A Solution to the NHL’s Olympic Problem

After the NHL ended nearly 20 years of Olympic participation at the 2018 PyeongChang games, they’re set to return to the 2022 games. At least for the time being.

The first COVID hiccup of the 2021-22 season has caused the Senators to postpone games and immediately set off alarm bells regarding the NHL’s ability to withdraw from the games should additional postponements occur. How this all proceeds depends on a whole lot of factors no one can predict. The current surge in COVID cases certainly doesn’t bode well for avoiding additional outbreaks and postponements. But there’s no way to know if and when exactly another outbreak could come.

This all puts a cloud of uncertainty around if players will ultimately play in Beijing as it sounds like the league is happy to find any excuse to avoid actual participation in the games. That’s disappointing for anyone who relishes the opportunity to watch the best-on-best tournament and savors the quadrennial event. Whether or not NHL players ultimately make the trip to China for the 22 games won’t be officially determined in January, but it seems likely that if another postponement or two occurs in November or December, the league would pull the plug.

Hopefully it doesn’t come to that and the league’s stars are able to represent their countries once again. A men’s tournament with NHL talent is the best possible outcome for the event and would ideally shed more light on the women’s tournament which will have Canada and the US on another gold medal collision course.

The issues with the NHL at the Olympics are well documented at this point. The league is not shy about advertising their position on the matter, though I can’t help but think their inability to capitalize on their participation has more to do with how they manage the event and less to do with shutting down for a period each Olympic cycle.

Make no mistake, the IOC has made this a difficult relationship to manage and the fact that the NHL still can’t use highlights from the Olympics to further promote the league is laughable and one of the biggest issues with the entire endeavor, in my opinion. There doesn’t appear to be any true solution as the NHL has been pretty heavy handed with their distaste for the agreement they reached with the players to return this coming February to Beijing and then to Milan Cortina in 2026. We know the players largely appreciate the ability to participate, though I suspect it’s possible that those who aren’t ever on the radar for Olympic participation are somewhat indifferent to the entire endeavor.

So how does the league solve this in the long term?

If the league’s leadership already bristles at the idea of disrupting play and the IOC won’t play ball on what they can do to improve the relationship, what is left? It seems to me that the simple and obvious answer has been sitting under the league’s nose all along. Reinstate the World Cup of Hockey and play it on a regular schedule.

The Canada Cup and World Cup schedules have never really functioned with any sort of real efficiency. (This is where you make a joke about the NHL’s management of, well, anything). The early scheduling seemed to resemble something akin to throwing darts on a board while blindfolded before and eight-year hiatus after the 1996 event. The 2004 World Cup, which was something of a snoozer, led to a 12-year layoff before the event’s triumphant return in 2016.

Exactly when another World Cup will occur is anyone’s guess. A 2020 edition was nixed due to CBA negotiations with hopes of pushing to 2021. Now maybe it will be in 2024, who knows. Why not reorganize the event, build a firm schedule that would see the tournament played on a regular basis and for the foreseeable future?

I think the late summer format of the 2016 event makes for an excellent lead-in to the regular season and offers the best opportunity to showcase the league’s stars without extending play deep into the offseason after the Stanley Cup Final or interrupting the regular season. If the stars align, the World Cup could become a premier showcase for the league’s best talent.

The league would need to expand the format a bit. It’s unlikely that we see the confluence of events and talent which necessitated forming teams North American and Europe. Expanding the field to incorporate more nations not only adds flavor to the event but opens the door for added growth in those hockey nations. Using the 12-team Olympic format creates opportunities for the likes of Switzerland and Germany to participate. And perhaps most importantly, it opens the doors for their young stars to play as well.

Keeping the control of this sort of best-on-best, international play in the hands of the NHL (and IIHF) doesn’t just allow for preferred scheduling but preferred venue selection as well. It’s easier to benefit from the Olympic hockey tournament when it’s in Salt Lake City or Vancouver. Ensuring that the NHL has control over what city or cities the event would be played in means better overall control of what TV audiences they will be in front of. The continued growth and influence of sports betting is another factor to consider here. Teams are adding areas to place bets in arenas and states continue to pass legislation on mobile sports betting. The influence of betting on the fan experience will only continue to grow. Would the NHL not prefer to be in the driver’s seat of an international event which would be a prime opportunity for betting on hockey?

One thing the NHL could build into this event would be qualifying windows similar to what is done by FIFA for World Cup qualifying. We’ve heard the NBA discuss some sort of in-season tournament and similar ideas have been floated for the NHL as well. Rather than trying to manufacture a tournament out of thin air, why not take the opportunity to create more best-on-best international games?

We know Canada loves the World Juniors and that has seeped into American hockey fandom. Capitalize on the demand for that style of play and build a few small international windows into the schedule. The games could be used as some sort of hybrid of pre-tournament seeding and qualifiers and since these windows wouldn’t be as involved as FIFA’s are, wouldn’t require multiple weeks of the NHL schedule to be eaten up. Meanwhile, you can capitalize on additional ticket sales in select markets and toss a few more games to your television partners along the way.

The injury risk will be a sticking point for people as dropping a competitive event ahead of the regular season will inherently increase the risk of one of the league’s stars getting banged up. But that’s a risk that exists already. Whether in training camp, offseason workouts or just about anywhere else.

The only sticking point I can think of is what sort of buy-in you’d get from the players. Is the added pageantry and history of Olympic participation more interesting to them than the World Cup of Hockey? Would being limited to mostly North American cities further devalue the event when compared to traveling to Milan or Beijing? If their end goal is to represent their country in international play, this should be no problem. If the fringe benefits that the Olympics offer come into play, perhaps the negotiations would be a bit more difficult.

The benefit in this case is securing an international tournament that the league has greater control on. Not only would this likely keep the players and fans happy, but the ticket, merchandise, concession and additional TV revenue will go to the league as opposed to the IOC, a key factor to remember. Add in the control over the venues and broadcast times and it’s hard to understand why the league hasn’t put more effort into keeping the World Cup running on a regular basis.

The cure to the NHL’s Olympic headache seems to be sitting right under their nose. It certainly can’t help them this season, but clearly a long-term option is needed. The only question left is why hasn’t the league and PA taken steps towards this solution? 

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