The NHL has been participating in the Olympics since 1998, but has never experienced any long-term impact from taking part. Women's hockey has been in the Olympics since then, but its existence is jeopardized by a lack of competiton.
Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider has never been reticent about being controversial. Never been reticent about being inane, either. In 1999, when his Flyers lost Game 6 and the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs on a controversial power-play goal, he eviscerated referee Terry Gregson, saying that the fact he was born near Toronto played a factor. Got nicked for $50,000 for that one.
But when Snider railed against NHLers participating in the Olympics Thursday night, I got the distinct impression this wasn’t simply a case of a rogue owner shaking his fist and ranting against the establishment. If anything, Snider’s words reinforced to me that the NHL is actually greasing the skids to end its involvement in the Olympics once and for all.
“I hate them. It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Snider said. “I don’t care if it is in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t want to break up the league. I think it’s ridiculous to take three weeks off…in the middle of the season. How can anybody be happy breaking up the season? No other league does it, why should we? There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.”
It sounds a lot to these ears that those comments were anything but off-the-cuff frustrations boiling over. (Although it did seem strange that Snider complained about the disruption of the Olympics, then took the Canadian Olympic team to task for not taking Flyers center Claude Giroux.) Could they perhaps have been masterfully calculated in an effort to see what the reaction would be? The only reason I say this is that Snider is one of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s closest allies, has the longest tenure of anyone on the league’s board of governors and is a member of Bettman’s innermost circle by being on the executive committee.
And the league has made no real secret that it is not enamored of participating in the Games. The league will argue the benefits to the business have been negligible at best, particularly in years in which they’re not held in North America. The thinking is the league could gain a lot more in revenues, like all of them, if it eschewed the Olympics and revived the World Cup best-on-best format.
And the Winter Olympics won’t be in a North American time zone until at least 2026. The 2018 games are slated for Pyenongchang, South Korea, which is 14 hours ahead of New York. The 2022 Winter Games are down to six cities that range from six to 11 hours ahead of New York.
So what does all this mean for hockey in the Olympics? It means that you might want to savor what you’re getting now – both on the men’s and women’s side. Chances that we’ll see a best-on-best tournament for both genders in the future is growing more slim all the time – the men because the NHL might not be there and the women because the tournament may no longer exist after 2018.
When Canada and USA met in the gold medal game in Vancouver in 2010, then IOC president Jacques Rogge sounded the alarm for women’s hockey, saying its existence in the Games was being jeopardized because of a lack of competition. These Games will be key to gauging how far other programs such as Finland, Sweden, Russia and China have come since then. If USA and Canada romp their way to the gold medal game once again, those who fear for the future of women’s hockey in the Olympics have reason to get nervous.
The men’s tournament will undoubtedly be far more competitive. In fact, it might turn out to be the best hockey we’ve ever seen in our lives. But as long as Ed Snider and the NHL think of it the way they do, that provides no guarantee we’re going to see it again.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.