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NHL’s fraught decision over Olympic Games

Should the NHL stop sending players to the Winter Olympics?

That’s the growing consensus among owners after the Sochi Games. Although the break in the regular season has long been a concern, several NHL general managers saw their worst fears realized when their top players succumbed to injury. Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin will miss four to six weeks after breaking his hand while playing for Team USA, and New York Islanders center John Tavares is out for the season after tearing his MCL in Canada’s quarterfinal win over Latvia. So many players suffered injuries in Sochi – including Henrik Zetterberg, Mats Zuccarello and Tomas Kopecky – you can see why front offices are fuming at what they view as an unnecessary interruption on the road to the Stanley Cup.

The problem is that for hockey players and fans, the Olympics are far from irrelevant. Even after his season-ending injury, Tavares said he would participate in the games again. “For me as a player, I think it’s important for us to play,” he said. “I think you saw how much we love representing our countries, especially at that level.”

Contrast that with remarks made by Islanders GM Garth Snow, who was understandably frustrated at the loss of his No. 1 draft pick. “This is probably the biggest reason why NHL players shouldn’t be in the Olympics; it should just be amateurs,” Snow said. “And it could have happened to anyone; it just happened to be us that lost our best player.”

Snow continued to say that “there’s too much at stake” in sending his players to the Olympics, which hits at the core of the issue: The tangible rewards don’t justify the very real risks for the NHL.

As Bloomberg News reported Tuesday, Olympic participation does little to boost the league’s television ratings and revenue. A ton of people tune into Olympic hockey, but that doesn’t actually translate into increased viewership for the Stanley Cup finals. Sure, an international stage could go a long way to exposing new markets to the sport, as silver medalist Henrik Lundqvist noted could happen in four years when the Winter Games take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but you can understand why teams are more concerned with protecting their million-dollar investments in players for the short-term goal of a championship rather than the long-term goal of growing hockey’s reach.

To be sure, there would be several issues should the NHL decide not to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, a decision Commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to make later this year. Most of these problems would affect players, fans and the business of the Olympics, but wouldn’t hurt the league itself. According to Bloomberg, NBC would take a particularly large hit after spending $4.38 billion for television rights to the Olympics through 2020.

Then there’s the question of parity, which the International Olympic Committee touts as one of its goals. Without the participation of NHL players, the balance of power would shift toward the few countries with other professional leagues that boast a comparable level of play and organization as the NHL. Russia, for example, would probably dominate with a roster full of KHL players facing teams of mostly minor leaguers.

It would also put the IOC in the uncomfortable position of having to confront its previous stance on sports that don’t send professionals to the games, and could expose the organization’s Eurocentric bias. Recall that when the IOC purged baseball from the Olympic program in 2005, its reasoning was that without the participation of MLB players, the sport wasn’t represented by the best athletes countries had to offer. This argument was faulty for many reasons, not the least of which is that it seems to ignore that amateurism was historically a pillar of the games. Since the IOC isn’t likely to get rid of one of the marquee events of the Winter Olympics, which happens to have heavy European interest and participation, it would be intriguing to see how the organization reconciles banning baseball while keeping hockey.

As a fan, I agree that Olympic hockey would suffer at first without the high level of play we’ve come to expect from epic battles between All-Star countries. But it could also have the welcome effect of creating true underdogs. Had Latvia, a team with just one NHL player on its roster, been able to pull out a win over Canada in the quarterfinals – and it came close, keeping the score tied 1-1 until seven minutes were left in the third period – it would have been a stunning upset of David-and-Goliath proportions. When Team USA defeated Russia in the preliminary rounds, many (including myself) called it Miracle 2.0, a rematch of the legendary game from the 1980 Olympics. The drama, however, was somewhat diluted, with two squads boasting professional, highly paid athletes. A matchup between an American team without NHL players and a KHL-led Russian roster would set the stage for another true miracle.

Bettman, of course, has to consider what’s best for the league and won’t get tied down with the implications of preventing NHL participation on the Olympics, fans and players. It will ultimately come down to pressure from owners to protect their investments, and whether that outweighs the impetus to represent one’s country and grow the sport oversees. We’ll see in the coming months whether the NHL values itself in terms of dollars or patriotism.

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