By: Will Burchfield
There were smiles, lots of them, when the Winter Olympics were brought up in the Red Wings dressing room on Tuesday morning. There were also pursed lips, slumped shoulders and deep sighs of regret.
The NHL chose not to send its players to PyeongChang 2018, the first time since Lillehammer 1994 that the league will not participate in the Winter Games, and the Olympic veterans on the Red Wings don’t understand why.
“The Olympics is supposed to embody the best athletes in the world,” said Jimmy Howard, who played for Team USA in Sochi 2014. “I feel like, in my opinion, NHL players should be there.”
“I just don’t understand why we’re not there,” said Gustav Nyquist, who represented Sweden in 2014. “It’s such a cool thing and it’s great exposure for the league, too. It’s a brand new market over there.”
In the eyes of the NHL, sending its players to the Olympics no longer made sense. The International Olympic Committee said it wouldn’t pay for costs related to travel and insurance that it had covered for the players (with help from the International Hockey Federation) since 1998. That, coupled with the fact the IOC wouldn’t yield any promotional ground to the NHL, meant the league couldn’t justify halting play at a crucial juncture of its season.
“When the IOC and the IIHF said they weren’t going to pay the expenses,” Bettman said at this time last year, “it opened a can of worms in terms of teams saying, ‘Why are we doing this? And why are we disrupting the season for two and a half weeks at a vital point where we just completely disappear? And we can’t even promote the fact that our players are there playing?’”
Tomas Tatar, who represented Slovakia at the 2014 Games, feels the NHL’s reasons keeping its players out of this year’s competition aren’t satisfactory.
“I think their answers don’t make any sense,” said Tatar. “But we are here to play hockey, and that’s the decision that they made. We just have to respect it. Obviously we made it somehow work previous years, so it was frustrating why we couldn’t do it this year.”
With hockey on the rise in Asia, particularly at the youth level, the NHL appeared to have a prime marketing opportunity in PyeongChang. The same could be said of the 2022 Games in Beijing.
“I think all the players still don’t quite get why we are not there, with the possibility and the chance we had with the two Olympics coming up in Asia on top of each other in an untapped market,” said Niklas Kronwall, a three-time Olympic veteran for Sweden in 2006, 2010 and 2014.
According to Bettman, participating in the 1998 Games in Nagano and the 2006 games in Torino — two non-traditional hockey locations — was hardly beneficial for the NHL. The league didn’t experience an increase in ratings or sales, nor was there concrete evidence of a positive impact on the sport of hockey in general.
Season-ending injuries to the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, the Islanders’ John Tavares and the Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov in Sochi raised another concern for the NHL ahead of PyeongChang. It has also been suggested that the discrepancy in player participation from team to team can impact the stretch run and the playoffs.
The Red Wings might appreciate this better than most. They sent a league-high 10 players to the Olympics in 2006 and 2014 and lost in the first round of the playoffs both years.
Of course, these are risks the players were more than willing to take to represent their respective countries in PyeongChang.
“Everyone wishes we were there,” said Kronwall.
“Representatives and leaders from each team pushed,” said Nyquist, “and unfortunately we couldn’t make it happen.”
“It’s just tough,” said Tatar.
Their collective disappointment is about more than the lost opportunity to chase an Olympic medal — something that even the best players may get a crack at only once or twice in their careers. It’s about missing out on the entire Olympic experience. To be swept up in that pageantry and patriotism once is to remember it forever.
Nyquist recalls trekking out to the cross-country course with some of his teammates on an off-day in Sochi and watching his compatriots win a goal medal.
“That was pretty special,” he said.
Tatar remembers the unique sense of camaraderie among the athletes in the Olympic village. He knows it will be hard to see footage of it on TV, like scrolling through photos of a party he couldn’t make.
“I’m going to be cheering obviously, but when you see all the highlights from the village and everything, that’s where you get kind of sad that you can’t be there,” said Tatar.
They all intend to tune in to PyeongChang, especially when the men’s hockey competition begins Wednesday morning. Nyquist, for his part, said he already spent “quite a few hours in front of the TV” on Monday watching various events. He likes them all.
Tatar’s a fan of downhill skiing.
“They’re crazy fast!” he said, eyes wide.
Kronwall’s into curling.
“We’ve had some some success over the years,” he smiled.
In the hockey tournament, the Russian team is considered the favorite thanks to its strong core of players from the KHL. The outlook would be different, of course, if NHL players were part of the fray.
“I’m a little upset the fans cannot see the best players in the world,” said Tatar. “Obviously I have a lot of friends, not just on the Slovak team, so I’m really happy for them that they made it…but it’s kind of mixed feelings when you will see them play and you’re not playing.”