The 2018 Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea, are less than one year away from starting (February 9th, 2018). However, they were dealt a bit of a blow on Monday as the NHL indicated its players would not be participating in the upcoming games. NHL players have participated in all Olympics since and including the 1998 ones held in Japan. The Canadians have won three of the five gold medals during this period, firmly establishing dominance. But the battle for the gold medal in ice hockey should be a little more open in the post-NHL period and far less subject to Canadian dominance. Arguably the best players in the secondary leagues worldwide will become the stars of the Olympic stage.
There were several reasons why the NHL never really liked Olympic years. Firstly, the games were just a nuisance when it came to the matter of scheduling. The long Olympic break created a dense schedule at other points in the NHL season. Secondly, there were always concerns over player injury or even just fatigue. The Olympic games are hotly contested by the best players in the world. During the games, teams always had to be worried about losing a star player.
But, looking ahead to 2018, it seems the main reason Gary Bettman doesn’t want NHL players in the Olympics simply has to do with the fact that participation in them in the past has not had a measurable impact on growing NHL interest worldwide. For Bettman, it comes down to business. Back on December 8th, we got a major hint that he wasn’t going to allow NHL players to go to South Korea. At that time he said that the “ultimate impact” Olympic participation had in growing the NHL was “negligible” (Bettman qtd. at NHL.com by Nicholas J. Cotsonika). Nicholas Cotsonika, a writer at NHL.com, commented on that matter on Monday:
“Hockey is not much different from…skiing or swimming. Die-hard fans love the sport the way they love it all the time. Casual fans get into it for a couple of weeks and then forget about it the week afterward.” (NHL.com)
A lot of people that watched Olympic hockey were Olympic fans and not hockey fans. When a medal is on the line, sports that might be meaningless to someone take heightened significance. I can personally relate to this as I pay absolutely no attention to doubles tennis, curling, or biathlon except for at the Olympics. The World Cup of Hockey is now where hockey fans will have to look to see who is the dominant country. On that matter, they’ll have to get rid of the young guns team and mixed-nations team in the future to make it a true World Cup.
With the NHL players not going to the 2018 Olympics, it’s Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czechs that might have the best players in the hunt for the gold medal now. As a case in point Ilya Kovalchuk, who had an 83-point season for New Jersey in 2011/12, finished 2nd in the Kontinental Hockey League‘s scoring race this recently completed regular season. He flirted with a 100-point NHL season back in 2005/06 as well, clearly marking himself as a major talent. He retired from the NHL and went home to Russia a few years back, but it’s not like he’s over the hill at the age of 33. If he didn’t like playing against NHL players, then he’ll have to love the 2018 Olympics now. He could skate circles around the pimple-faced teenagers that might end up on the Canadian and American rosters.
Unless the KHL follows the NHL’s lead, don’t be surprised if he leads the Russian national team to gold. Other players like him in non-NHL leagues, ones that could be in the NHL if they chose to, promise to dominant Pyeongchang. Some may be below the radar but keep in mind that Artemi Panarin was in the KHL two seasons ago. Furthermore, Czech player Jaromir Jagr spent some time there earlier this decade. If one picked through the leagues in Russia, Finland, and Sweden, I wouldn’t be surprised to find more than a dozen NHL-calibre players that aren’t subject to NHL contracts (i.e.,. they will be eligible for the Olympics).
Basically, I see the non-North American national teams as the beneficiaries of the NHL’s change in stance. Those are the countries that have some strong players in other leagues. Ice hockey at the Olympics won’t be about being the best of the best anymore, but rather the games will just be about being the best of the eligible.
Prediction: Russia wins gold with a team that basically looks like KHL All Stars.