Why NHL players should have the power of choice

Photo by Blake Israel

Over the past two Winter Olympics, the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) have decided against sending its players to compete on the international stage. 

This decision has spoiled the chances of some big names such as Canadian Sidney Crosby, American Patrick Kane, Russian Alexander Ovechkin and Canadian Steven Stamkos, the latter never having an opportunity to play for the gold and probably never will. 

The reason that the NHL pulled their players from the 2022 Beijing Olympics is mainly due to COVID surges earlier in the season causing lots of games to be rescheduled. The NHL had planned for a three-week break in February to account for the all-star weekend, COVID-19 makeups and Olympics.

In September, the NHL, NHLPA and International Ice Hockey Federation agreed to send athletes to Beijing for the Olympics but retracted this decision in December following outbreaks that have delayed 104 games so far this season alone. 

During the three-week break, they made up 95 games thus proving it can be done in a brief period of time, while having little effect on the playoff schedule.

Although this is disappointing, it is understandable since they’re trying to end the regular season by the end of April. 

However, I think they could have rescheduled the games for the end of April like what they did last year in delaying playoffs to give players a chance to play at the Olympics, especially since the NHL did not allow players to compete in the 2018 Olympic games. 

Their excuse regarding the prohibition of NHL players for the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang involved the risk for injury of their top athletes as well as the cost to send them over.

The NHL’s concern over injury is, in my opinion, garbage. Their overdramatic point on injuries possibly affecting the outcome of the NHL season is utterly ridiculous. 

The NHL received well-deserved backlash about their decision from many players and the NHLPA. 

The capitalistic view of the NHL stems from clubs unwilling to forego lost revenues, and the league itself losing some revenue in an opportune time where only the NHL and NBA are ongoing.

This sentiment seems quite selfish to me, taking away the opportunities of players to compete for their country in the Olympics. Moreover, the exposure that the NHL gets from their elite players competing on a global stage could easily more than makeup for their lost revenue, where youth from around the world may spark new interest from watching. 

The NHL has held several games in Europe and Asia over their lengthy history, and more recently with their Global Series, so they should know how beneficial international settings are for revenue.

The NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is long known for controversy in his mishandling of several labor disputes resulting in three lockouts.

In January of this year, he proposed that ice hockey should be moved to the summer Olympics during the NHL’s offseason, and said he has been toying with this since the mid-90s; how comical is that! 

Bettman has little idea of how to manage the league effectively, the 2018 Olympics hiatus being just one of many examples. 

His inability to maintain the confidence of the NHLPA and its elite athletes is unacceptable, in addition to his disregard for the betterment of the league both locally and internationally.

Contract restrictions for players have given them little freedom or leverage in unfavorable situations like these, which I feel is unfair to them. 

Sure, they get paid millions but they are also foregoing their potentially only opportunity to play for gold just because the NHL had a silly little “dispute” over the cost of athletes. 

Many players expressed their dismay as well, highlighting their disappointment in the league’s decision and their missed opportunity to showcase their players on a global stage.

One benefit of holding back the NHL players is seeing younger players get the often once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shine in the international spotlight. Many of the players in the past couple of Winter Olympics have been collegiate athletes, World Juniors players, and NHL prospects.

Another exciting aspect of withholding NHL players is the greater chance of improbable outcomes. 

Ordinarily, the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Finland tend to take a majority of the medals in the Olympic games in men’s ice hockey with a good portion of their teams consisting of NHL players.

At the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Olympic Athletes from Russia took the gold while Germany took Silver, their first medal in Olympic hockey since the 1976 games when West Germany took bronze during Germany’s partition era.

In this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing, Finland took the gold medal for the first time in history, and Slovakia earned their first-ever medal in ice hockey taking bronze. 

I can appreciate unpredictable outcomes and the story of underdogs as much as anyone; however, there is a void in the men’s hockey tournament without the NHL players we know and love, especially when they wrongfully have no say in the matter.