It’s not all about the game, some of it has to do with money; KPE experts weigh in on NHL’s decision to skip the Olympics

Canada vs. Germany in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games by Flickr user Wayne Stadler
Canada vs. Germany in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games by Flickr user Wayne Stadler

On April 3, the NHL announced that it would not be sending players to the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea, sending shock waves through the sport community. Professors Peter Donnelly and John Cairney of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education shared their thoughts on what’s behind this decision and the consequences it may have on the players and the game. Cairney was recently interviewed by Global News and City TV about his research on the impact of the Olympics on professional hockey teams whose players take time to participate in the Games.

Peter, it has emerged that NHL club owners don’t want a three-week break in their schedule in order to accommodate some NHL players’ participation in the Olympics. What’s your take on that?

PD: First, it's important to recognize that this may just be a bargaining ploy. The decision to permit players to attend the Sochi Olympics in 2014 was not made until July 2013, so it's still early in the process. However, if this decision is final, then the NHL has another potential set of problems -- unhappy players who are being deprived of an opportunity to represent their countries; unhappy fans, because the Olympic ice hockey tournament is very popular; and a very angry NHL Players' Association who will remember that the NHL recently offered to trade an agreement to let players go to the 2018 Olympics in exchange for an extension to the current collective bargaining agreement. This will not lead to harmonious talks at the end of the current agreement.
What do you expect will happen to players who are determined to play in the Olympics?

PD: Players are being given a terrible dilemma, one that rarely happens in other sports (e.g., soccer leagues suspend league play for international matches and tournaments). No one should be forced to choose between representing their country, and potentially losing their job as a consequence. I hope that players are able to find some solidarity if the decision is final. If all players who are selected to play for their countries decide to go, it is difficult to see how the NHL could fire all of its top players (who would quickly be re-employed by the Russian and other European leagues).   

Is this a missed opportunity to promote the game at the biggest world stage, as some players have expressed?

PD: Yes. Especially since the NHL is trying to tap into the East Asian market, has recently announced two games to be played in China in the 2018 season, and will expect to back up that expansion by playing in the 2022 Beijing Olympics (if the IOC and the IIHF will permit them if they do not play in Korea).

John, you did a study on the effect of the Olympics on teams whose players participate in the Games. How big or detrimental was it?

JC: Overall, we found the effect was very small. The exception was for the 1998 Olympics where we could see a clear disadvantage to teams who sent more players, at least in terms of goal differentials. The teams that sent more than four players to the Games that year, had more goals scores against them in the part of the season that occurred after the Olympics, compared to teams who sent fewer players. For the rest of the Olympic Games we studied (which included the most recent winter games in Sochi), the effect was small and usually non-significant.

If the impact of the Olympics wasn’t significant, what other factors might have influenced this decision by the NHL?

JC: The most obvious ones are around disagreements between the IOC and the NHL about who should pay for costs associated with sending players to the Games. But, it’s interesting to also think about the NHL’s investment in the Ice Hockey World Championships. Taking players out of the Olympics means the World Championships become the only game in town for elite international hockey. One could argue that the NHL’s vested interest in this competition may have some influence over the recent decision.

So, it’s all about the money?

JC: When is it not?

Is there a silver lining to this decision?

JC: Taking professional players out of the games creates more chances for non-NHL players. The recent World Juniors showcased just how deep the talent pool is and many who watched agreed the hockey was just as, if not more, exciting than the Olympics or even professional hockey.