It’s a simple enough question after you block out what might happen to the NHL, the Olympics, and the sport in general if the answer is no: should NHL players be allowed to participate in the Olympic ice hockey tournament?
And right now, it’s the question that’s on everyone’s mind. Or at least, the question that feels like it’s on everyone’s mind.
Does it do more harm than good to have NHLers playing in the IIHF-sanctioned tournament every four years? Is the Olympics-as-an-amateur-competition luster lost when professional hockey players represent their countries on the world stage? Does Gary Bettman have the, ahem, hockey pucks to tell dudes like Zdeno Chara and Alexander Ovechkin that they can’t realize their dreams of playing for a gold medal anymore?
It’s only after asking the first question that the other ones follow. Like Phil Kessel dominating a bottle of Powerade, there’s no stopping it. There’s no stopping the multitude of “what ifs” that stem from addressing the issue of preventing NHL players from showcasing their talent at the Olympics.
What if the League—or the IOC, for that matter—eventually ruled that NHL players were no longer allowed to play, beginning with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea?
Injuries—especially to star players—often render hypotheticals like this one moot. No one wants to see an NHL franchise player injured in international competition. Moreover, no one wants to see anyone injured, at any time, regardless of his skill level.
Team owner Charles Wang surely wasn’t happy with the news. General manager Garth Snow probably felt sick after hearing about his franchise player. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may have even registered an emotional response close to sadness when he learned Tavares wouldn’t be able to participate in the rest of his league’s season.
And not to mention Tavares’s family, friends, and teammates who have to see him go through six months of rehab before returning to the ice. Or Tavares himself, who, you know, was the one who actually got injured.
In short, injuries like Tavares’s are what kick the debate about NHL players in the Olympics into high gear. And as Snow will be the first to tell you, everyone knew this was going to happen.
The Olympics were originally intended for amateur athletes only—pay no attention to the ’70s and ’80s “amateur” Soviet teams behind the curtain—until 1988, when the IOC allowed professionals to compete; the NHL first allowed its players to participate in the hockey tournament in 1998. And since then, it’s been a point of contention for the League and hockey purists alike.
Allowing NHL players to represent their countries builds the NHL brand globally, which is perhaps the biggest argument for maintaining the current format. As NHL commissioner, Bettman has a vested interest in growing his league both domestically and internationally; the Olympics accomplishes that in both markets. The trade-off is that Bettman has to shut down league operations for two weeks in the middle of the season every fourth year to accommodate players selected to Olympic rosters.
Quid pro quo, as they say.
Also, having NHL players in the Olympic tournament creates the highest possible level of competition in a marquee event. NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of USA vs. Russia—a group stage game—drew 4.1 million viewers in the United States, a record number for a hockey game on that channel.
There’s no guarantee that the ratings wouldn’t be as high without NHL players being involved, although it’s unlikely those TV broadcasts would draw that type of crowd.
The downside to having NHLers in the Olympics is that it opens players up to injury, as evidenced by Tavares tearing his MCL and meniscus last Wednesday. And while you could argue that hockey by definition is a contact—and therefore inherently dangerous—sport, no team owner wants to subject his players to injury on an increased basis, especially in a competition that doesn’t directly earn him money.
(NHL owners also lose revenue during the Olympic break, which: no skin off my nose. After all, I don’t earn any money from the League.)
Hockey purists say that the Olympics worked just fine without NHL players before, and that’s reason enough to revert back to the amateur-only mandate. Besides, how else will junior and collegiate players gain international experience or publicity? Sure, there’s the World Junior Championships, but those aren’t the Olympics.
It still remains to be seen whether the NHL will officially decide to pull the plug on its self-imposed experiment at some point, but there’s a case to be made for both sides. And while the fans and owners may have different views on whether NHL players should be allowed to participate, the ramifications of a decision one side or the other will be widespread.
Should NHL players be allowed to play in the Olympics? It’s a simple question, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a difficult one.
What do you think? Cast your vote below.
Follow me on Twitter (@MichaelWillhoft) so we can talk about the really important things, like how good Nintendo’s Ice Hockey was. I mean, right? RIGHT?