Around these parts, an opportunity to shit all over anything the league, or particularly Gary Bettman, says or does for regarding anything surrounding the overall trajectory or vision of the NHL at a large is rarely missed. And though there was a great deal of public “outrage” over his words when he stated “assume we’re not going” as the NHL’s participation pertains to the 2018 PyeongChang South Korean Winter Olympics, this is ultimately the right decision for the league.
Most of the hew and cry has come on the front of their lack of participation not “growing” the league’s footprint as it relates to the other sports vying for a viewer’s attention, citing the ratings juggernaut that is NBC’s wall to wall Olympic Games coverage. But here’s the thing about that, for the last 20 years that the league has been participating in the games, since 1998, there has not been one tangible study that has linked the Olympics to any kind of quantifiable increase in Hockey Related Revenue (HRR), and therefore the salary cap to date. Because the people who watch the Olympics are just that- Fans Of The Olympics. It is an ephemeral audience, one that only watches for all of the built in pageantry (and corruption) that the Games provide. Once the games are over, the Casual Fan that the NHL has so coveted over the years leaves the games without taking an interest around what the Ottawa Senators are doing the next week once the league resumes play. Not to mention that the games are in East Asia this go around, and live events will be starting in the wee hours of the morning local time, where only the insomniacs, drunks and/or the unemployable will be up watching them live. In the instantaneous news cycle that the world now exists in, a taped delay broadcast is utterly pointless. The league has enough problems getting actual hockey fans to watch a Detroit/Buffalo matchup at 7PM eastern time on a fucking Wednesday night.
Add to the zero-gain situation, an absolute logistical nightmare exists wherein the entire league halts business for two and a half weeks, leaving its rank-and-file to their own devices while many stars and important players fly literally around the world to take an unnecessary injury risk for free. And while basically all the players are willing to risk life and limb for country, keep in mind that once again, these are grown men with an 8th grade education who have been brainwashed to put their hockey teammates before everything else. They have no concept of circadian rhythms or return on investment, where their employers back home have invested millions and millions of guaranteed dollars on players who are now not only putting themselves at unpaid risk for a singular catastrophic injury, but also piling up career miles in short single-elimination tournaments where coaches not beholden to long term goals can red-line players with ice time without much consequence- looking at you Mssrs. Toews and Keith. Of course the NHLPA will put up an absolute stink over this heading into the inevitable FOURTH lockout of the Bettman commissionership, but the league has tried to throw the players a bone with bringing back the World Cup. That event is much more reasonable given that it is NHL sanctioned on North American soil, on North American sized ice, which does not interfere with regular season play, and still affords everyone the opportunity to get turgid with jingoistic pride. It’s still an unnecessary injury risk, but so is training camp to a certain extent. And that’s what makes it a good compromise – neither side is completely thrilled about it.
But here’s the dirtiest secret about the Olympics, and why it won’t be missed as much as people think it will be – the actual on-ice hockey product completely sucks. Yes, there are stars abound on the Canadian, Russian, Swedish, and American rosters, but these teams are still coached by hockey coaches – the most conservative coaches of any of the major sports. And given the randomness of any given hockey game (look no further than last night’s Hawks result) and the propensity to “get goalied” in a short, single elimination tournament, and the risk aversion gets ramped up about a billion percent, and nearly every coach traps his ass off. Throw the wide ice into the mix, and the real creative ones (Babcock) incorporate a width-wise trap not just limited to the neutral zone, because shots from the boards are even further away from the net than in the NHL, and therefore even lower percentage. But aside from the wider ice, the neutral zone in international play is much bigger (18.4m vs 14.2m), which means much more distance and therefore more defensive landmines to navigate before ever realistically attempting to begin an offensive possession. And coupled with more stringent hitting rules in international play, it takes out the high-collision rate aspect that NHL play creates with its confined space. That confined space creates an urgency and more speed through all three zones, and plays made at top speed through high traffic areas are the most entertaining that the NHL has to offer. Last night’s impossible backhand goal from Sidney Crosby almost never would have happened in international play, because the puck would have been forced well to the outside well before the play had to develop. The 5-on-5 NHL product, for all of its flaws and for as much as it seems like their heads are up their asses at all times, is far and away the best “product” the sport has to offer, particularly in the playoffs.
So while there are plenty of reasons to bust the league’s balls for how they run their business (hard cap with no luxury tax, handling of concussions, coach’s challenge system, the locations of several franchises), taking a pass on the Olympics should not be one of them. Their search for the elusive “Casual Fan” has been fruitless for years, and the risk versus reward of going to the Olympics simply does not shake out to sound business sense. Plus the Olympic brand of hockey is only going help people get to sleep with how late the games are, and its a foregone conclusion that Canada will probably win again anyway, so naturally they are the most upset about this news, and anything that pisses off Canada is probably a good thing.