Keith Strudler: Olympic Hockey And The NHL

Feb 14, 2018

Alex Ovechkin would rather be at the Olympics right now. Specifically, the NHL hockey veteran would rather be playing for his home nation of Russia in the Games – something he did in 2006, 2010, and 2014. Of course, he can’t do that for two reasons. One is somewhat technical. Namely, there is no Russian Olympic team in the Korean Games because of the IOC’s ruling on Russia’s longstanding drug program. So Ovechkin would actually be competing for the Olympic men’s hockey team from Russia. Which I suppose would probably suffice.

The second reason is more of an actual roadblock. Namely, his employer, the National Hockey League, did not allow its athletes to play in the Games. Which means that he and every other athlete in the world’s greatest hockey league would experience the Olympics like the rest of us – on television. Now to be fair, this doesn’t mean that professional athletes can’t play Olympic hockey. But they hail from lesser leagues, like the Russian KHL or the Swedish pro league. Others come from American minor leagues or even college teams. So think of this year’s Olympic hockey athletes kind of like understudies on Broadway. They’re really good and wear the same clothes and can be asked to do the exact same thing. But generally speaking, it’s a step down.

The NHL and the IOC historically had what could best be termed an uneasy alliance, even as pros from the North American league competed in the Games since 1998. There are many reasons for this discomfort, most notably that the NHL essentially had to take a three week break in the middle of its regular season, which caused all kinds of scheduling headaches and arguably a loss in momentum for both players and fans. Additionally, the Olympics made a grueling NHL season even more so for the athletes that competed – especially for those poised for a long playoff run. The NHL season is kind of like getting into a bar fight every other night. On ice. For like six months. So adding an additional two weeks of high stakes play is a bit risky – a risk absorbed in 2014 when several athletes were injured in Sochi. And let’s not forget, neither the league nor any of its players earn a dime for playing in the Games. And spare me the story about amateurism.

That said, the NHL has played nice with the IOC for largely one reason. It made good business sense. So even if the league didn’t earn any money directly, the Olympics served as a reliable way of selling their sport and their league to a North American and global audience. As the distant fourth major professional sport – and don’t forget that soccer is closing fast – the NHL needs currency, especially for the Southern half of the US that historically thinks of skating rinks as a place to take high school dates in the mall. In 1998, playing in the Olympics – while perhaps a bit of a hassle, was good for business. It was good for the Winter Games as well, who could finally get the same bounce the summer version got when the NBA stars arrived in 1992. But as an aggregate, I’d say the NHL needed the Olympics more than the other way around. Or as it was said on Seinfeld, the Olympics had hand.

That was then, and this is now. The NHL, five Olympics and two lockouts later, is fairly healthy. The Olympics, arguably, is less so. They’ve got financial issues, corruption, security risks, and a larger existential question of whether we still need it in the first place. So it’s not like the NHL needs the IOC to stay alive. In fact, it might be the other way around. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said as much when he asked the IOC to pay for their players’ insurance, travel, and accommodations – which, for the record, aren’t in the dorm styled Olympic Village, where all the common Olympic folk stay. That was about $20 million. The IOC said no. And that was that. So for a mere $20 million – out the multibillion dollar Olympic budget – the Olympics lost the NHL, and instead tries to convince us that they didn’t need them in the first place. Something about 1980 and the Miracle on Ice – which was a nice story, but only works with the assistance of an Iron Curtain. When 5% of the NHL hails from Russia and only 25% from the US – not so much.

That’s too bad for Olympic hockey fans, who’ve grown to appreciate the NHL in the Olympic tournament. It’s also too bad for Alex Ovechkin, who’d grown to appreciate it as well.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.