The NHL announced Monday that it will not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, refusing for the first time in 20 years to halt its season for three weeks so its stars can chase gold for their home countries.
From Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews to Connor McDavid and Henrik Lundqvist, the world's best players called playing in the Olympics important. The league decided otherwise.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly informed the NHL Players' Association that the matter was “officially closed” after weeks of speculation.
The NHLPA said in a statement that players are “extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL's shortsighted decision.”
The NHL had allowed its players to participate in the past five Olympics dating to 1998, giving the Winter Games pro-level star power akin to the NBA players who participate in the Summer Olympics.
NHL wanted concessions
The league said no meaningful dialogue had emerged in talks with the NHLPA, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation.
Even after the IIHF had agreed to pay for players' travel and insurance costs when the IOC refused, the NHL had been looking for more concessions that were believed to include marketing opportunities tied to the Games. The league wanted the matter resolved before the playoffs begin April 12.
“The league's efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself,” the NHLPA said.
“NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL's decision, and its alone.”
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who led Canada to consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, told The Associated Press in a text message he was “disappointed.”
Players immediately blasted the decision. Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, in Sochi under Babcock, called it “very disappointing” and said it was short-changing younger players who hadn't got to experience it before.
“Disappointing news, (the NHL) won't be part of the Olympics 2018. A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted,” tweeted Lundqvist, the New York Rangers goaltender who won the 2006 Olympic gold medal with Sweden.
“But most of all, disappointing for all the players that can't be part of the most special adventure in sports.”
Attempting to grow sport internationally?
Former NHL forward Brandon Prust, who's now playing in Germany, tweeted: “Way to ruin the sport of hockey even more Gary (hash)Olympics.”
“Good to see the NHL and Gary Bettman always looking out for the good of the game,” prominent agent Allan Walsh tweeted. “So much for that grand partnership with the players.”
The NHL and NHLPA teamed up on the return of the World Cup of Hockey last fall and had made strides on growing the sport internationally, including games in China and Sweden later this year.
The NHL has not ruled out participating in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, though the IIHF and IOC had indicated that could be conditional on the NHL going to South Korea. For now, the league is making its 2017-18 schedule without a break for the Olympics.
“We have previously made clear that, while the overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players, we were open to hearing from any of the other parties who might have an interest in the issue,” the NHL said.
“Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL's participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018. And the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs.”
The IOC and IIHF did not immediately respond to the NHL's decision.
Time difference a concern
The league has cited the 13-hour difference from Pyeongchang to the Eastern time zone as one of its concerns. There was a 13-hour difference to Nagano in 1998, six to Turin in 2006 and nine to Sochi in 2014. Team owners have long complained that stopping the NHL season every four years wasn't worth it and they have been wary of injuries to star players.
Still, many players expressed a strong desire to go, and Ovechkin has said he plans to go regardless of NHL participation.
“I think the players know it's very important for us to represent our countries,” the Washington Capitals star said last month. “Everybody wants to go there.”
Will players be allowed to play?
The NHL has not decided whether to allow teams to make decisions on a case-by-case basis about players participating in the 2018 Olympics.
“If Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby and Nick Backstrom tell us, ‘We want to go play for our country,’ how am I going to say no?” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in February. “I might get fined, I might get punished in some way, but I feel I'm in partnership with Nick and Braden and Alex.”
It was not immediately clear how the United States, Canada and other countries will fill Olympic rosters, though national federations have already begun planning for this possibility. Hockey Canada said Monday that the NHL's statement was not what it was hoping for but will not change Olympic preparation.
“We knew it was a very real possibility for many months and certainly respect the decision of the NHL,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said.
“The good news is that because of our grassroots efforts over the course of many years, our player pool is as deep as it has ever been and we fully expect to field a team that will play for a medal.”
Olympic hockey offers 'unique style of play'
NBC Sports, which televises both the Olympics and the NHL in the U.S., said it was “confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country.”
Months ago, the league offered the NHLPA a deal allowing Olympic participation in exchange for a three-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement.
Players turned that down . Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, who represented the United States in Sochi, said he didn't think players should give up anything to go in 2018.
“We're not going to give up something ridiculous,” Faulk said recently. “I'm sure they would take anything that's ridiculous for the Olympics. It's kind of like making a bad trade, and they would do it and we're not going to do it.”