National pride: Canada’s men’s hockey team celebrate winning the Olympic gold in Sochi. *MCT photo
National pride: Canada’s men’s hockey team celebrate winning the Olympic gold in Sochi. *MCT photo

Now the Winter Olympics in Sochi has ended, the question on the minds of hockey fans is: have we seen the last of National Hockey League players in the Olympic Games?

Every four years hockey fans from across the globe are pumped to watch their favourite NHL player take the big ice. 

It’s a time when it doesn’t matter what city you play in but rather what nation you play for. To most hockey fans, it is the pinnacle of the Winter Olympics and certainly one of the most-watched events. 

While NHL players dream of the opportunity to represent their nation in the Olympics, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) are not as enthusiastic and could blow the whistle on NHL players participating in the Olympics. 

If they proceed, how would it affect hockey fans around the world? Would fans continue to flock around televisions and bars for every puck drop? Would it negatively impact the viewing numbers and tarnish the image of the NHL? 

During a recent press conference in Sochi, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr agreed the NHL is currently not committed to sending its players to South Korea for the 2018 Olympic Games. On the other hand, IIHF president Rene Fasel is determined to see NHL players continue to compete in the Olympics and declared: “There’s nothing like a gold medal in the life of an athlete. Nothing.”

The NHL began sending the league’s star players to the Olympics in 1998.  Players would join the roster of the respective motherlands and play for hockey supremacy. This was done in an effort to increase the profile of the NHL and ultimately grow the game’s popularity. 

But according to Bob Daly, the NHL Deputy Commissioner, the league is “much more visible on the worldwide stage so we are at a different stage in our evolution and development than we were in 1998”. 

Daly went on to cite “logistics of travel”, “player insurance” and “loss of revenue” as the main uncertainties surrounding NHL players in the Olympics.

As hockey fans, we can appreciate the reservations by the NHL on logistics and the loss of revenue. In fact the NHL has no share in the profits Olympic hockey generates. We can also recognize their reasoning on injury to players, especially those players on NHL teams in playoff contention. But what is hard to comprehend is their egotistical belief that they no longer need the support of the Olympics to raise their profile. 

If the NHL is under the presumption they have reached the summit of popularity, why do they continuously feel the need to exploit the game of hockey with events such as the Heritage Classic, Winter Classic and the Stadium Series, or the (potential) reintroduction of the World Cup of Hockey? Wait, World Cup of Hockey? Isn’t that the Olympics? 

Empty seats

Why are there numerous empty seats in arenas across the United States? Why are teams outside a strong hockey market declaring bankruptcy? Why is it many ‘fans’ didn’t even realize there was a lockout and this is an abbreviated season?

Is Gary Bettman taking these critical components into consideration or is his threat to withdraw players from the Olympics one of his manipulative tactics to force the IIHF into giving the NHL more control and compensation? 

Whatever the rationale, it appears the future of NHL stars playing in the Olympic Games is skating on thin ice. If Bettman and the NHLPA move forward with the extraction from South Korea and beyond, it will feel like a huge body check on the fans, the players and the IIHF. Nevertheless, we must continue to support our men’s Olympic hockey teams. 

We may not recognize all the names on their jerseys but that certainly didn’t prevent us from cheering loud and proud for our women’s Olympic hockey teams! 

Follow Bobbi Singh on  Twitter @sportschickca.