“Send the players!” – It’s the cry of many disgruntled fans across the NHL, and its one that many fans feel has gone unheeded, as PyeongChang 2018 proceeded without NHL participation. Now, in a take that runs the risk of aging very badly and very quickly, I suggest that the NHL will send players to the next Olympic games when they take place in Beijing in 2022.
As the September opt-out for the current Collective Bargaining Agreement looms, the NHL made a number of moves that point in the direction of Olympic participation. The NHL and NHLPA have both released statements regarding the cancellation of the 2020 World Cup of Hockey. It’s certainly possible that this was a pre-emptive decision to avoid an opt-out scenario and a potential lockout. It’s also feasible that the NHL sees the potential in forgoing the World Cup and the revenue it provides in favor of the Olympics in 2022.
In the event neither side triggers the opt-out clause come September, the current CBA expires after the 2021-22 season. It goes without saying that neither side wants a lockout. Also, Olympic participation could provide a much-needed shot of goodwill in negotiations.
The Case Against
One of the main arguments the league has against sending players to the Olympics is that the NHL receives no compensation for shipping its product offshore with nothing to gain. The IOC has not budged on this issue. There is no offer of shares of TV revenue, nor even a comprehensive insurance package for players. In a nutshell, NHL owners risk losing star players at the crucial midway point of the season (as happened in Sochi with John Tavares), without any compensation.
What Is the NHL Playing At?
What the NHL appears to be doing now, in courting China, is laying the groundwork to make gains on the back of the Olympic tournament. The NHL held multiple hockey clinics in the middle kingdom and have sent teams to the country for preseason games. All with the backing of O.R.G. Packaging CEO, Zhou Yunjie.
Continued exposure to the NHL feeds neatly into the desire of the Chinese public to see the best that the sport has to offer. If the NHL China experiment pays off, the Olympics will provide maximum exposure to a relatively untapped market. The NHL desperately wants a share of it. Particularly given how lucrative the foray into the country has been for the NBA. While the league needs to invest a more significant chunk of change into the development of hockey in China, the potential rewards it stands to reap are vast.
The KHL Factor
Of course, there are other ventures with their foot in the door already. Such as the KHL Kunlun Red Star, which as it stands, for now, is the organization with the most pull in the country. The presence of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in the incorporation of Kunlun into the KHL stood testament as to how seriously China is taking their development of the game.
As well as their top-flight namesake, the organization has a number of junior organizations around the country. Also until the league recently folded, a team in the CWHL. There are a number of NHL fingerprints on Kunlun. These include Phil Esposito, Mike Keenan and yes, even Wayne Gretzky. Named as the club’s global ambassador, he recently brought his hockey academy to Beijing and Shenzhen. All hands are on deck in efforts to prepare a Chinese men’s team that can offer a respectable competition. Ultimately to produce a star that can crack the draft board in the near future is their main goal. A prospect that may not be that far off, with players such as Rudi Ying starting to make an impact for Kunlun.
History (Shouldn’t) Repeat Itself
This is not the first attempt the NHL has made at wooing the Chinese market. That said it’s certainly a more robust effort than they made in the past. Plans are already afoot to open a league office in China and continue the program of preseason games. So, the league could play hardball with the PA and attempt to make use of the Olympics as leverage in negotiations. I’d count it as more likely that the league sees many advantages in using the tournament as a springboard to cement its status as an elite sport in China.
Featured image: Kyle Coey 2017.