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NHL Declines to Participate in 2018 Winter Olympics

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An unfortunate and extremely disappointing decision by the NHL.

Ice Hockey Gold Medal - Sweden v Canada Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Today the NHL announced that they will not be sending players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Claiming the matter to be “officially closed”, Commissioner Gary Bettman declared that there will be no two-week break to make room for the Olympics.

In the stead of the current NHL-laden rosters, the Olympics will be packed full of junior players. The American team will likely be packed with college student-athletes which, depending on when the team begins training together, could alter the current college hockey landscape dramatically with teams like Harvard and Boston University losing multiple stars. There has not been word on the AHL allowing players to attend the Olympics, but with call-ups and constant NHL roster changes, I would expect their participation to be doubtful at best.

The core issues that the NHL has with their participation arises from the costs associated with sending players to play. The IIHF, in an act of bipartisanship, offered to cover those costs for the NHL this season, but instead of also compromising for the betterment of hockey, turned their backs and left.

Nevertheless, some NHL players could go rogue and end up either playing anyways or defecting to another league. In particular, the Russian players see playing in the Olympics not as a reward, but as a duty. While most North American players grew up fans for teams and players vying for the Stanley Cup, the Soviet National team’s legends are who inspired many Russian players. The greatest dynasty in all of sport (yes, it was), the impact of the Soviet National team cannot be understated.

Star Capitals left winger and team Russia captain Alexander Ovechkin has already stated multiple times throughout his career that he would not miss the Olympics no matter what. In an unprecedented move, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis gave Ovechkin his blessing in playing in the Olympics regardless of the NHL’s decision. Swedish center Nickolas Backstrom, also from the Capitals, has similarly been granted permission to play by Leonsis.

World Cup Of Hockey 2016 - Finland v Russia
Team Russia Captain Alexander Radulov will be wearing the Russian crest next February, whether Bettman likes it or not.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Ted Leonsis’ generosity and deference towards his players will likely be a rare exception rather than the norm. If the owners, as a whole, were for NHL participation, there’s no way that Gary Bettman would stop the players from going. He is the de facto ambassador for the wishes of the owners and, were his actions not aligned with their wishes, he would not have a job.

For the Predators, this means that Sweden is taking a big hit. Filip Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm played for the Tre Kronor in the World Cup of Hockey and should have made the 2018 Olympic roster. Furthermore, Viktor Arvidsson would likely earn his first nomination to team Sweden due to his emergence this year as a true first-line winger.

Other Predators who will be missing out include Pekka Rinne, Roman Josi, and P.K. Subban. Tragically, due to injuries happening at just the wrong time, Pekka Rinne has never played in the Olympics. Roman Josi was a lock for the first defensive pairing for Switzerland, likely also serving as captain. It’s also concieveable that Kevin Fiala would make Switzerland’s roster. Finally, P.K. Subban was the 7th defenseman for Canada in Sochi 2014. For some reason, Canada head coach Mike Babcock has never favored Subban in his lineups, but with Shea Weber and other defensemen aging, one would predict that Subban could crack Canada’s roster once more.

Switzerland v Germany - 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
Roman Josi of Switzerland and Yannic Seidenberg of Germany battle for the puck during the 2015 IIHF World Championship.
Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

This also means that the coaches will not originate from the NHL. My far-too-early gut feeling is that Wisconsin Badgers head coach Tony Granato could end up being behind the bench for team USA. With ties to the U.S. National Development program and his current experience with college players, he seems like a perfect fit.

On the whole, the NHL’s decision not to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics is not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless. In explaining their decision, there were odd statistics cited that caught me off guard. NHL.com lead writer Dan Rosen published this article explaining the league’s decision. A few paragraphs down, he cites that, in a private study conducted by the NHL, 73% of American hockey fans are against NHL Olympic participation, while that number decreases to 53% among Canadians. Personally, those numbers are shocking, especially because of the significant increases to USA Hockey membership since the 2010 Winter Olympics. USA lost the gold medal game to Canada in a dramatic overtime contest that was also the most watched hockey game of the last 37 years, drawing 27.6 million viewers (like how the link is a NHL.com article? Oh the irony).

The Olympics are when non-NHL fans watch hockey. In pulling NHL players from the Olympics, these potential viewers will not be seeing the best product that hockey has to offer. Does the NHL really believe that one is going to turn off the Olympics to watch Dallas play Edmonton? Instead of a casual viewer seeing Connor McDavid dazzle opponents and fans alike, that viewer will be watching a rag-tag team of juniors and college kids. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as even the late legendary USA head coach Herb Brooks stated that, with NHL players, there were no longer passionate dreamy-eyed kids playing their hearts out. However, the Olympics are the perfect billboard for the NHL and Bettman and the owners would simply rather not be bothered to seize the opportunity.

The Stanley Cup is only two months away from being awarded; can anyone else hear the boo’s for Gary Bettman yet?