Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University
Something needs to be done about Olympic men's hockey. How do we prevent the narrow interests of the NHL from interfering with Olympic hockey in 2022? This is a problem that can be solved, but Parliament or courageous star players need to take action.
There is no question the best players wanted to play. Sidney Crosby said, "I'd love to be there," and Canada could have used him. Marc-Édouard Vlasic and Alex Ovechkin both came close to breaching their contracts to play. For many, playing Olympic hockey is a highlight of their careers, proof they will give their best for more than money.
"There's nothing like the Olympics," said Alexander Steen, who once played for Team Sweden. It is a chance to represent their nation, be part of something much larger and to join the ranks of the world's greatest athletes. Fans love the games and, for countries like Canada, fielding our very best at the Olympic is an important matter of national pride.
But this year, the National Hockey League, while blaming the International Olympic Committee, did severe damage to the Canadian, U.S. and Swedish teams, and hurt the overall level of Olympic competition. For the NHL, the question was simply: "What's in it for us?" The league announced that it could not see "the benefit" in Olympic hockey. Stressing injuries and costs, it gave no weight to what players and fans wanted, let alone the image of the game, national pride and the spirit of the Olympic games.
It was a miserly, small-minded decision, aptly labelled "crap" by Ottawa Senators player Erik Karlsson. Moreover, it was a decision darkened by the uncomfortable fact that the NHL is conflicted, as the promoter of a less successful championship, the World Cup of Hockey. For the NHL, the Olympics are now just an annoying competitor, meaning that hurting Olympic hockey was actually good for the NHL – even if it was bad for everyone else.
To hope the NHL will come to its senses is folly. They real question: Why do we let the NHL decide this at all?
It doesn't need to be this way. The premise that the NHL gets a veto on what its players do is hardly etched in stone. Consider that world soccer's rules are the opposite: teams are obliged to lend their players if summoned by a national team for an international tournament. The leagues may not like it, but there's no risk of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Soccer has figured out the better system. Here's how we can make it the rule for hockey.
First, the federal government or provincial powers could enact legislation – the "Let Canada Play Act," which would require any professional team to release a player if summoned by the national team, if he wants to play. The law would resemble those that require employers to release employees summoned for military duty, in the national interest. The teams would not like losing some of their best players during the Olympics, but life would go on.
Second, star players such as Crosby or Ovehckin could use their considerable bargaining power to negotiate an informal addition to the standard contract. They would clarify that the player, if requested by his national Olympic team, will be loaned if he wants to play (loan provisions are already in the contract). If the team won't promise a loan, the stars can find a team who does, and thereby create a race to the top.
Eventually, the right to play at the Olympics could become guaranteed in the next edition of the collective agreement between league and players. While it does seem wrong that players should have to bargain hard just to represent their countries, so it is. In a truly grand bargain, the IOC might be involved and hockey might be moved to the Summer Olympics.
There is no reason to allow the narrow interests of the league to interfere with the world's interest in true Olympic hockey. To wait for the NHL to change its mind misunderstands the problem when the owners now have little to gain and strong incentives to damage Olympic hockey in favour of their own product. The stars or the public need to take action if we want to restore the lost greatness of Olympic hockey.