Players from the National Hockey League have landed in Sochi and have already begun practicing to prepare for the men’s ice hockey games, which begin on Wednesday. For many players, almost instant chemistry within the team needs to be built, as those who were once their rivals in a playoff race are now their allies in their quest for Olympic gold. But back in North America, a debate is brewing amongst the team owners, general managers and coaches that may cause these Winter Olympics games to be the last for NHL players.
The National Hockey League is debating whether or not to allow its players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The reasoning behind the debate is obvious: During the two weeks the Winter Olympics are being held, the NHL shuts down. No games are played and no revenue generated. Owners, general managers and coaches are also concerned about the health of their players, as the star players for many teams are sent overseas to play in games that have no effect on the organization’s chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
The New York Islanders recently refused to allow defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky to represent Slovakia in the Sochi Winter Olympics, citing health concerns. Last week, Visnovsky returned from a concussion that had caused him to miss the previous 46 games. Vancouver Canuck coach, John Tortorella, said he didn’t want their injured star winger, Henrik Sedin, to participate in the Olympic Games saying “I’m thinking about our hockey club.” Sedin eventually decided to drop off the Swedish roster. However, no one has been more vocal about the league’s participation in these games than the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, Ed Snider. He claims the Olympics are “not good for our league” and that “there’s no benefit to us whatsoever,” calling the whole thing “ridiculous.” If he had it his way, the Sochi Winter Olympics would be the last for NHL players.
In some ways, Snider is correct. The National Hockey League is the only league that sends its players to the Olympics and shuts a season down in the process. The National Basketball Association does allow their players to participate in the Summer Olympic games, but since the NBA season runs through the winter, there is no effect on the league’s season. But the Olympics can be considered good for the National Hockey League, in that it exposes the league’s best players to an international audience and puts them in the spotlight. Ryan Miller, U.S. Olympian and goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres, was a household name in 2010 after his stellar performance in the Vancouver Winter Olympics earned the United States the silver medal. And for hockey fans, the games played in the men’s ice hockey tournament are something that is worth a two-week break in the league’s schedule.
For the players, the debate comes down to this: Is the Stanley Cup more important than representing your country in the Olympics and playing for a gold medal? One could argue that the gold medal would be the more elusive accomplishment, only getting one chance every four years and that is only if their country decides to have the player on their roster at all. But hockey players grow up dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, not the Olympic gold, and while it is given out once a year as opposed to every four, the competition and grind of an NHL season is higher than that of the Olympics. The decision between the two is one of personal preference and, luckily for the players, one they have not yet had to make.
The 2018 Olympic games are a long time away; and, for now, the focus should be on the Sochi Winter Olympic Games for both the players and the NHL. But as the players step out onto the Russian ice for their first games Wednesday morning, they should enjoy every Olympic moment like it was their last. As the debate rages on over the next four years, it may very well be.
By Jonathan Gardner