The National Hockey League used to pause its regular season to allow its players compete for Olympic medals, bringing the world’s best players to ice hockey’s biggest international stage. It was a long-sighted decision made in the ‘90s that strengthened the ice hockey movement and the NHL itself.
And it is an era that now looks to be headed for an end, as the Olympics go to Asia for PyeongChang 2018 without the NHL player participating.
While interrupting the season in February every four years may indeed not give the NHL owners immediate, tangible financial benefits, the decision to be part of the Olympics with the international ice hockey community gave the NHL much more than that.
During the past 19 years the NHL has changed a lot. The game was made more attractive with rule changes on both sides of the Atlantic. The growing number of NHL franchises and their scouts started searching for different types of players, with an eye for skill over strength. They found these players, to a bigger extent than in the past, outside of their traditional recruitment markets in North America.
In 1996/1997, the last season before Nagano 1998, five out of the best 20 scorers in the NHL were from Europe. Fast forward to the current season and it’s nine out of 20.
In 1996/1997 only one of the top-ten goalies and two of the top-20 in save percentage were from Europe. The leader in this statistic at the time, Dominik Hasek, was also the Czechs’ hero in the Olympic win in Nagano 1998. This season Russia’s Sergei Bobrovski leads in save percentage, and nine of the top-20 goalies in save percentage who have appeared in 20 or more games were developed in Europe.
But the change can not only be measured in the quantity of NHL stars. Countries like the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden were represented in the NHL before even though the numbers changed. What is more important is that the NHL player pool has also increased in terms of opening up new countries, or markets, and made it possible for the NHL to grow its numbers of teams without watering down the level of play in the long term.
In 2000 David Aebischer became the first Swiss to permanently make an NHL team with the Colorado Avalanche. Since then 35 other Swiss players have appeared in NHL games.
One year later Reinhard Divis became the first Austrian to play an NHL game. Six Austrians including Thomas Vanek have followed.
In 2006 Frans Nielsen became the first Danish NHL player after Denmark managed to get back to the top-level IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship after decades spent competing in the lower tiers. The country stayed there and ten other Danes followed after Nielsen. Lars Eller, Mikkel Boedker, Nicklas Jensen and Nikolaj Ehlers even became first-round draft picks.
In the same year Slovenian player Anze Kopitar began his career with a bang in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, creating a dream for other young Slovenian players attempting to reach the NHL including one who played there during three seasons, Jan Mursak.
In the past three seasons Borna Rendulic played games in the NHL as the first player who started to play hockey in Croatia.
Even a player developed in Asia managed to play a couple of NHL games in 2006/2007, Japanese goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji for the Los Angeles Kings.
That’s players from six new countries in the past 19 years who wrote NHL history after Nagano 1998. Add to that players drafted from countries like Australia, Belgium, China, Italy and the Netherlands during the last decade.
Do all these matter? It would seem so. The NHL decided for the revived World Cup of Hockey to create a Team Europe with players from the so-called smaller markets outside of the biggest six hockey countries. This multi-cultural underdog team managed to beat the top nations USA, Czech Republic and Sweden en route to the final where they were eventually stopped by Canada.
It can be argued therefore that the biggest value the NHL got from the Olympics and from better player development in international ice hockey is more players from more markets, more platforms to see players from European leagues compete against NHLers, more skill in its league and consequently more attractive games with all their positive financial effects. The value of all this cannot be found in the accounts of the leagues or clubs, it’s priceless.
The current NHL players and future players are the biggest asset for the NHL teams to create an attractive competition and attract fans. The NHL’s decision, against the will of its players, of not using the immense international spotlight of the Olympic Winter Games to find new fans and help develop future players for the sport of ice hockey can hurt the clubs themselves in the long run.
Of course the Olympics will continue to exist and there will be exciting Olympic ice hockey tournaments as players from 13 countries will compete for medals in Korea. The “Miracle on Ice” was created without NHL players and remains the top hockey if not sport story in the United States, the NHL’s biggest market. Fans in North America will watch their countries play for Olympic medals in ice hockey and other sports on CBC and NBC while NHL franchises will have to battle for fans and media attention despite the Olympics going on.
USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean announced last night that thanks to their grassroots efforts over the course of many years it fully expects to field a team that will play for a medal. Hockey Canada has already tested players from leagues like the AHL, KHL, SHL, NLA or DEL at events such as the Deutschland Cup and Spengler Cup this season to get an idea of what a “Plan B” could look like and expects to win a medal as it did in Albertville 1992 and Lillehammer 1994 without NHL participation.
Players who have announced that they will play at the Olympics no matter what, as Alexander Ovechkin repeatedly did, may create a controversial situation for their team, owner and league as the biggest winter sport event lures while the NHL is going on. It could also be argued that developing players from North America and Europe may think twice about whether to sign a two-way contract in the NHL for next season, or getting a similar salary in a European league plus the lifetime opportunity of representing their country at the biggest stage for an athlete: the Olympic Games.
The PyeongChang Olympics will compel people to watch ice hockey that may normally not do so or may not have the opportunity both in old markets and newer ones from China to Brazil, from Australia to India. And they will get excited as they see the magic of the fastest team sport on earth even if they will follow players from leagues other than the NHL and get to know club names like SKA St. Petersburg or Frolunda Gothenburg rather than the Toronto Maple Leafs or the new Vegas Golden Knights.
Enlarging the talent pool is an inexact science, but nevertheless the NHL could help by seizing this opportunity, one that comes only once every four years, and have its best stars continue to inspire sport fans and future players as the Olympics go to Korea and eventually to China. For now, it would be a missed chance for those deciding to stay out, and for hockey as a whole.