On February 8, 2020, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman tweeted: “The [International Olympic Committee] and [International Ice Hockey Federation] showed a willingness. . . Tackle NHL issues to get players to compete in the 2022 Olympics. “This is a significant change in the NHL’s previous anti-Olympic stance.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea marked the first time in 20 years that NHL players were absent. The players were mostly for the 2018 games; However, the NHL disagreed with the idea, citing the risk of player injury, the lack of business value and the disruption to the NHL’s regular season. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has even described the Olympics as “incredibly disruptive”. In addition, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly recently stated that participation in the Olympics would involve negotiations on the league’s next collective agreement, suggesting that the NHL would not be eligible for the 2020 Games. The NHL Players Association strongly disagreed, arguing that the current CBA covered the game through the 2022 Games.
The factors in favor of the NHL’s participation in the 2022 Games have not changed. NHL players are passionate about attending the Olympics. With just over 30 percent of league players coming from outside North America, these international players have grown up and idolized players who have competed in international competitions such as the Olympics, World Championships, and other International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) competitions. For many international players – and some North American players – it is therefore an athlete’s greatest honor to represent their country in the Olympics. Some even believe that representing their country and winning a medal is more important than winning a Stanley Cup.
However, some of the recent developments could encourage NHL players to participate in the 2022 Games. First, the 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, China. The NHL has made an effort to increase the audience. Most recently, Alex Ovechkin was sent to Beijing as the NHL’s international ambassador to host youth hockey clinics, a media tour, and various business development meetings. Second, Friedman reports that the International Olympic Committee and IIHF are open to making concessions to the NHL on insurance and travel expenses and allowing the NHL to promote the Olympic Games on their own platforms.
However, factors weighing on participation have not changed and are likely to be unsolvable. First, the Winter Olympics disrupt the NHL regular season for at least two weeks, in the middle of the season, while many teams either battle for a playoff position or rest their star players for a long playoff run. Second, many of the marquee players in the NHL are always at risk of injury. The most notable example came at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, when then-New York Islanders captain John Tavares suffered a gruesome injury at the end of the season. At the time, the islanders were 12 points away from a playoff spot and faced a tough battle for the NHL playoffs without Tavares. Florida Panthers strikers Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky, New York Rangers striker Mats Zuccarello, and Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg were also injured in the 2014 Games.
Regardless of the NHL’s decision to play the 2022 Games, it is clear that the men’s ice hockey competition without NHL players is suffering. At the 2018 games, the men’s ice hockey final fell by 76 percent compared to 2014 and the number of spectators by 71 percent and from 2010 in both measures by a remarkable 96 percent. The 2018 Games were instead dominated by the women’s ice hockey competition.