a marketing push.
You can only imagine how well that played in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s world. If IOC president Thomas Bach genuinely believed he could bully Bettman into doing something NHL owners firmly opposed, then he badly miscalculated his opponent.
Essentially, the NHL believes the IOC position on China is a bluff – that if the league opts in for 2022, the Chinese organizing committee could change the IOC’s mind in a hurry.
The possibility of a player boycott is the more imminent threat and the wild card in the equation.
It’s easy for the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin to say he’s going to the Olympics – NHL contract or not. It’s another matter to breach that contract and get on a plane to South Korea at the start of February, 2018. That’s a lot of earning power to put at risk to play internationally.
If a handful of players are so committed to the Olympic ideal that they would run that risk, more power to them.
Even in the old days, future pros such as Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros, Joe Juneau and Todd Warriner all delayed the start of their NHL careers for a chance to play Olympic hockey. If the next wave of players, the Nolan Patricks of the world, want to follow in the footsteps of the James Patricks of a previous generation, good for them. They should get that chance.
One thing you can be sure of: The NHL closely examined the consequences, long and short term, of just saying no to the IOC and calculated that the risks to its business were small and containable.
The league fully understands the backlash coming from Canada, where seven of its 30 franchisees operate. Some U.S. hockey fans will naturally be upset by the decision, too, but the greatest Olympic victories in U.S. hockey history – in 1960 and 1980 – were won by amateurs. So the Americans will send an all-star team of college kids – abetted by players from overseas – to wrap themselves in the flag and be lovable underdogs again.
Generally speaking, there is a greater appetite for best-on-best hockey among Canadian fans. The prospect of seeing Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby play for the same Olympic team was appealing. The fact that it’s not happening this time around will upset many. They will threaten to boycott NHL games during the Olympics. They will make Bettman the bogeyman.
But once it’s March of 2018 and the Olympics are over, they will all be back watching the NHL’s up-and-coming teams in Toronto and Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, push toward the playoffs and beyond.
History shows that short-term anger has never done any lasting, long-term damage to the business of hockey. Until and unless that changes, the NHL will continue to make decisions based on its bottom line, which – like it or not – is what business operations do. If you clung to the quaint notion that hockey played at its highest levels in 2017 was still primarily a sport, then Monday’s decision should permanently disabuse you of that belief.
CALGARY — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Apr. 03, 2017 9:39PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Apr. 04, 2017 8:36AM EDT