Because the National Hockey League’s franchise owners did not want the players to participate. That is the answer.
The NHL released a statement on April 4, 2017 to announce that the league would not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang. Multiple mitigating reasons have been floated by the NHL and others as to why the NHL chose not to participate. The first sentence of the NHL’s initial statement makes the chief reason clear.
“We have previously made clear that, while the overwhelming majority of our Clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players, we were open to hearing from any of the other parties who might have an interest in the issue…”
The translation is the majority of NHL owners did not want to pause the league’s season for three weeks. The NHL did not want to participate in a tournament that the NHL would not be a partner in. The International Olympic Committee, International Ice Hockey Federation, National Hockey League Players’ Association and its players, hockey fans, Olympic fans, and national hockey governing bodies including Hockey Canada were dismayed with the NHL’s decision.
The International Olympic Committee Makes a Grave Error
The NHL made the final decision but the IOC also deserves blame. The IOC elected a new president, Thomas Bach, in 2013, and he poked the NHL with a stick. He decided not to cover the $20 million in costs for the NHL players to compete in the Olympics. These costs had been provided by the IOC in the previous Olympics that the NHL had participated in. The financial assistance was a crucial part of the framework by which the NHL agreed to participate in the Olympics.
In late 2016 the IIHF stepped in to cover those costs but this did not diminish the IOC’s original action. Bach’s decision opened the door to the NHL for a sort of renegotiation of terms. The league wanted the ability to market the games in some fashion and possibly receive a cut of the merchandising. The IOC is notoriously ferocious in protecting its brand and this was likely a non-starter for the organization. The NHL then approached the NHLPA about extending the current CBA so that the players could attend the 2018 Olympics. This approach was rejected by the NHLPA, as they did not want the Olympics to be a bargaining chip for the NHL.
The NHL’s Reasons for Skipping the Olympics
The NHL also had reasonable concerns about the Olympics playing a role in ruining the NHL’s own season. During the 2014 Olympics, three franchise players sustained season-ending injuries and others sustained significant ones. Those injuries could easily have happened during an NHL game as well, but a longer season equals higher injury risk. The players in the Olympics tend to be the NHL’s best and those the league and teams are most invested in. Losing them in a tournament the NHL is not financially invested in is a blow for the owners.
On the flip side the NHL players wanted to play in the Olympics. They are financial partners with the owners and were willing to play for free and risk injury in a tournament that would not directly lead to profits for them. It was they who would personally feel the physical and mental strain of playing the longer season. For those not selected to Olympic teams, the time off would serve as time to heal injuries and re-energize for the NHL playoff run.
When the NHL decided to enter its players into the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, there was debate on the pros and cons of that action. However, once the public was able to enjoy the excitement of the NHL’s best on the world stage in the Olympics, the toothpaste was out of the tube. The NHL has now forced it back into the tube over the objections of everyone else involved. As expected, doing so was a messy process and will remain so as the NHLPA and its players enter the next round of CBA negotiations.
Is the NHL Missing an Opportunity?
The NHL was unable to directly partner with the IOC to see monetary gain from the Olympics. However, there were still opportunities for the league to benefit. The NHL is keen to make inroads into the Chinese market, as the NBA has done. The 2022 Olympics are in Beijing, but the NHL now must hope the IOC does not punish the league for skipping PyeongChang and decline to invite its players.
2am or 5am games in South Korea may seem unappealing to the NHL. However, in 2014 multiple bars in Boston opened at sunrise to be crammed with patrons to watch the USA play Russia in the Olympics. T.J. Oshie soon became a known name to casual and even non-hockey fans. Fans leaving home at dawn to watch the NHL’s players on the world stage is a benefit to the NHL.
The competition provides players a platform that the league could have marketed for the good of both the league and its players. The NHL likely felt there had not been enough of a correlation in past Olympics to higher NHL television ratings and/or attendance. However, the onus is on the NHL to creatively profit from the spotlight the Olympics provides its best players.
In 2016, the NHL restarted the World Cup of Hockey as a preseason tournament to kick-off the NHL season. The NHL may have viewed the tournament as a companion to fill the gap between Olympic Games or as a possible replacement. The World Cup serves as a fun tournament to pique fans interest in both the NHL and international hockey. The World Cup is not a true international tournament though, and it seems fans also desire the tradition of the Olympics.
Hockey in PyeongChang could have featured the wealth of young talent that fills the NHL from countries around the globe. Instead, the coverage for the past year involves disputes between large organizations, commissioners, lawyers, and the like. Inspire and ignite a passion about the NHL in the public these stories do not. In the end, displaying the best hockey players in the world is what can grow the sport and the NHL. The rest is all white noise and even nails on a chalkboard to the general public. When the story is about the NHL league office, owners, the IOC and not the product on the ice, then the NHL has lost.