By Matt Loughlin
The NHL’s decision yesterday to end discussions and declare that it will not allow its players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics is short-sighted and could have long-term ramifications.
The NHL does have its reasons, primarily, that the league does not benefit directly by shutting down for three weeks in the late stages of its season. But it’s a myopic view from a league whose owners have historically been unable to see beyond their short-term bottom line and whose current group refuses to take a long-term approach to increasing revenues from around the world.
The NHL has pointed out that the games of the 2018 Olympics would not be shown in prime time in North America because of the time difference between this continent and the host city, Pyeongchang, South Korea. This, according to the NHL, limits the exposure and any resulting benefits that may accrue to the league.
Yet, the NHL continues to pursue a growth plan in Asia which includes playing preseason games between Los Angeles and Vancouver in September in China.
The Chinese government has made expansion of hockey a priority. Why? Because China will be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and wants to field representative teams on both the men’s and women’s side. There is a government-supported plan to build 400 rinks by 2020, a pittance compared to Canada and the United States, for instance, but a huge increase over what existed less than 10 years ago when the number of registered youth players numbered in the hundreds. According to published reports, that number has increased ten-fold and continues to rise.
The NHL has taken notice. Over the past two summers, six NHL teams have operated youth hockey camps in China. And, according to the head of the Chinese state-run channel, CCTV, over 6 million viewers watched Game 4 of last season’s Stanley Cup Final. There could be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in a country of 1.4 billion people which has started to embrace the sport.
So the NHL knows there is a huge economic opportunity in Asia. Which makes this decision so puzzling. China is the biggest player on the continent but South Korea is an enormous economic engine. While making strides in China, why turn your back on South Korea? It makes no sense.
Except, that the NHL has tied Olympic participation to an extension of the CBA with the players. The players understand that playing in the Olympics has to be part of the agreement, but they do not believe that it is an item to be negotiated. Because the players are virtually unanimous in their support of playing in the Olympics, they will not yield on this. So, the NHL took away their pucks and sticks and said, “tough”.
There is still time to change the course of action taken by the NHL. Cooler heads may yet prevail and the best players in the world may get a chance to show their skills on the biggest international stage as they have since 1998.
But the brakes have been applied for now. Which is as sad as it is unwise.
images: IOC, NHL