NHL Casts Doubt on Sending Players to 2018 Olympics

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Fans of Olympic hockey had better enjoy it while it lasts. Next month’s Winter Games could be the last to include the sport’s most-elite players.

In interviews, National Hockey League officials said they see the Olympics largely as an irksome interruption of the regular season, one that offers little upside for their business. They said they may prefer to see their players skip the event after the 2014 Sochi Games.

The 2018 Winter Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which isn’t likely to hold the same appeal for NHL players that Sochi does, or that the 2010 Vancouver Games did. In both of those cases, there were many NHL players from those host nations who were eager to participate.

“Our experience with the Olympics has been a mixed bag—it’s not our tournament, we’re not in control of it, it’s at a time of the year that doesn’t work in our regular-season schedule,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “On the positive side, we recognize we’re on a world-wide stage.”

The International Olympic Committee couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.

Since NHL players started playing in the 1998 Nagano Games, the competition has drawn widespread acclaim for its skill level and intensity. Among the teams in Sochi will be six contenders filled with recognizable names: Canada (the defending gold medalist), the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. Canada’s team—announced on Tuesday—includes the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, the game’s biggest star. Russia and Sweden also announced their rosters on Tuesday, which contain more than three dozen NHL players.

But the NHL’s participation in the Olympics has always been something of a delicate flower. For pros to go, the league must suspend play for more than two weeks in the middle of the season—all while the NHL and its teams get neither revenue nor much marketing clout for the trouble. Hockey is the only major professional American sport that halts its regular season to send players to the Olympics. NBA players go to the Summer Games, but that occurs during the league’s off-season.

Instead of the Olympics, the league wants to bring back a World Cup of Hockey, which was held in 1996 and 2004. It would be an event the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association can control and profit from, and could be held at a time that doesn’t interrupt the regular season. The first would likely be in 2015—a year that has neither an Olympics nor a soccer World Cup, meaning the NHL wouldn’t have to compete with those events for advertisers, people familiar with the league’s thinking said.

Daly said any decision on the Olympics would be made in conjunction with the players’ union.

The union isn’t convinced the Olympic participation should end, said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr. “There are a whole bunch of players who want to play, and the ones who don’t like the break,” he said.

Fehr said the Olympics promotes hockey to a global audience. Asked if a world cup could to the same thing, he said, “Yes. But that doesn’t mean it has to be exclusively a world cup and no Olympics.”

Hockey’s exciting but largely forgotten pair of world cups succeeded the long-running Canada Cup, in existence from the mid-1970s until the early-’90s. Canada won the 2004 World Cup; the 1996 event was notable for a controversial near-high-stick goal by Canadian-native U.S. forward Brett Hull that led to the Americans’ triumph.

For a generation of players that grew up watching their predecessors play in the Olympics, reaching the Games has become a dream to rival the Stanley Cup.

“The players enjoy it, but also understand why the NHL doesn’t want it,” said Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel, who will play for the U.S. in Sochi. He said he has “no idea” whether a world cup could hold the same appeal to players.

Around 120 NHL players are expected to be on rosters for Sochi. Canada has 11 players back from 2010, including two of the NHL’s top three scorers—Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks.

Team USA so far has received more attention for talk off the ice than the players who will be on it. Calgary Flames president Brian Burke criticized Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan (who didn’t make the team) during an Olympic selection committee meeting, according to an ESPN.com story on the process. Burke, according to ESPN, said Ryan is “not intense. The word is not in his vocabulary.”

Team USA general manager David Poile apologized in a teleconference with reporters and said he thought the management team would have more control over what was published. Ryan, speaking to the Ottawa Sun, called Burke “gutless” and said he felt “degraded” by the comments. A Flames spokesman said Burke dealt with the matter internally and declined further comment on his behalf.

The NHL agreed to play in Sochi only after weeks of tough negotiations with the union and the IOC. In what has become an Olympic tradition, the NHL and IOC tussled over logistics, insurance coverage for players and rights to broadcast Olympic-related content. NHL officials fumed when, during the 2010 Vancouver Games, the league wasn’t allowed to air any part of a news conference that featured the league’s own commissioner, Gary Bettman, on NHL.com or the NHL Network. The NHL will get more material this year than in 2010 but still can’t air whatever it wants.

Bettman has publicly said he would prefer a world cup, and the league and players union agreed to revisit whether to participate in future Olympics based on their experience at Sochi.

“I know that the hockey aspect of the Olympics is important; our players quite enjoy it,” said John Davidson, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ president of hockey operations. “But the team has to come first. It only makes business sense for us to get something out of it.”

Corrections & Amplifications

A hockey world cup, under consideration by the NHL and NHLPA, would be controlled by the league and the players’ association and both organizations would profit. An earlier version of this article said only the NHL would control and profit from the event.

The Wall Street Journal

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