On Saturday morning U.S. time, the U.S. Olympic hockey team faced off against the Russians on ice in Sochi. The match wasn’t quite the 1980 Miracle on Ice, but it wasn’t far off. Both sides left it all on the ice. The Americans and Russians battled to a thrilling 2-2 draw, kept a stalemate through the 5-minute overtime, and went to a dramatic shootout. The St. Louis Blues’ T.J. Oshie took most of the shots for the Americans, and scored the winning shot to end the game. USA 3-Russia 2. The victory set Team USA up to win their group, which they did, sending them straight to the quarterfinals. The Russians have had to win their final group game and an extra playoff match against Norway (which Russia won 4-0) to get to the knockout stage. For the remainder of the Sochi Olympics, and maybe for the rest of his life, Oshie will have a new nickname — T.J. Sochi.
Team USA took 25 players to the Sochi games, all of them National Hockey League players. Team Canada’s 25-man roster is plucked entirely from the NHL. Team Russia also hails mostly from the NHL — 16 of its 25-man roster ply their trade in the USA, with the rest coming from different professional leagues around the world. Pavel Datsyuk, arguably the best player in the Russian kit, is a forward for the Detroit Red Wings. Twenty-four of Sweden’s 25-man roster are NHL players, 16 of Finland’s player are NHL players, 17 of the Czech players, 14 of Slovakia’s, 8 of Switzerland’s…you get the idea. This year’s tournament wouldn’t be the same competition at all if NHL players were not representing their countries on the ice in Sochi.
Prior to 1998’s games in Nagano, Japan, the NHL did not participate and its players did not play in the Olympics. That’s part of what made Team USA’s 1980 gold medal victory in Lake Placid, NY, so special. The Americans fielded a team of amateurs to take on the pros from behind the Iron Curtain including the Soviet Union’s Big Red Machine, and America’s plucky amateurs shocked the world on home ice.
While the amateurs-versus-the-world storyline was romantic, the fact is, it did not showcase the best hockey players in the world. The NHL is the world’s top hockey league and its players sat the Olympics out until 1998. Since the Nagano games, Olympic hockey’s inclusion of professional players has turned its tournament into a kind of hockey World Cup, a competition that hockey has not held since 2004, but which never rose to the profile of either soccer’s World Cup or the Olympic competition.
Sochi might be the last time that NHL players are allowed to take part in the Olympics. While players and fans want NHL players playing for gold in Pyeongchang in 2018, participating in the Olympics means the NHL has to shut down for two weeks in the middle of its season. It’s hard to imagine another top league, say the NBA or England’s Premiere League, shutting operations down in the middle of a season every four years to see its players head off for a competition the league does not control or generate revenue from. For those leagues, the summer Olympics hit the calendar when they aren’t in competition anyway, as does the soccer World Cup, held this summer in Brazil. The soccer World Cup will disrupt U.S. Major League Soccer, but not any of the world’s other big leagues. Premiere League and other top soccer leagues do participate in multiple competitions during seasons, but they participate as clubs, not countries, and the clubs and leagues benefit from the prestige and revenue injections that the multi competition format brings. Breaks for international competition are also built into the schedule, and clubs and fans mostly sweat those breaks out, hoping that none of their multimillion dollar talent comes back from international friendlies and competitive games crocked with injury.
The NHL’s top brass are in Sochi for the Olympics, and they’re not saying whether the league will be there for the 2018 games.
“Yes, Rene would love for Don and I to say today that we are coming (to Pyeongchang), but he knows that’s not the case,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “This is the fifth time we have participated in the Olympic tournament – where we are in this process should not be a shock to anybody.” Bettman was referring to Don Fehr, chief of the NHL Players’ Association, and Rene Fasel, head of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Fasel wants NHL players to play in the Olympics into the future. Fehr represents the players’ union. He and Bettman have had a rough relationship for years. The league went through a long and destructive player lockout during the 2012 season. Three of the NHL’s four lockouts have occurred on Commissioner Bettman’s watch.
The NHL isn’t committed to a long-term relationship with the Olympics, and is reviving talk of a World Cup. While the NHL says the World Cup would not compete with the Olympics, that remains to be seen. If the World Cup benefits the league more than the Olympics does, it’s not difficult to see which competition the league would prioritize, even if most fans would prefer the Olympics. The owners and Bettman could opt for the competition that does not shut down the league in the midst of seasons, as the Olympics does, while the players, fans and international hockey would probably opt for the romance of Olympic gold. That’s certainly where Mr. Fasel’s heart is.
“The Olympic gold medal you cannot replace,” Fasel said as Commissioner Bettman looked on in Sochi. “Look at the faces here next Sunday when the players will get the gold medal. So different.” If the players wearing gold turn out to be Americans or Canadians, the NHL and its clubs benefit from the buzz and prestige of seeing 25 gold medals show up at arenas as the season resumes.
The NHL and NHLPA say they will have an answer for the 2018 Olympics within six months of the end of the Sochi games. But these are the same entities that brought hockey fans that lockout, which ran from September 15, 2012, all the way to January 6, 2013, and the 2004-05 lockout before that. They will eventually agree with each other on something. But it’s reasonable to expect things to take a while.