Hockey is arguably the most popular sport in the Winter Olympics, in large part due to the NHL stars that are found on almost every nation’s roster. Don’t be surprised if the ratings drop in 2018, as the National Hockey League has announced that it will not be participating in South Korea next February. Many hockey fans will not find it surprising, considering the Olympics fall smack dab in the middle of the NHL regular season.
For baby boomers, this is nothing new. Professional athletes were not allowed to compete in the Olympics until the International Olympic Committee approved it in 1987. Even then, it wasn’t until 1998 that the NHL allowed its athletes to participate. Two of the most memorable Olympic moments circulate around this monumental ruling. First, the miraculous 1980 U.S. Hockey team, full of amateur college kids, provided one of the most exciting tournament runs of all time without the help of professional players. On the other hand, the 1992 U.S. Basketball team, widely considered the greatest team ever assembled, consisted of 11 NBA Hall-of-Famers that ran through their competition with ease.
Most people think about the recent domination of the U.S. Olympic Basketball teams and wish that the Olympics would go back to only allowing amateur athletes compete in order to restore international parity within the sport. While I agree that basketball is extremely unbalanced, considering the overwhelming majority of the NBA is American, it is not the same with the NHL. Hockey is a widespread international sport that translates across continents. In fact, the majority of NHL players are not even American, they’re Canadian. Nevertheless, the NHL had been carving out time for Olympic participation every four years for quite some time. It was an inconvenience for the league, but the players wanted to represent their countries on the highest stage of international competition, so the NHL obliged.
Now, after a run of epic Canada-USA championship games in the Olympics over the last decade, the NHL has closed the door on negotiations that would allow its players to compete in South Korea. It will be a little weird not seeing Sidney Crosby skating for Team Canada or Alexander Ovechkin representing Russia, not to mention the Olympics will need to directly compete with the NHL for ratings, something they have not had to do in almost two decades. It remains unclear whether NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will allow his players to play in 2022 and beyond.