The NHL’s rash decision to skip the Olympics accelerates ice hockey’s decline

Show caption Sidney Crosby of Canada celebrates after scoring during the Olympic gold medal game at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Photograph: Martin Rose/Getty Images The NHL’s rash decision to skip the Olympics accelerates ice hockey’s decline Beau Dure Hockey’s place in an increasingly crowded sports landscape is far from guaranteed, which makes the decision by the NHL and its players’ union to pull out of the Olympics short-sighted Wed 22 Dec 2021 15.29 GMT Share on Facebook

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Do you believe in miracles?

The NHL and its players’ union apparently do not. They’ve decided to take away the opportunity to put their sport on a grand stage, taking the rash, short-sighted decision to keep their players home while lower-tier journeymen and youngsters skate for Olympic gold in Beijing.

The decision, formalized on Wednesday, was made because of Covid-19 concerns, specifically:

1 The NHL has already postponed many games due to the recent surge in numbers, and they now see the Olympic fortnight as a window in which those games can be played.

2 Beijing’s quarantine rules may be stricter than they like, keeping players out of the country and out of action longer than necessary.

The latter is a legitimate concern, but it’s one that can still be discussed with the IOC and Beijing organizers. The deadline for declaring whether NHL players would go to Beijing is 10 January. So why make the decision on 21 December?

The former is a misunderstanding of hockey’s place in the sports landscape. The NHL miscalculated in 2018, keeping players out of the Games – that time, to the consternation of the players’ association, which pointedly reminded the league of the opportunity it was missing:

“A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia. The NHL may believe it is penalizing the IOC or the players, or both, for not giving the owners some meaningful concessions in order to induce them to agree to go to Pyeongchang. Instead this impedes the growth of our great game by walking away from an opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide.”

Some sports are bigger than the Olympics. Tennis and golf have grand slams. Basketball has the NBA. Men’s soccer has the World Cup. (Women’s soccer does as well, but the World Cup and Olympics are roughly equivalent in the public eye in that case.)

Hockey is not one of these sports. In North America, it has a grand tradition and the coolest trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup. In the rest of the world, it has much less. The annual world championship runs during the Stanley Cup playoffs and therefore struggles to attract the best players. A “World Cup” in 2016 was a merely an NHL preseason gimmick.

It’s not that the NHL is in terrible shape. The league has expanded to Las Vegas and Seattle, and it has made lucrative long-term deals with ESPN and Turner Sports. But the low ratings for late games on TNT, the four-digit attendance figures in Buffalo and even a dip in attendance in hockey-obsessed Canada are stark reminders that hockey’s place in an increasingly crowded sports landscape is far from guaranteed.

The NHL has long been considered one of the ‘“Big Four” US sports leagues. Today, the Premier League and other soccer broadcasts compete quite comfortably with the NHL for ratings. Major League Soccer’s average attendance is higher, though the venues are larger and weeknight games are rare. Women’s basketball and soccer are surging. Factor in MMA and all of the other sports, even cornhole, fracturing the viewing audience, and the “Big Four” could easily become a “Big Three and a Half” or even a “Big Three and Everything Else.”

So the NHL can ill afford to squander good will. And yet it’s doing so.

NHL leaders are forgetting Olympic hockey’s rich history. The Miracle on Ice, in which a ragtag bunch of US amateurs beat the mighty Soviet Union team in 1980, captured the public’s attention and spawned a major movie. The stakes are so high that Russian fans protested in Moscow after a controversial call helped the US beat Russia in a lengthy penalty shootout. And that was in the preliminary round, with no medals at stake.

Team USA celebrates the Miracle on Ice after defeating the USSR in the 1980 Olympic semi-finals. Photograph: Steve Powell/Getty Images

And the players jump at the opportunity. Olympic basketball teams don’t always draw the best NBA players for a variety of reasons, but Olympic hockey from 1998 to 2014 has been a glittering showcase of the world’s top players. Do we really want to see perennial All-Stars like Seth Jones go through their peak years without having a chance to play in the Games?

It’s also a treat for viewers to see hockey on a larger rink, giving skilled players more room to operate. The game is faster and sharper. Viewers don’t seem to miss the fights that are still a part of the game in the NHL.

Viewers also respond to rivalries, an aspect of the game the NHL cherishes. Any game featuring any two out of Canada, Russia and the US is must-see TV. A February game between the Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings is not.

To get a sense of what the NHL is throwing away, consider the 2010 gold medal showdown between host Canada and the US. Zach Parise scored with 24 seconds to give the US a tie, only to see Canada’s favorite son, Sidney Crosby, net the winner in overtime.

That game drew 27.6m viewers in the US alone. In Canada, roughly half of the population watched.

This event wasn’t just a North American phenomenon. Check this video of broadcasts all over the world capturing the drama of Crosby’s winner.

Would anyone want to deny players the opportunity to play in such a game?

Would anyone want to deny viewers the opportunity to watch such a game?

Would anyone want to deny their own sport the opportunity to reach a global audience?

Wouldn’t any sports executive move heaven and earth to make sure this opportunity exists?

The window might eventually close on its own, given the unpredictable path Covid-19 is taking. But the smart course of action was clearly to keep that window pried open as long as possible rather than slamming it shut so soon.