The NHL announced Monday that it will not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, saying it sees no tangible benefit in halting its season for three weeks next February despite clear signs from the world’s best players that they want to go.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly informed NHL Players Association officials that the matter was “officially closed” after weeks of speculation. The NHL had allowed its players to participate in the last five Olympics dating to 1998, giving the Winter Games pro-level star power akin to the NBA players who participate in the Summer Olympics.
The league said no meaningful dialogue had emerged in talks with the NHLPA, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation. Even after the IIHF had agreed to pay for players’ travel and insurance costs when the IOC refused, the NHL had been looking for more concessions that were believed to include marketing opportunities tied to the Games.
When there was little progress to report on that front, the league wanted to close the matter before the playoffs, which begin April 13. Messages seeking comment from the NHLPA and IIHF were not immediately returned.
Former NHL forward Brandon Prust, who’s now playing in Germany, tweeted: “Way to ruin the sport of hockey even more Gary #Olympics.” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who represented Canada in Sochi in 2014, tweeted the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics logo.
“Good to see the NHL and Gary Bettman always looking out for the good of the game,” prominent agent Allan Walsh tweeted. “So much for that grand partnership with the players.”
The NHL and NHLPA teamed up on the return of the World Cup of Hockey last fall and had made strides on growing the sport internationally, including games in China and Sweden later this year.
The NHL has not ruled out participating in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, though the IIHF and IOC had indicated that could be conditional on the NHL going to South Korea. For now, the league is making its 2017-18 schedule without a break for the Olympics.
“We have previously made clear that, while the overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players, we were open to hearing from any of the other parties who might have an interest in the issue (e.g., the IOC, the IIHF, the NHLPA) as to reasons the Board of Governors might be interested in re-evaluating their strongly held views on the subject,” the NHL said. “Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018. And the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs.”
The league also has cited the 13-hour difference from Pyeongchang to the Eastern time zone as one of its reasons for not agreeing to go. There was 13-hour difference to Nagano in 1998, six to Turin in 2006 and nine to Sochi in 2014. Team owners have long complained that stopping the NHL season every four years wasn’t worth it and they have been wary of injuries to star players.
Still, many players expressed a strong desire to go, and Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has said he plans to go regardless of NHL participation.
“I think the players know it’s very important for us to represent our countries,” Ovechkin said last month. “Everybody wants to go there.”
The NHL has not decided whether to allow teams to make decisions on a case-by-case basis about players participating in the 2018 Olympics. That will come at a later date.
Months ago, the league offered the NHLPA a deal allowing Olympic participation in exchange for a three-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement. Players turned that down. Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, who represented the United States in Sochi, said he didn’t think players should give up anything to go in 2018.
“We’re not going to give up something ridiculous,” Faulk said recently. “I’m sure they would take anything that’s ridiculous for the Olympics. It’s kind of like making a bad trade, and they would do it and we’re not going to do it.”