Now that the Olympics are over (yes I know Sweden and Canada are still playing for the gold medal on Sunday but in reality the Olympics for many of us hockey fans - and apparently everyone on the U.S. team - ended on Friday afternoon), the discussion has turned to whether or not the NHL will send its players to South Korea in 2018.
There are many pros and cons to sending NHL players to the Winter Olympics, with many of those opinions being discussed in the past few days. There are the inherent risks of having a superstar get injured at the Olympic tournament, as seen with New York Islanders forward John Tavares. Tavares tore his meniscus and MCL while playing for Team Canada, and will miss the rest of the season for the Islanders. Isles GM Garth Snow made some strong comments after the injury, stating his belief that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) does nothing to compensate the fans and the season-ticket holders who won't be able to see Tavares for the rest of the year and making it known that he does not support players going to the Olympics in general.
Many owners also question the profitability of having a three week break in the middle of a season, and how this lengthy break will affect the quality of play once the season starts up again. Unlike during a normal season, when the All-Star break gives players a few days off and has the All-Stars play one extra game, Olympic players will play between four to eight games in a two week span while non-Olympic players get two weeks of off time with little to no practice with their teammates. The long break can also bring to a halt any momentum that a team may have. Teams that are playing really well going into the break, like the Boston Bruins who were 8-1-2 in their last 11 games, may be rusty or disjointed going into the second half of the season as some of their players have been very active while others have had close to three weeks with no competition.
There also has been talk of what sending players to the Olympics actually does for the NHL in the short and long term. Owners state that the ticket sales after the Olympics are not positively affected, with some teams seeing a decline in attendance after the Games. Ratings for NHL games do not change drastically either, so detractors wonder if there is anything positive coming out of this. Hockey has always been and will continue to be a tough game for the "casual fan" to watch, due to the sport not translating well to the television viewing experience. It is hard to pick up the puck on TV, there are some rules that are a bit confusing to understand and explain, and there isn't a superstar player that gravitates fans to watch a random game (casual NBA fans will watch a game with LeBron or KD, casual NFL fans will watch a game with Peyton or Brady, but there's no big names in the NHL to get casual fans excited about).
Yet with all these cons to sending players to the Olympics I think the NHL would be crazy not to do it all over again in 2018 and beyond. As much as I hated going three weeks between watching or hearing about the Bruins, I will be very disappointed if the league decides to stop allowing their players to compete in the Olympics. People will undoubtedly still watch the hockey tournament without the professional players involved because it is the Olympics, but it won't have the same meaning or the same emotion involved with it as it did this year. You cannot tell me that as many people would watch the U.S. play Russia at 8am on a Saturday morning if there wasn't some NHL players involved in the game. Plus by not sending the NHL players the tournament will not be nearly as competitive as it was this year. Other European countries are not going to stop sending their pros over to the Olympics, so by drastically changing the rosters of some countries - especially the U.S. and Canada - the tournament will not be crowning the best hockey team in the world.
As disappointing as it was that a great player like Tavares got injured in the Olympics, that type of injury could have happened just as easily during an NHL game. Dennis Seidenberg took a similar spill in a game for the Bruins this season and tore his ACL and MCL, and with the Olympic rules limiting hits and fights there is an argument to be made that it is safer for players to compete in the Olympics than in an NHL game. If Tavares had gotten injured in the All-Star Game instead there would be no discussion of the league cancelling that game so there shouldn't be the same conversation about players participating in the Olympics.
(And by the way Garth Snow's comments were incorrect - the IOC does compensate the Islanders for an injury that occurs at the Olympics by paying the insurance on the injured player's contract for the remainder of the season. The Islanders are one of the worst teams in the league, so Snow should be more concerned with the fact that there isn't many fans and that the team may be relocated soon instead of making false comments while he was emotional about losing a top player.)
The Olympics generate a buzz that no event or game the NHL can stage will be able to replicate. There were tons of people, both hockey fanatics and casual supporters, watching last Saturday's U.S. vs. Russia game in bars and other settings even though the game was played early in the morning. The buzz surrounding that game and the ending was the talk of the nation for days. T.J. Oshie went from an unknown to a household name in the span of a couple hours. If the United States had beaten Canada in Friday's semifinal the nation would be even crazier for hockey right now. Unfortunately for American hockey, the moment of the Olympics came in the preliminary round, but if even a few new fans were produced by that one game then the NHL should be ecstatic.
There is no solution for having this long break during the Olympics, but there is something good that comes out of the three weeks off. Now we have a frantic second half of the regular season, with about 25 games crammed into a month and a half. There will be a game on every couple of days to satisfy the appetite of fans that are hungry for some hockey during this break. Casual fans that may be giving the sport a new look thanks to the Olympics don't have to wait very long, as the majority of teams will start playing again in the middle of this coming week. Coaches may have to shuffle players around at the start to ensure they are fully rested and ready for this late season push, but the quality of play shouldn't suffer. The regular season isn't extended by the Olympics, and the amount of games are the same, so in reality the owners and the league aren't losing any money by having a three week gap in their season.
There is a growing belief that this may be the last time that NHL players are allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics, but to me that would be a shame and a huge mistake. While there are obviously some cons to sending players to the Games, the chance to grow the game, bring hockey to new fans, and create a buzz that no outdoor game or playoff series could replicate should be enough to outweigh the negatives. Otherwise hockey will always be a niche sport with no casual fans and a limited fan base with little opportunity to grow.