After allowing its players to participate in five Winter Olympics from 1998 to 2012, the National Hockey League opted out of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. The league issued a statement in April 2017 indicating the majority of its owners were opposed to Olympic participation for a number of reasons, the biggest being the 17-day disruption to the regular-season schedule.
That opinion still prevails two years later. In a press conference last week during the NHL Global Series in Stockholm, Sweden, league commissioner Gary Bettman said going to the Olympics remained “incredibly disruptive” to the season.
During recent collective bargaining talks between the league and the NHL Players Association, reports indicated the players remain keen to return to Olympic competition. This issue could become a potential stumbling block toward extending the current CBA beyond its Sept.15, 2022 expiration.
The league also cites concerns over loss of revenue during the Olympic break and injury to key players affecting teams’ chances to qualify for the playoffs.
Location of the Games could also be an issue. The 2002 Salt Lake City and 2010 Vancouver Olympics drew considerable interest among North American TV viewers. Those staged in Nagano (1998), Turin (2006) and Sochi (2014) did less well, in part because the time zones made it difficult for televised games during North American prime time hours.
Money, however, is the crux of the matter. Unlike previous Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee declined to cover the estimated $20 million for travel, accommodation and insurance costs for NHL players to take part in the Pyeongchang Games. The IOC also forbids the league from promoting its participation in the Games.
In other words, the IOC is happy to have the NHL’s best players in the Winter Olympics but are unwilling to pick up the tab or share sponsorship and media revenue.
Stuck in the middle, of course, are the players. They could refuse to sign off on a new CBA if the league maintains its stance against the Olympics. Doing so, however, could jeopardize their efforts to reduce escrow claw-backs from their paychecks and improved pension and medical benefits.
Participation in the 2022 Beijing Games means convincing Bettman and the teams’ owners during the ongoing CBA negotiations. That seems impossibles unless the IOC is willing to make the NHL a co-sponsor in future Olympic tournaments.
The International Ice Hockey Federation could try to broker a deal between the two sides. How much influence it has seems debatable. The IIHF offered to pick up the travel, accommodation and insurance costs for the PyeongChang Games but that pitch was rejected by the NHL.
Bettman acknowledged it was a complicated issue, one the players association and the IIHF continue to raise with the league. Unless the IOC agrees to a new deal that addressed the costs for player participation and allows the league a bigger cut of the revenue, don’t expect to see NHL stars skating in future Winter Olympics.
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