The 2010 Winter Olympics are in full swing in Vancouver right now with thousands of athletes proudly donning the colors of their countries.  However, one group of athletes that want to participate might not even have the opportunity to try out for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

With the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) set to expire at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 season, the debate over whether NHL players will be permitted to participate in 2014 Olympics remains to be decided.  Both Commissioner Gary Bettman and several owners have openly voiced their disapproval over the current arrangement, in which the entire NHL shuts down for a two-week period in order to accommodate player involvement in the games.  However, not participating in the Olympics beyond this year could be harmful to the competitive level of play on the United States and several other countries’ behalf.

The Problems with Participation

Commissioner Bettman argues that participation in the Olympics results in an unnecessary strain on the players, the schedule, and NHL fans.  He also believes that the league receives little positive impact from the Olympics when the games are played outside North America.  Meanwhile, the owners argue that permitting their star players to participate in the Olympics risks team success and can compromise player injury liability clauses.

There is no doubt that both the Commissioner and the owners raise valid points; however, it is from a selfish standpoint.  Commissioner Bettman’s point on the strain on players presumably is based on the same reasoning as the owners:  If a player is injured during the Olympics, his team will subsequently be severely harmed.  The same point is well taken from owners, who believe that if a player of Alexander Ovechkin’s caliber were injured, arguably, the chances of the Washington Capitals competing at the same level would be decreased for the length of any injury.

Commissioner Bettman’s arguments regarding burdens on the schedule and the fans are also valid from the same self-serving perspective.  It is true that scheduling a two-week break in the middle of an 82-game schedule does make for tricky planning.  Teams must play compressed schedules and one team, the Vancouver Canucks, were forced into a 14-game road trip due to the Olympics taking place on their home ice.  This surely results in empty arenas and no money brought in for NHL events during this time.  Further, despite being several years removed from the NHL lockout of 2004-2005, new fans are only now beginning to tune into weekly national broadcasts.  Thus, from the NHL leadership’s perspective, the Olympics are a large risk.

Potential Answers

One potential way to ease the strain on players is to consider what can be done in individual player contracts.  As mentioned here on SAB last August [The Cost of Representing Your Country], players raised fears that if they were injured at Olympic training camps their teams would not insure them —and rightfully so, as some clubs have clauses protecting themselves against this liability.  If a player wants to participate on his country’s behalf, why not base it on an individual level.  Teams could take a strong stand in the upcoming CBA discussions that if a player wants to play in the Olympics, he must contractually agree to give up certain money and release the team of liability if an injury occurs during that period.  From the NHL leadership standpoint, this will shift the burden to the players, who will be forced to choose between financial gain and representing their country.  Such an idea could lead to discontent, but it might at least serve as a starting point in negotiations.

Aside from contractual arrangements, one answer that should not be considered is non-participation by the NHL.  Such a decision would substantially harm the already fragile public persona of the NHL in the United States.  Non-participation would be harmful for several reasons.

  1. To counter Commissioner Bettman’s point regarding the little positive impact the NHL gains from the Olympics when the games are played outside North America, participation arguably boosts NHL notoriety outside of North America.  The NHL already participates in its own regular-season games outside of North America and has plans to continue these games to open several upcoming seasons.  If Commissioner Bettman truly believes that the NHL gains little by permitting its players to play for their country rather than an NHL team in an international venue, he is sorely missing an opportunity for more league exposure.  Rather than a hindrance, participation surely gains fans that want to see how certain players are doing prior to and after Olympic play.  While from an immediate revenue perspective, Commissioner Bettman may not see gains in the NHL coffers.  However, in all likelihood, it will result in the same or more revenue from the current NHL games taking place abroad in the long run.
  2. Not permitting players to participate could result in resentment between players and the league.  Several high-profile players have already made it publicly known that they intend to participate in the 2014 Sochi games regardless of being given permission.  This includes the current face of the NHL, the wildly popular Russian-born Ovechkin.  If several high-profile players pack their bags for two weeks to play in the Olympics, leaving teams to find alternatives in their absence, the NHL will suffer more than if the league as a whole shuts down.  Down the road, a non-participation scenario could lead players considering the NHL to consider instead playing in leagues such as the KHL, whom permits Olympic participation.
  3. The most important reason that non-participation is not the answer is the effect it will have on the United States level of Olympic play.  Currently, the entire U.S. squad is made up of NHL players.  The same can be said for Canada.  However, several other countries are able to put together very strong teams with experienced non-NHL players because leagues other than the NHL permit Olympic participation.  While Canada may be able to field a team of non-NHL players and remain as competitive as they are currently, the U.S. does not have that same luxury.

In all likelihood, if the NHL does not participate, players will come from the collegiate ranks.  While the likes of the “Miracle on Ice” roster did come from the NCAA, the level of competition in international play has changed drastically since that point in time.  Putting even the top Division I players up against experienced former NHLers playing in the KHL would result in a less competitive U.S. team.  This is nothing against the players that might be chosen, but outside of competition in the NCAA, many of these players will have little experience against the faster, stronger, and seasoned veterans from other countries.

While non-participation by the NHL in the Olympics may result in parity for certain countries, it would not continue the strong play of the United States.  Some may argue that non-NHL players would be hungrier or more determined— this remains to be seen.  Regardless of where others stand on this topic, whether the NHL will permit its players to participate will certainly be a point of negotiation for both sides at the expiration of the current CBA.

What are your thoughts?  Is continued participation in the Olympics beneficial to the NHL?