Stay or Go? NHL Faces Tough Decision.

by John Furgele (The 228 You Can Trust)

Believe it or not, the 2018 Winter Olympics are just one year away and before you know it, South Korea will be the focus of the sports world. The games are great as sports like bobsleigh, luge and skiing get some much-needed attention. But, for the hard-core sports fan, the games are about international hockey. And, the $64,000 question; will the NHL allow its players to play?

Right now, the answer would be no. Let’s be frank, the league really doesn’t want to send its players to the games. The reasons are obvious. First, do they really want to stop their season for two weeks like they have since 1998? Second, do they want to run the risk of a star player to getting hurt (John Tavares, 2014) in what really is a glorified all-star tournament? Third, is the debate over who should pay their costs and insurance over Olympic participation? The league itself doesn’t believe they should pay. Since the International Ice Hockey Federation runs the Olympics, they think the IIHF should absorb the costs and the IIHF disagrees. The league might be willing to the let the players go if the NHLPA pays the freight, something that the players are naturally opposed to.

There are, of course, reasons to play. Hockey is not football; in fact; of the major four sports, it is definitively fourth in popularity, TV ratings and revenues. Football is king by a wide margin with basketball and baseball running nip-and-tuck for second and third. Hockey is out of the medals popularity-wise, so having center stage at the Olympics has merit. The middle of February is the dead time for sports. The NBA (and NHL) is months away from their playoffs; football is over and baseball players haven’t started Spring Training. Olympic hockey is going to get attention by default, but nonetheless, it is going to get it. In 2014, both Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with each USA game, something that doesn’t happen when the Stars play the Red Wings on Valentine’s Day.

The fact that the NHL is the only league that suspends its season for the Olympics doesn’t sit well with the owners. It makes the league look amateurish and as we know, public image and perception is very important. Basketball doesn’t do it, and even if the games weren’t during its off-season, they still wouldn’t. Baseball was taken out of the Olympics because MLB wouldn’t send its players and the debate rages as to whether or not to bring it back. Baseball will be back for the 2020 Tokyo Games, but after that, we shall see.

Does stopping one’s season for the Olympics cheapen your sport? Is the attention the sport receives at the Olympics worth the break?   Does stopping your season make it look like the Stanley Cup is not the ultimate prize each and every season?

These are all tough questions. For the most part, players love representing their country at the Olympic games and most international tournaments. That said this summer’s World Cup of Hockey really didn’t give off the passion and enthusiasm that other world tournaments have done. There are certainly enough world events for the sport of hockey. The IIHF World Championships are contested every year, but is played during the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs and buried eight feet deep in matters of importance. If Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins are in the playoffs he is not playing. And, if they aren’t, he might want to take the time off to rest from a grueling campaign.

The world championship is always played in May during the playoffs, and even though it occurs after most European seasons have ended, I have always found its calendar placing curious. Could they move it to late June in order to get more stars involved? That said, with 14 teams not making the NHL playoffs, there are enough available bodies to field teams for Canada and the United States; back when only 5 of 21 didn’t qualify, things were much tougher.

If the NHL has its way, the World Cup of Hockey would take over as the premier world championship event.   The NHL would love it of course because they own it. They can market it, sell the TV rights and more importantly control the revenues.   The NHL players would benefit too, because the collective bargaining agreement allows them to share revenues with the league. The IIHF would stand to lose of course, and that’s something that the NHL—and probably the players—wouldn’t shed many tears about. But, the IIHF is not going anywhere. They will still support Olympic hockey, junior hockey as well as many other tournaments and leagues.

So, what is the best solution? Should the Olympics go back to its core and showcase amateurs? Those who are of age remember with fondness the 1980 Miracle on Ice and many would like to see the Olympic tournament have a chance to once again replicate that. As good as that might sound, only the USA and Canada would oblige. The rest of the countries would send players from its professional leagues because they can, so you would have North American juniors and collegians playing against players from the Swedish Elite League, Russia’s KHL and the Finnish league. Sounds like what USA did in 1980, but it isn’t 1980 anymore.

If it were up to me, I would allow the Olympics to remain professional, but I would stock USA and Canada rosters with players from the AHL (and ECHL if necessary). The AHL would keep playing, because, as a minor league, it is not a win-at-all-cost endeavor. And with 30 teams to stock 40 players, most AHL teams would lose one, perhaps two players. Some would lose none. The AHL season would go on and the Olympic product would still be of high quality.   The costs could be split between USA Hockey, Hockey Canada and the IIHF and the insurance premium would be lower because AHL players don’t make the salaries that NHL players do.

The NHL has to make a decision, a long-term one. One of the reasons they are balking in 2018 is location. With the games being in South Korea, the time difference is considerable (14 hours ahead of NYC; 17 ahead of LA) and many of the games will air at inconvenient times for North Americans. If the Olympics were in Chicago, Toronto or why not, Lake Placid, the NHLers would likely be signed up already. That’s the one thing the NHL can’t do. It would be wrong and insulting to send the NHLers in one Olympics and then keep them home in another. The league has to make a commitment one way or another.

Sending the AHL players is the hybrid plan, but it’s also the right plan.

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