NHL players have competed in the past five Winter Olympics, dating to 1998. The 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, will be different. The league will not take a break next season to allow players to participate, as it has during recent Olympic seasons. But, even though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in April that he considers “the matter officially closed,” confusion still surrounds the conversation — or perhaps it’s just fans holding out hope that they’ll see top players take the Olympic ice after all. Here’s a primer on where things stand and what’s at stake.
Wait, so NHL players really aren’t going?
Not with the league’s blessing. The NHL scheduled its 2018 All Star Game for Jan. 28 in Tampa, Florida — just two weeks before the Olympics begin, on Feb. 9; the last three times NHL players went to the Olympics (2006, 2010, 2014), there has not been an NHL midseason showcase. Then, in June, the league unveiled its 2017-18 regular-season schedule, with no Olympic break built in. It would be wholly unprecedented to re-arrange a schedule after it has been publicly released. The NHL is not going to budge.
What do the players have to say about it?
Some of the league’s biggest stars — Henrik Lundqvist, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Carey Price, Jonathan Toews — have publicly expressed disappointment about not playing in the Olympics. As one veteran player agent told ESPN.com: “Good luck finding a player who thinks this is a good idea.” In April, the NHLPA called the decision “shortsighted,” adding that “NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone. It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.”
What does the NHL have to say about it?
Bettman has addressed the issue several times over the past year. He said the league’s owners were reluctant to take a 17-day break in February when they should be capitalizing on a dead period in other sports: the sweet spot, post-Super Bowl and pre-MLB spring training. Bettman also cited injury concerns from clubs. In essence, he said, the league doesn’t get much out of it.
But wouldn’t that be the case every Olympic year?
Indeed, those aren’t novel concerns. That’s why the crux of the issue is a power play between the NHL, NHLPA and the International Olympic Committee. The league wanted the IOC to make concessions, which it didn’t. The NHLPA wanted the sides to get it done. This could be used as a bargaining chip between the union and the league when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021-22 season.
Can anyone intervene?
Four agencies have tried to hash it out: the NHL, the NHLPA, the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation — with no luck. The IOC has previously funded players’ travel and insurance (which, in 2014, amounted to $14 million). When the IOC took that off the table, the IIHF stepped in and offered to cover $10 million. It was a nice gesture, but it didn’t resolve all of the issues, including interrupting the NHL season for three weeks. The IOC issued a statement in April saying it “feels very sorry for the athletes.”
What happens if a player decides to go anyway?
Ah, you’re talking about Alex Ovechkin aren’t you? The Russian superstar/Washington Capitals winger has vowed to play in the Olympics no matter what, approval be damned. Well, he probably would need approval from the Capitals’ front office, especially since he would miss nine NHL games. In February, Caps owner Ted Leonsis told NHL.com: “If Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby and [Niklas] Backstrom tell us, ‘We want to go play for our country,’ how am I going to say no? I might get fined, I might get punished in some way, but I feel I’m in partnership with Nick and Braden and Alex.” Last week, Ovechkin told the Russian-language Sport Express that he still wants to play but that “as far as participation in the nearest Olympics is concerned, there are no changes.”
Would any American NHL players go that route?
Jim Johannson was named the GM of the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team on Aug. 4. When asked by ESPN.com if he would embrace any American-born NHL players who wished to join his team, Johannson shut down the question: “We have not had any conversations with any players and we are respectful of our relationship with the NHL.”
So who is in charge of Team USA?
Besides Johannson, the most visible face will be coach Tony Granato. You might remember Granato as a player — he was a 1988 Olympian and played for the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks — or as a coach. He coached the Colorado Avalanche for three seasons, was an assistant for the Detroit Red Wings, and in 2016 became coach at his alma mater, Wisconsin. (You might also know Granato because his sister, Cammi, is one of the greatest American hockey players ever). Assisting Granato are familiar faces, including former players Chris Chelios and Scott Young. Yep, that Chris Chelios and that Scott Young.
What will the Team USA roster look like?
It will include a lot of names you don’t know now — but hopefully will soon. The U.S. coaches are looking at minor league players (although the league announced Monday that any minor leaguer with an active NHL contract will not be allowed to participate), players on overseas contracts and collegians. There’s a chance some retired NHL players or players mulling retirement might make the roster. For example, Team Canada might have the services of Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla, who are both currently without NHL contracts.
Does the U.S. have any shot?
Granato says the U.S. expects to compete for a medal, and he has reason for that optimism: the Americans should be in the mix along with Canada, Finland and Sweden. Russia is the likely favorite, though, with an exceptional pool of players outside the NHL from which to draw. By the way, the 2018 KHL schedule includes a 33-day Olympic break.
What’s going to happen in 2022?
The 2022 Olympics are in Beijing. The NHL is interesting in establishing a presence in China — the league is sending the Vancouver Canucks and Kings for preseason games in Beijing and Shanghai — so there could be more motivation to get a deal done. In negotiations, the IOC threatened a “both or neither” option for 2018 and 2022, but it’s unclear if they’ll hold firm. So, you’re telling me there’s a chance!