NHL Has Responsibility to go to Pyeongchang
With Sochi already something of a distant memory, as teams gear up for the return to NHL action this week, the debate has already begun of whether the NHL, and its players, will participate in the 2018 games in Pyeongchang.
The obstacles to participation are not new; if anything there is now the additional ‘con’ that fewer players will be interested in going to Korea than they were Russia. But in my view the NHL should, nay must, let its players travel in four years time.
Simply put – it’s their responsibility to do so.
This isn’t some flag waving piece on patriotism and direct responsibilities to the nations that produce and provide the NHL with a steady stream of players, though I have no doubt all players take pride in representing their country. This is about the responsibility to hockey as a whole.
The NHL is, without question, the standard bearer for hockey. It is the ‘best of the best’. It’s a role, to be fair, it does take seriously and ensures its clubs are active in their communities as well as spearheading projects like Hockey is for Everyone.
This role as ‘guardians of the game’ even extended to their somewhat disastrous team up with Marvel Comics to create the NHL Guardians.
It’s a job that should entail the betterment of the whole sport – not just the NHL’s interests. And that’s where the Olympics come in.
For each nation, the Olympic tournament is the pinnacle of what they can aspire to as a hockey playing country. The gold medal is the ‘ultimate goal’. Take away the elite players who ply their trade in the NHL, and that tournament’s attraction is diminished; that gold medal becomes a little less meaningful.
When you make the end goal less meaningful, you make the whole process of getting their less attractive – nations become less determined to qualify for the Olympics. And as a nations determination to make the grade falls, so does their hockey programme. Players development is not pushed in order to chase the Olympic dream. This would be a disaster for not only the nations involved, but the game as a whole.
The emergence of nations like Slovenia and Latvia in Sochi, as well as the Swiss over the past decade, has been a positive step for the sport as a whole. It demonstrates what can be done and spurs other on to be better because they believe that if Slovenia can do it, so can they.
Take away that elite competition at the Olympics, and you take away the holy grail and the belief that goes with it.
Likewise the much talked about World Cup seems more likely to be a closed shop – assembling the worlds best and shutting out the rest. Great Britain, for example, would be unlikely (to put it mildly) to get an invite to the World Cup. They may not even get the chance to participate in a qualifying tournament. Because the World Cup lies in the hands of those seeking to avoid clashes like Latvia vs Canada – because it wasn’t all that entertaining and as such diminishes the marketability of the tournament.
And when you diminish the ability to sell the tournament, you reduce the amount of dollars that come in.
And there we come to the major obstacle in all this – money.
It’s understandable. The owners of the 30 NHL clubs are trying to run a business. Even Terry Pegula would rather see the Sabres in the black, despite his promises to spend, spend, spend! And sending NHL players to the Olympics involves a two to three week shut down of the league.
More than that, they risk losing players to injury (as the Islanders have with John Tavares) and have to compress a schedule they themselves have already crammed full even further.
In short, the risk is almost entirely assumed by the NHL. And I can understand their issue with that. Heck, I agree with them – it’s a hurdle they need to work with the IOC and IIHF to overcome. But for the wider good of the sport it is in their interest to compromise and ensure Olympic participation continues.
Because you never know where the next Anze Kopitar will come from.