No NHLers at 2018 Olympics? Tavares injury could tip the scales

Jason Kay
Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 12 - Canada v Latvia

John Tavares’ stats line from the 2014 Olympics isn’t impressive. No goals, no points and six shots on goal. His legacy from Sochi, on the other hand, could prove immense.

The knee injury last season’s Hart Trophy finalist suffered in Canada’s 2-1 nail-biting victory over Latvia in the quarterfinal might be the tipping point in the debate about sending NHLers to the Games four years from now in South Korea. There’s a faction of powerful and influential NHL executives, whose poster boy is Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider, who don’t see the value in shutting down the season and donating their best assets for someone else’s cause.

“It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Snider told reporters. “There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.”

Tavares is Exhibit A. Torn ligaments ended his Olympics, killed his NHL year and will have a major impact on the Islanders’ fate, and perhaps their revenue, the rest 2013-14. No other major professional league halts its season; no other league allows its stars to battle elsewhere, risking injury, when it matters most.

“Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season ticket holders now?” Islanders GM Garth Snow  told New York’s Newsday. “It’s a joke. They want all the benefits from NHL players in Olympics and don’t want to pay when our best player gets hurt.”

The problem for those who support NHL participation at the Games – and judging by ratings and the fervor it creates in puck-loving nations there’s no shortage of fans who want the status quo – is a lack of hard evidence that it indeed does help hockey. While the NHL is growing in popularity, and the game is steadily growing in terms of participation in the United States, there isn’t any definitive proof it’s due to the Olympics. In fact, most of the advancement is more easily tied to expansion into the non-traditional hockey markets, and Wayne Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles, than the behemoth that is the Games.

Consider 1980’s Miracle on Ice and its aftermath. Enrolment increased gradually in U.S. hockey following the amazing triumph, but it wasn’t dynamic. Real growth didn’t materialize until franchises starting appearing in Florida, Colorado, Texas and multiple teams in California. From From 1991 to 2001, the number of registered players with USA Hockey grew from 195,000 to 500,579.

Of course, what the 1980 team didn’t have was staying power. Five of its members had very good NHL careers (Neal Broten, Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian, Ken Morrow and Mark Johnson), but many of its biggest attractions quickly faded away. There were few truly big stars for the youth of the country to continue to idolize. Conversely, today’s American teams are bursting with enduring heroes. Jonathan Quick, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel and the like will be helping to fill NHL rinks for the next decade. And if the men wearing red, white and blue ever win gold, that worship for legitimate, prime-time stars goes to a whole new level.

Today’s hockey landscape in America is drastically different. The base is stronger, with significantly more rinks and leagues in which new players can learn the game. Granted, it’s a leap of faith to believe the Olympics will accelerate that growth, and there’s risk in continuing to go. Business is business. But sometimes it takes a visionary to see past the horizon and imagine possibilities. Hopefully, Tavares and his unfortunate knee haven’t irreversibly blurred the picture.