Players will have to save NHL Olympic participation

Ken Campbell
The NHL and its owners are openly skeptical about sending players to South Korea in 2018. (Getty Images)
The NHL and its owners are openly skeptical about sending players to South Korea in 2018. (Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – It looks increasingly as though the future of NHL participation in the Olympics will depend on how much extra hockey the best players in the world will be prepared to play.

That’s because the NHL will – repeat, will – hold a World Cup of Hockey in 2016 and beyond. The tournament is going to happen and it’s not going to be a one-off the way it was in 2004. It has gone way beyond the conceptual stage and with the league and NHL Players’ Association meeting on it last week and again this week to put the finishing touches on the agreement, it is now a matter of what form it’s going to take, not whether it’s going to happen.

And what does that mean for the future of Olympic participation? Well, we know the owners hate the Olympics and want to end sending their best players there and having them exposed to injury. The players, meanwhile, want to play and the leadership of the association sees a lot of value in continuing to go to the Olympics to grow the game on a global level – with or without the World Cup.

During his annual state of the union address, commissioner Gary Bettman said the league has not discussed Olympic participation since the Sochi Games. Much of the focus has been on the World Cup concept and getting the players on board. But if the league insists it won’t go to South Korea in 2018 or any other Winter Olympics, it may come down to the players and their willingness to flex their muscles when it comes to the World Cup of Hockey.

It basically could come down to this. The players would likely have to make their World Cup participation contingent on continuing to play in the Olympics. But that would put a huge burden on the best players in the world, the ones who would be called upon to play a lot of extra hockey every two years and give up a big chunk of their off-seasons during World Cup years. On a lesser level, it would probably marginalize the World Championship even more than it already is, since top players would almost certainly take a pass on the tournament for fear of suffering from international hockey fatigue.

One of the contributing factors is that the league and the NHLPA have already essentially decided on how they will split the revenues. Under the proposed scheme, neither the owners’ nor players’ share would be subject to Hockey Related Revenue with each side splitting the profits 50-50. That’s a lot of money and it’s money they don’t make from playing in the Olympics. In fact, one of the league’s biggest gripes about Olympic participation is the fact that they shut their business down for two weeks every four years and don’t see even a small upward tick in their revenues.

The Players’ Association, meanwhile, sees global revenues as an enormously undermined source of huge revenues, but feel the Olympics has to be a vehicle, along with the World Cup and other international events, to foster that growth.

But this much is certain. The fact that a World Cup is going to happen doesn’t help the cause for future Olympic participation. And as deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Wednesday, if one side doesn’t want to participate, the Olympics for NHL players will be dead. And the league doesn’t want to go.

So like it or not, it will be up to the players to save the Olympics. It’s a lot to ask of them and if it comes together, they should be lauded for looking beyond the low-hanging fruit and taking into account the best interests of the game. And playing in the Olympics is undoubtedly in the best interests of the game.

NOTES: One of the biggest news items that emerged from Bettman’s address came when the commissioner acknowledged that teams have been fined for not following the league’s concussion protocol. Those sanctions have come in the form of fines, but Bettman said the Montreal Canadiens were not fined when Dale Weise looked as though he suffered a concussion against the New York Rangers in Game 5, only to come back later in the game. Bettman said the league’s concussion protocol was followed. Steve Mason, Steven Stamkos and James Wisniewski all admitted during these playoffs that they played with what appeared to be concussion symptoms. In fact, Wisniewski said he had a sore back and lied about his symptoms…The GMs will meet next week in New York and proposed rule changes will be on the agenda. One of them will be a proposal to penalize players who dive and trip opponents on breakaways, even if they make contact with the puck.