Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk of SKA Saint Petersburg

They all play for the National Hockey League (NHL) and in April, 2017, NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman ended any sliver of hope by stating unequivocally:

 …in an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games. We now consider the matter officially closed.

The NHL, in the end, did not want to take the 17-day break required in the NHL schedule, during a period when the American football and baseball leagues have no games on the schedule. Thus, the break would take revenue out of the franchise owners’ pockets. Despite the passionate player interest in playing for their nations, as they had done since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and despite the IOC funding the travel and insurance costs of NHL players, we will not be seeing the very best ice hockey players from the NHL in PyeongChang in February, 2018.

So who will play, and who will win? National teams will look to universities, retired NHL players and members of their own ice hockey leagues, which are not going to suspend play for the Olympics. Chief among them is the Kontinental Hockey League, or the KHL.

Formed in 2008, the KHL is made up of teams from Belarus, China, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Russia and Slovakia, and is currently the second biggest professional ice hockey league after the NHL. So of all the national teams, Russia, via players in the KHL, will likely have the most NHL experience at the PyeongChang Winter Games. Based on this article from NBC Sports, here are some of the celebrated names who are in the KHL, and thus will likely play in the coming Olympic Games:

  • Pavel Datsyuk: two-time Stanley Cup champion, four-time Olympian, Russia’s team captain at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, 15-yer veteran of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, and currently member of the SKA Saint Petersburg club of the KHL, age 39
  • Ilya Kovalchuk: four-time Olympian for Russia, last played for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, and currently member of the SKA Saint Petersburg club of the KHL, age 34
  • Andrei Markov: three-time Olympian for Russia, and two-time all-star with the Montreal Canadiens, now playing for Akk Bars Kazan of the KHL, age 38
  • Slava Voynov: a two-time NHL All-Star from Russia, Stanley Cup Champion with the Los Angeles Kings and Sochi Olympian, now playing for the SKA Saint Petersburg in the KHL after pleading no contest to a charge of domestic violence, age 27
  • Max Talbot: a Canadian who played on the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburg Penguins and three other NHL teams for 12 years before moving to the Lokomotiv Yaroslavi club in the KHL, age 33
  • Ben Scrivens: a Canadian goalie who has over 140 games of NHL experience, and currently plays for the Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL, age 31

Does an edge go to the Russian ice hockey team in PyeongChang? Does age and experience go before youth and enthusiasm? Will we re-visit those days of yesteryear when college students in the West went up against professionals in Russia?

Without the NHL players, ice hockey at the Olympic Games could prove very exciting.

Andrei Markov

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Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed