Tuesday morning, the National Hockey League (NHL) commissioner, Gary Bettman, again stated the league’s decision on whether or not the league will send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea would come within the next six months. The National Hockey League Player’s Association (NHLPA) would like to continue to send players to these games. The owners of the league teams are undecided. Unfortunately for the Olympics, history says when the NHL owners and players clash, deadlines will not be met.
Bettman says he sees no reason why a decision could not come within that time frame, but admits that it is “a balancing act” between the NHL, the NHLPA, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). A very big reason why that decision might be delayed is the history between the NHL owners and the NHLPA. More specifically, the presence of the NHLPA’s executive director, Donald Fehr, could cause a myriad of problems. Recent history has not made him many friends within the owners of the league.
Twice in recent history, the NHL and the NHLPA have clashed over the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and both times, the league was forced to lockout the players from playing in games. The league lost the entire 04-05 season because of the CBA negotiations, which eventually led to a CBA that lasted until the 12-13 season. When 2012 came around, both sides agreed that negotiations for a new CBA needed to begin early to prevent another lockout. That did not happen. Both sides entered negotiations with the intention to punish the other for the last lockout, starting with outlandish proposals that heavily favored their position and refusing to budge an inch. The league cancelled 510 previously scheduled games before the two sides agreed to a new CBA.
To fans who have been around during both lockouts, this issue appears to have the same vibe surrounding it. Already, some team owners have made their positions clear about a staunch refusal to participate in the 2018 Olympic games. Owners, like Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, have argued that there is no benefit for the league and that the risk of injuries to the players participating in the games is too high, especially for key players on teams in the middle of a playoff race. Fehr, on the other hand, has advocated the continued presence of NHL players at the Olympics, but says the negotiations to achieve that goal will continue “at a rate the players are prepared to do it.” If history is any indication, that will take a while, likely well after the NHL’s Olympic deadline could be met.
The other organizations involved in the negotiation process, the IIHF and the IOC, have also weighed in on the topic. The president of the IIHF has said that the NHL’s participation in the South Korea Winter Olympics would be a chance for the league to explore the Asian market. However, the NHL and the NHLPA are also looking into the possibility of foregoing the Olympics in favor of the return of the World Cup of Hockey. The World Cup of Hockey was an event organized and run by the NHL and following the NHL rules, unlike the Olympics which are run and organized by the IIHF. Many of the same nations would participate, but the event would be held in the NHL’s offseason rather than interrupting the league’s regular season play.
Players, however, are already looking forward toward the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. American Olympian, Patrick Kane, has said all the players want to be a part of it and the NHL knows that. He continued by saying the Olympics are good for the sport and that there is “something special” about Olympic hockey. But while Kane prepares for the United States semifinals match, talk surrounds the NHL’s Olympic deadline six months from now, a deadline that history says, will not be met.
By Jonathan Gardner