The International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation have opened the door for the NHL to return to the Olympic Games.
Olympic hockey fans got a bit of surprising, but welcome, news over the weekend. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Saturday night that the IOC and the IIHF have “indicated a willingness this week to address NHL issues to get players to go to [the] 2022 Olympics.”
Friedman’s report also states that the IIHF and the IOC are willing to renegotiate with the NHL on issues such as player insurance costs, travel costs, plus the ability for the NHL to promote the Olympics on their own platforms.
The news comes as a surprise, since NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly had stated that Olympic participation was set to be hooked into negotiations about the league’s next collective bargaining agreement. The NHL Players Association believed the CBA to be a non-factor, since the current CBA covers past the 2022 Winter Olympics, but the NHL and the NHLPA are set to continue talks about the upcoming CBA this week.
Given NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s history and reticence about the league’s participation in the Olympics, this news feels a bit out of left field. In previous months, Bettman called the Olympics “incredibly disruptive” to the season, even going so far as to say they are “very comfortable not going” to the event every four years.
Via Sportsnet, here are Bettman’s most recent comments on Olympic participation:
I don’t want to sound like a broken record on the subject, but I think going to the Olympics is a challenge for us … I know the players love representing their countries, I know that the players like going, I know that the players that don’t go like having a break in the middle of the season. But from our standpoint, we have found going to the Olympics to be incredibly disruptive … to our season.
The 2018 Winter Olympics was the first time since 1994 where the NHL did not participate in the Games due to the issues such as travel costs and player insurance. The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing were no doubt of interest to the NHL, due to the league’s investment in growing the sport in China, but the roadblocks to get there have thus far been insurmountable.
This latest report, however, gives the league a clearer path back to Olympic participation for 2022, and possibly beyond. The IOC and IIHF’s willingness to negotiate with the NHL on many of their issues is an incredibly positive sign from organizations previously reluctant to give ground in this fight.
In 2018, the Games suffered as a result, pulling in less ratings and far less interest as a result of the lack of NHL players. The 2018 Winter Olympics were, instead, dominated by the women’s hockey event, where Canada and the United States faced off in a shootout for the gold medal as Team USA enacted revenge on Canada for previous Olympic defeats.
The biggest roadblock that the IIHF or the IOC has yet to address — and likely won’t be able to — is the disruption of the NHL’s season during Olympic years, along with player injury concerns. The Winter Olympics will always interrupt the league’s schedule for at least two weeks — unless hockey gets moved to the Summer Olympics — as it cuts off the season’s midpoint and condenses the season schedule in the process.
Injury concerns for a team’s top players who participate in the Olympics is also a problem, as in previous years, then-captain of the New York Islanders John Tavares was sidelined for the rest of the 2013-14 season due to injury.
There is no real tangible solution to either of these problems for the league, given the circumstances. Olympic participation will always be a risk for the NHL, but with the news of the IOC’s willingness to renegotiate terms for the 2022 Winter Olympics, it may become less of one.
The Winter Olympics are no doubt better with NHL players participating. The players are passionate about participating in the tournament to represent their home countries — an honor some of them consider a more important personal achievement than a Stanley Cup win — and the game is elevated by their presence and star power as a whole.
Negotiations between the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and the IOC will no doubt be a long process over the next few weeks and months, but optimism for NHL participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics has never been higher.
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