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Plenty of reasons for NHL to pass on Olympics

History shows Games don't help League

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The positives don't outweigh the negatives; that's what it comes down to.

The NHL understands the arguments for participating in the Olympics: promoting the League, growing the sport, giving fans and players a great experience. It understands why its players want to go to PyeongChang in 2018. They are the same reasons the League went to the Olympics the first time, in Nagano in 1998. 

Gary Bettman was Commissioner then too.

But the NHL has decided not to go to PyeongChang because when it weighed the pros and cons, the cons were too heavy this time. 

The League has participated in the Olympics five times and has never seen any objective evidence of a positive impact on the business or sport. In many ways, it has seen a negative impact.




Negative sentiment built among the Board of Governors over time. The NHL considered not going to Sochi in 2014 but went anyway. Negative sentiment reached a tipping point afterward.

The NHL left open the door for someone to tip it back because it knew the players wanted to go to PyeongChang. The League talked to the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL Players' Association. But no one presented anything to convince the Board that going to PyeongChang would be in the League's best interest, and with the Stanley Cup Playoffs approaching, it's time to move on.

"A number of months have now passed, and no meaningful dialogue has materialized," the NHL said in a statement on Monday. "Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL's participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018. And the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the Clubs.

"As a result, and in an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 Regular Season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games. We now consider the matter officially closed."

When it comes to Olympic participation, the cost-benefit equation changes every four years.

Nagano was not a boon for the League or for hockey in general.

"The ultimate impact it had on the game worldwide was negligible," Commissioner Bettman said in December.

The 2006 Torino and 2014 Sochi Olympics weren't boons. The 2002 Salt Lake City and 2010 Vancouver Olympics were better -- each culminating in a gold-medal game between Canada and the United States on North American ice -- but weren't boons either.

"When you look at the Olympics in Salt Lake City and Vancouver, both in terms of location and the teams that went very far, it generated more interest, particularly in North America," Commissioner Bettman said in December. "In some of the other places, not as much."

So would the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics be a boon, considering the South Korean market and the time difference for North American TV viewers? If they would be, don't you think the NHL would go?

The Olympics are incredible because of the best-on-best format and the overall pageantry. The allure is so strong that the players want to provide their services for free, something they wouldn't do ordinarily. But that is a luxury they can afford because they are paid well to play in the NHL.

Hockey is not much different from, say, skiing or swimming. Die-hard fans love the sport the way they love it all the time. Casual fans get into it for a couple of weeks and then forget about it the week afterward. Did you follow Michael Phelps during the Summer Olympics? Do you follow his sport in between?

The NHL has been shutting down its season in February -- a time of year when it isn't competing with football or baseball -- and lending its players to someone else's tournament. 

In December, the NHL polled fans in Canada and the United States to ask if they favored a 17-day break in the schedule for the Olympics. In Canada, 53 percent of avid fans were against it even though Canada would be defending the gold medal. In the United States, 73 percent were against it.

All NHL players experience increased risk for injury during an Olympic year because of the compressed schedule that accompanies participation. That risk obviously grows for the players who take part in the tournament. 

Four NHL players sustained season-ending injuries in Sochi: New York Islanders captain John Tavares, Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, and Florida Panthers forwards Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky. (Zetterberg returned for two games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Red Wings lost to the Boston Bruins in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round.) 

At least three others missed NHL games because of injuries sustained in Sochi: Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin (18), Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin (eight) and New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello (four).

While the IOC has reaped rewards from NHL participation, the NHL has not seen increases in ratings or sales. The NHL has been allowed to capture its Olympic moments in words only, not in video or images. No highlights of Sidney Crosby's golden goal for Canada against the United States in Vancouver. No highlights of T.J. Oshie's shootout heroics for the United States against Russia in Sochi. You name it, the NHL hasn't been able to show it. How does that help promote the League or grow the game?

Deciding not to go to PyeongChang does not mean the NHL is not trying to grow the game, promote the League or provide great experiences for fans and players. Quite the opposite. The NHL did it without the Olympics for 80 years and will do so again.

NHL players began participating in best-on-best international competition in the 1972 Summit Series. The League continued with the 1976, '81, '84, '87 and '91 Canada Cup tournaments, and the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 and 2004. Together with the NHLPA, the League revived the tradition with the World Cup of Hockey 2016. 

The Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings will play preseason games in Shanghai on Sept. 21 and in Beijing on Sept. 23 in the 2017 NHL China Games. The Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators will play regular-season games in Stockholm, Sweden, on Nov. 10-11 in the 2017 SAP NHL Global Series. These events are part of a larger international plan, and we'll see if something changes regarding NHL participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

The NHL isn't going to the 2018 Games, but it will continue to bring the game to people around the world.

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