The National Hockey League sitting out the 2018 Winter Olympics is something that had long looked both impossible and inevitable. Impossible, because the NHL never stops talking about "growing the game," and the worldwide audience for Olympic hockey is massive. Inevitable, because the NHL is a business, and there's not a lot of evidence that two-decades worth of the NHL interrupting its schedule for Olympic hockey had grown the NHL, or its bottom line.
Impossible, because far more Canadians will watch an Olympic gold-medal game featuring Canada than will watch the finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Inevitable, for the same reason.
On Monday, inevitable beat impossible.
The NHL, let's remember, is not a public service. It is not the keeper of hockey's soul; it's its seller. Hockey may be a religion in Canada, and Canadians may think of hockey as our game, but the NHL is neither a religion nor Canadian. Lots of people are saying the NHL taking a pass on the Olympics is bad for hockey. It's certainly bad for fans of transcendentally beautiful hockey games.
But the NHL is not in the business of seeking to stage the platonic ideal of hockey. The NHL's product is NHL hockey, and the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, rather than promoting NHL hockey, putting bums in the seats of NHL hockey games and increasing the wealth of NHL hockey team owners, appeared likely to do the opposite. That's why the NHL's refusal to get on board always looked to be inevitable – barring a financial compromise on the part of the International Olympic Committee.
But the idea of the IOC compromising financially with a competing sports league is also almost impossible to imagine. The Olympics are a huge business, far bigger than the NHL, and the business works because it doesn't pay its athletes, nor does it give a cut to the pro leagues supplying athletes. The NHL, which wanted to be compensated for interrupting its season and sending off its players (average NHL salary: close to $3-million U.S. a year), was asking the IOC to meddle with its golden, we-keep-all-the-gold formula.
Even without the best hockey players, a lot of the world will still watch the Olympic hockey tournament, and never realize that it's sub-par. After all, Americans can't stop talking about the "Miracle on Ice," despite the fact that the 1980 Olympic tournament, like all Olympic hockey contests prior to 1998, was a joke. Communist countries sent professionals who pretended to be amateurs, while everyone else sent boys too young or insufficiently skilled to play in the NHL.
The U.S. victory over the Soviets in 1980 was a fluke, like a novice winning one hand at an all-star poker tournament. But Americans still think it was one of the greatest sporting moments of all time. The Olympic brand is that powerful. And the IOC is betting that its brand matters more than the game's quality, because most of the people watching around the world wouldn't know Sidney Crosby from Bing Crosby.
The IOC is probably right. Between 1976 and 1991, the NHL staged five best-against-best tournaments, known as the Canada Cup. The hockey was superb, and Canadians were obsessed. But fans in the rest of the world – notably the giant U.S. market – could not have cared less. There was almost no American media coverage and few Americans, even actual hockey fans, saw any of these games.
The three-game final of the 1987 Canada Cup between Canada and the USSR, each game decided by a score of 6-5, may be the greatest hockey contest, ever. But since it didn't happen at the Olympics, almost nobody in the United States has ever heard of it.
But despite the power of the Olympic brand, for most of North America's biggest pro sports leagues, the Olympics are an afterthought – or less.
Football? It isn't in the Olympics. Soccer? For women, the Olympics are a best-on-best tournament, but for the men, team rosters are largely restricted to players under the age of 23. The real soccer championship is the World Cup, held every four summers in non-Olympic years.
Baseball? Major League Baseball repeatedly declined to interrupt its season to free up its players, turning Olympic baseball into such a joke that after 2008, the sport was removed from the Games program. It's being reinstated in 2020, but absent the kind of concessions the NHL was looking for, or more, MLB participation is doubtful.
The only big North American sports league that fully embraces the Olympics is the National Basketball Association. But for the NBA, sending its players to the five-ring circus is a no-brainer. The Summer Games happen during the off-season.
There are at least four possible ways to resolve the NHL-IOC conflict, and give fans – okay, Canadian fans – what they want.
Option 1: The NHL could cave in to the IOC. That might happen in Beijing, in 2022. Or China – like Russia in 2014 – may find a creative way to compensate the NHL for its participation, allowing everyone to save face.
Option 2: The NHL and MLB could try to form a common front, aiming to negotiate financial arrangements with the IOC. In any other business, this might stand a chance. But the IOC doesn't want to share its pie, and its business model could fall apart if it starts to. So I don't know why I even brought it up. Never mind.
Option 3: Take Olympic hockey back to its roots. Ice hockey made its first appearance at the Olympics in 1920 – at the Summer Games. The Summer Games are during the NHL's off-season, which would put the league in the same position as the NBA.
Option 4: Turn the World Cup of Hockey, basically the revived Canada Cup, into the hockey equivalent of soccer's World Cup. Problem? Last fall's World Cup of Hockey was a best-against-best contest, and the level of play was stratospheric. But fan interest outside of Canada was anemic.
Experience suggests that, beyond the Great White North, a top-quality battle for global supremacy staged without the Olympic brand won't be a hit, but a second-rate tournament with the Olympic logo slapped on it will. That's why, when the NHL decided against going to the Olympics, the IOC didn't bother changing the NHL's mind.