I have to say personally, one of the more depressing pieces of news that came out for me last year was when Gary Bettman said that NHL players would not be attending the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea which are occurring over the next two weeks. To me, there was nothing more thrilling than watching Olympic hockey back in 2014 and 2010. The energy, enthusiasm, and high level of play amongst almost all of the teams involved made those two weeks blissful for most any hockey fan.
Now, before moving forward, let me first say that I understand the NHL’s arguments. Losing key players to injury at the Olympics is brutal for the league. When John Tavares went down while playing for Team Canada in Sochi, that was a huge blow for both the New York Islanders and for the league as a whole, as one of its stars that draws fans was no longer going to be playing. I also get the argument that comes from that as a result, namely who will be insuring these players over those two weeks and the costs that come with that. Also, the idea of a major professional sports league going dark for two weeks in the dead middle of its regular season is rare, and no other sport has to do that. Baseball will be brought back to the list of Summer Olympic sports in 2020, but professionals have not played in Olympic competition, as players were required to be amateurs when the sport became an official Olympic sport in 1992. So the MLB does not have a dilemma about potentially halting the regular season to send players to the Games, only the NHL. It is a valid question to wonder how other sports would react to a similar situation. Would the NBA send their players to the Summer Games if the season was going on at the same time?
However, I also think the NHL is missing a big opportunity, and as a fan of the sport in general, I am definitely disappointed that I will not be able to watch the top competition playing for their native countries. One argument that I heard from Bettman is that they wanted the NHL players in Vancouver in 2010 because it was in the same time zone, so games would be live in prime time television, drawing high ratings and lots of exposure for the sport and the League. I don’t understand how the Olympics being across the world still diminishes that goal. Yes, games won’t be live unless you are watching at 6am, given the 14 hour time differential, but that does not mean that games shown on prime time locally in the United States and Canada won’t draw decent ratings. I may get the results of USA-Canada ahead of time, but I’m still going to sit down and watch the game at night because there is nothing quite like a game between those two rivals, and I want to witness it. Also, if a game takes place at 10am in South Korea, it will be at 8pm in the Eastern Time Zone, which is prime time. That could definitely happen.
To me, I just do not see how sending the players to the Olympics would be a net negative. It shows that the NHL is an ambassador to the game itself worldwide. It shows that it doesn’t care just about itself and its profits (which is really all it cares about), but it actually cares about growing the game internationally. Of course, growing the game internationally will only help to grow the income for the NHL in the long run, so it would all work itself out, even if in the short term it did not.
Beyond that, the players clearly buy into playing for their home nations, which in turn makes Olympic hockey some of the best you will ever see. Who will ever forget that epic shootout when TJ Oshie basically singlehandedly defeated Russia on Russian soil? I know I won’t. If events like that don’t create new hockey fans or re-energize old fans, what will? Random regular season action in mid-February while the Olympics are also going on? Yeah right. The NHL has lost a big opportunity to energize its fan base and potentially grow it, and that is so sad.
Now don’t get me wrong, I will still watch hockey at the Olympics this year, and it is pretty cool seeing former Devils like Brian Gionta leading Team USA out there in Korea. It should still be some entertaining stuff. But you know as well as I do, the level of competition from what we will see to what we did see back in 2014 and 2010 will be quite different. And that difference will definitely be noticed in terms of support from fringe hockey fans. Hardcore hockey fans like you and I will still watch most likely, but the fringe fan who usually doesn’t turn on hockey until the playoffs start? Maybe not.
And taking that to the next level, what about the hockey that is currently going on in the NHL? I don’t just enjoy Olympic hockey, but all Olympic sports in general. I am a huge Olympic junkie, and whenever the Summer or Winter Olympics are going on, I basically watch nothing else for two straight weeks. I eat it up. When the New Jersey Devils are playing, that really sucks now, because I have to juggle between two things: Olympic competition that occurs only once every four years, and Devils hockey that I really care about, but hockey that I get to see 82 times a year. The saturation level of NHL hockey is high, while it is not often I get to see Olympic competition.
The first case in point was on Thursday night when the Devils were facing Calgary. At the same time, there was some pretty cool Olympic competition going on between curling, mogul skiing, downhill skiing, and figure skating. I tried flipping back and forth, but that’s never fun because you lose the flow of both things. It’s too hard to keep up with the ebbs and flows of Devils hockey, and also too difficult to really focus on the events happening. It’s like watching the Red Zone channel: you can never really get into any one game, because watching numerous games in short bursts kills any ability to really analyze what is happening. And sadly, what happened on Thursday night will be happening constantly throughout the next two weeks. The Olympics run through February 25th. Including the Calgary game that just took place, the Devils will be playing 10 games while the Olympics take place. 10! Not only did the NHL not want to send its players to the Games, but they also seriously overscheduled the next two weeks with loads of games, forcing fans of both to have to really decide what is more important.
To me, this whole situation is petty, and it makes me quite disappointed. I do not want to have to choose between an event I can only watch once every four years and a team that I religiously follow and care about. And on top of that, I also want to watch the top competition in the world play hockey at the Olympics. If I didn’t care as much about the Devils as I do, I would absolutely consider boycotting their games until the Olympics were over just to make sure that the NHL lost ratings over the next two weeks. A ratings drop would absolutely send Bettman a clear message that the NHL is not above the Olympics, and it should absolutely be participating. While I still will watch the Devils, I do selfishly hope that fringe NHL fans are not watching the NHL over the next two weeks. Go watch the Olympics and enjoy the competition that you cannot see often. Perhaps that is exactly what we need to get NHL players back in the Olympics for Beijing 2022.
Until then, however, we can all root for Brian Gionta once more, this time to bring a medal to Team USA!