Every four years, the best of the best in the National Hockey League (NHL) face a dilemma: Support their country in the Winter Olympics and risk an injury that could sideline them for the final stages of the NHL season, or be safe and not participate. It is inherently unfair to have NHL players make such a choice. Currently the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) are in negotiations to establish an international schedule for competition that will work around the NHL season.
Every athlete wants to participate on the Olympic stage, but when it affects the professional season, as it does in hockey, an alternative is necessary. One idea bouncing around the hockey world is to have an international hockey World Cup that works around the rigors of the NHL season. In fact, The NHL has already announced that it will not commit to any Olympics past Sochi and that the NHL and NHLPA are in favor of negotiations to make a uniform international calendar.
The notion of a Hockey World Cup is very simple. Rather than the NHL pledge its support to the Olympics every four years, it would instead encourage its players to partake in a new Hockey World Cup. This would not disrupt the flow of the NHL season and decrease the likelihood of sustaining injuries during the tournament affecting the NHL season. This would allow players to represent their country while still maintaining their health for the following professional season. The NHL is the pinnacle of any hockey player’s career and to risk their professional careers in an amateur tournament is not fair to the players.
A less recognized advantage of holding a Hockey World Cup would be the guarantee that hockey would be brought to places where it is truly valued. To put this simply, the 2018 Winter Olympics are scheduled for Pyeongchang South Korea: South Korea is not a particularly hockey savvy country, nor is Turin, Italy (2006) nor Nagano, Japan (1998).
Another aspect of this issue is the owners of the individual NHL teams. Currently, NHL teams have to sign over their most valuable assets, their players, to the national team for them to participate in the Olympics. In a purely economic sense, this is wildly inefficient for the owners of the teams, considering that it is very possible that a player will be injured in any given game due to the physicality of hockey.
Beyond just affecting the owners of teams and the top players, the Olympics forces the entire league to shut down for almost three weeks. Such a break can do a variety of things to teams, especially those in the playoff hunt or on the verge of losing a spot. No other professional sport has as long of a break in the middle of the season and it often has noticeable effects on teams’ performances. The break effectively rids a team of any momentum from a winning or losing streak, creating a different atmosphere in the league when play recommences.
This year’s Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers are both subpar teams that don’t have many players competing in the Olympics. It’s very possible that both of these teams will perform above their current standard for the first few weeks after the Olympic break because more of their players will be well rested. Another example is the San Jose Sharks, who, on account of having several players participate in the Olympics, can benefit from a long break due to both injuries to star players and a recent struggle in scoring. A break will not only allow these teams to regroup and rest up for the second half of their seasons, but it also has the potential to greatly affect the sport’s atmosphere when the NHL season resumes.
Overall, the Olympics, though an honor to participate in, are not right for the NHL due to the demands on players, coaches and the league. The alternative, a Hockey World Cup, would fix this issue by working with the NHL and the players to ensure a time for international competition that would not adversely affect anyone.