SOCHI, Russia — To Patrick Kane, it was a dumb question. Just like it was to John Tavares. And to Evgeni Malkin. And basically any other NHL player here in Sochi, brimming with pride and excitement over the opportunity to wear his nation’s flag and represent his countrymen in the biggest and best tournament in hockey.
Should the NHL continue to participate in the Olympics in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea?
Yes. Of course. Absolutely. What kind of a question is that?
“In the long run, it’s good for the game, it’s good for hockey,” Kane said. “And anyone that doesn’t see it that way is crazy.”
Crazy, yes. Or concerned. Concerned about the health of the league, the health of its players, and the health of its finances. And the NHL is all of those things.
Henrik Zetterberg — the Red Wings star and Sweden’s captain — is lost for the tournament and possibly much longer after reinjuring a chronic disk problem either in or after the opening game of the Olympics. Being folded into an airplane seat for 10 hours surely didn’t help. Pavel Datsyuk, Russia’s captain, is playing despite an apparent knee injury that kept him out of the Red Wings lineup for much of the past six weeks. The Wings are in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference — is it worth the risk to them? Is it worth the risk to any team?
Then there’s the disruption to the league. In February — the only time all year the NHL doesn’t have the NFL and MLB to take the spotlight away — the NHL shuts down for nearly three weeks. When the Games are in Vancouver or Salt Lake City, at least the NHL stars are being showcased in prime time. In Sochi, the games start at 2 a.m., 6:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. And Pyeongchang is five more hours ahead. There’s no doubt the Olympics draw welcome attention to hockey. But if NBC isn’t showing Team USA or Team Canada at 8 p.m., the NHL doesn’t really care.
The league has not closed the door on participating in the 2018 Olympics, but considering how long it took Gary Bettman and Co. to finally agree to come to Russia — even with stars such as Alex Ovechkin pledging to abandon their NHL teams for the Games if they didn’t — it seems increasingly likely that this is the last hurrah for the NHL and the Olympics.
Much to the players’ chagrin.
“I would love another chance, I’ll tell you that,” Canada’s Tavares said. “The Olympic Games is obviously a pinnacle of sports, and it represents a lot. Certainly there are some tough challenges with it — being involved with the [NHLPA] as much as I have, I know this wasn’t an easy process. But we feel as players, it’s important and we love to play, we love to represent our countries.”
“I think this is fantastic for our league,” said Tampa Bay and Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman. “How much attention this draws, how much conversation it draws — not only in Canada, but around the world.”
It is good for the game. Without question. But is it good for the bottom line? Not when it’s halfway around the world. Not the way the NHL sees it.
It’ll be easier to skip Pyeongchang than Sochi. There are no Korean superstars in the league who would risk their massive contracts to play on their home soil. Bettman has talked about bringing back the World Cup of Hockey in the summer, saying he prefers it to the Olympics because the NHL can control the timing and the location while still giving players an opportunity to represent their countries.
But the league is being naive if it thinks the players will consider it an even trade.
“It’s once every four years,” Tavares said. “This is not a thing that comes around very often. I think it’s important we continue to try and find a way to work.”