Should NHL players continue to participate in the Olympics?

February 23

Canada celebrates winning the gold medal Sunday in Sochi after a 3-0 win over Sweden. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

As Canada captured its second consecutive gold medal Sunday on the final day of the Sochi Olympics, the discussion on whether NHL players should continue to participate in the Winter Games was already well underway.

NHL players have taken part in five consecutive Olympics but the league and the players’ union have made no decisions about their involvement for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The debate is a familiar one – owners aren’t keen on interrupting the NHL regular season and having their players can risk injury with national teams, but the chance to represent their countries is invaluable to the players and their participation draws more attention to the sport.

“There are lots of people who have lots of opinions. Any of us could give you all the pros and cons involved,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in Sochi last week. “You can get quotes from any owner or any executive in the NHL on either side of the decision, and as I’ve said there haven’t been any discussions in that regard, and it’s not anything we’re focused on and dealing with right now.”

There were several injuries suffered by high-profile NHL players in Sochi, highlighting what has long been one of the biggest concerns from the perspective of league ownership and management. Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg, long hampered by back problems, left the Swedish national team in Sochi because of a herniated disk and is expected to miss two months after undergoing surgery. Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin of Russia will miss two to three weeks with a sprained ankle. And on Friday, the New York Islanders announced that John Tavares, their star player and captain, would miss the rest of the season after injuring his left knee while playing for Canada in Sochi.

Tavares tore his medial collateral ligament and meniscus and may need a six months of rehab, according to Newsday, prompting Islanders General Manager Garth Snow to lash out at Olympic involvement.

“Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season ticket holders now? It’s a joke,” Snow told Newsday, referring to the international governing bodies for hockey and the Olympics. “They want all the benefits from NHL players playing in the Olympics and don’t want to pay when our best player gets hurt.”

Then there’s the matter of putting the NHL season on pause for three weeks. While increasing international exposure for hockey was one of the reasons the NHL first allowed its players to participate in the Olympics in 1998, there’s no clear evidence that interest in that tournament trickles down to individual NHL teams.

“We have people that own these clubs that have a lot invested in these players and they monetarily don’t get a lot or anything out of the Olympics,” Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. “I’m not sure it’s fair to them either. It’s not our tournament.”

McPhee said he would like to see the league pick and choose which Olympics they participate in. When the Games are held outside North America, he worries about the additional wear and tear on players.

“I personally would rather not do it when it’s outside North America,” McPhee said. “I don’t know that it’s good for business to be shutting down for three weeks and subordinating ourselves to the Olympics. I think we’re a better league than that and we shouldn’t have to do that. I understand the appeal for some people but it’s tough when it’s overseas.”

There is a 14-hour time difference between Pyeongchang and the Eastern U.S. time zone, raising questions of how much attention those Olympics will command. Regardless, NBC, which owns both the NHL’s national broadcasting rights through 2021 and the rights to the 2018 Winter Olympics, would prefer if the world’s best hockey players took part.

The league’s players would also likely fight any attempt to take away the opportunity to play in the Olympics. They overwhelmingly want to represent their home countries. Those that don’t compete appreciate the opportunity to rest.

“The guys that are going to the Olympics and have a chance to play in the games love it and the guys that aren’t get a chance to have 10 days off,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Going into that break I think a lot of guys were feeling tired. … Having this is great for the guys playing and good for the guys that aren’t.”

And after 16 years of participation, the idea that one could represent his country while playing in the NHL is taking root; it’s all the next generation of players knows.

Said Capitals forward Brooks Laich: “I don’t think I ever understand the owners’ side of it. I don’t own the team. I play the game because I love it. It’s not an investment for us. We play this game because we love it. Of course it’s a living for us, but to play for your country in the Olympics — it’s a special honor.”

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