NHL Players Exempt from 2018 Olympics
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People watch the Olympics every four years to discover new stories, but also to see familiar faces. While hockey has tried to create those new stories, the only thing the viewers really care about are the familiar faces that are missing from 23rd Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Those who tune in to watch Olympic hockey are either the atypical, borderline obsessed, hockey fan who knows all about the shot percentage of the ninth best prospect in Slovenia, or the fan who knows that hockey is popular, and would rather check it out over the biathlon. Then comes the typical hockey fan: the one who watches the NHL, who make up a good majority of Olympic hockey viewers. They want to see Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the biggest stars the NHL has to offer. However, those superstars, along with roughly 750 of the world’s best hockey professionals aren’t present at these winter games. In an article from April 2017, Nicholas Cotsonika of NHL.com noted that the NHL made the decision to remove its players from Olympic competition after “no meaningful dialogue [on the issue] materialized” between the Players’ Association, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Ice Hockey Federation. The league’s officials ultimately felt that "The ultimate impact it had on the game worldwide was negligible," according to the commissioner, Gary Bettman.
The decision to nix the NHL from Olympic competition was implemented by April of 2017. Fans wouldn’t see potential re-creations of T.J. Oshie’s epic shootout goal that sealed an American win over Russia… IN Russia. For the NHL, the benefits that viewers may get from watching their favorite players play against Kazakhstan aren’t important. Those favorite players are still in uniform, suiting up and showing up every night for games that NHL officials know really matter. This Olympic issue isn’t in the league to fix. The NHL got what they wanted: a season that continues, with its only interruption coming at the brief All-Star intermission, rather than a large chunk of February where their best players fly overseas. Not to mention, an event where a history of major injuries to big-name players is apparent. The benefits for the league are nonexistent, minimal at best.
The next negotiation has to come from the IOC, and the argument has to be well-thought out. You could say that the IOC has to make them an offer they can’t refuse. There’s no telling how long the NHL could sit out of the Olympics, but as long as they do, the event that people used to long to see with continue to slip. Arenas will continue to fill up to just about half of their total capacity. The level of competition will continue to plummet. Viewers will continue to flip their channel, electing to watch reruns of “That ‘70s Show” over the Olympics, a program that NBC has been pushing since its last installment came to a close four years ago. Having watched a good portion of the Olympic hockey events, I couldn’t tell you one name that stuck with me, nor made any discernible impression on me. If you find someone that can, I’d love to chat with them and pick their hockey brain.
It has become startlingly clear that hockey has lost the Olympic edge it once had. The competition once mirrored that of a Stanley Cup matchup, and the viewership was nearly its equal. As we creep closer to matches that will determine who gets the medal around their neck, maybe popularity will resurface, and maybe people will care enough to tune in. Until the numbers reflect the hopes of the IOC, hockey will continue to be the Olympics’ (and NBC’s) main liability.