The visions of Connor McDavid sparring against Auston Matthews next February in South Korea are all but dreams now.
The first chance McDavid may get to represent Team Canada in a true best-on-best competition might not come until the scheduled 2020 World Cup.
Steven Stamkos may not get a crack at the Olympics until 2022. He will be 32.
Even if Team Canada’s Plan B roster is somehow able to defend gold for a third consecutive Olympiad in Pyeongchang in 2018, it will come marred with an asterisk, as in: *not the same. Because hockey’s best and brightest stars will not get to shine on the world’s largest athletic platform.
For the first time in 20 years, the NHL says it will not participate in the Olympics.
The NHL released a statement on Monday saying it will “proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games.”
“We now consider the matter officially closed,” the statement read.
Before those two all-important sentences, the NHL’s statement made clear that it was previously “open to hearing from any of the parties who might have an interest in the issue” to make it worth the while of the NHL’s 31 governors.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't able to pry any tangible benefit out of any of the stakeholders.
The NHL's statement condemned the International Olympic Committee for expressing the “condition” that participation in Beijing in 2022 was hinged on playing in next February in South Korea.
The NHL also pointed the finger at the NHL Players’ Association, saying the NHLPA has “confirmed it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs.” The league was rebuffed on two different attempts to extend its labour agreement with the NHLPA in exchange for Olympic participation.
The NHLPA fired back on Monday, calling the NHL’s decision to not participate “shortsighted” and one that rests with the NHL and the NHL “alone.”
"The players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL's shortsighted decision to not continue our participation in the Olympics,” the NHLPA wrote. “A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia. The NHL may believe it is penalizing the IOC or the players, or both, for not giving the owners some meaningful concessions in order to induce them to agree to go to Pyeongchang. Instead this impedes the growth of our great game by walking away from an opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide.”
The IOC and IIHF have not yet commented on the NHL’s decision, which can simply be summed as: owners weren't going to send their most valuable assets halfway around the world for three weeks next season without something in return, so they pulled the plug. Bettman termed it as owners not willing to “pay for the privilege” of the Olympics, where they are not seen as a valued "partner" and can't even show highlights of the Games on their web site.
Some were left wondering if Monday's statement, which was reportedly timed to settle the story before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week, actually left a crack in the door for one of the interested parties to reengage.
It would be the last trump card in Bettman’s playbook to win something for his owners and avert a deeply unpopular decision in the eyes of both players and fans.
“I hope that this is not the end,” Canada’s gold medal-winning netminder Carey Price told reporters on Monday. “Maybe it’s a [negotiation] tactic. The Olympics are not here yet.”
No, the puck does not drop in Pyeongchang for 311 days, but this is the 11th hour and 59th minute for NHL hockey in the 2018 Olympics. IIHF president Rene Fasel said last week he needed a decision by the end of April.
The NHL did not formally agree to participate in Sochi in 2014 until July 19, 2013 after a long and equally tense negotiation. NHL sources have indicated that the two sides were much further along in talks then than this time around, with almost none of the same groundwork having been laid for Pyeongchang.
It would take a seismic, last-second shift by one of the stakeholders - either the IOC, IIHF, NHLPA or NHL television partner NBC - to bring the NHL back into the fold in time for Pyeongchang.
In reality, the NHL iced talks for Pyeongchang despite receiving no more and no less from organizers than each of the previous five times the league has halted its schedule since Nagano in 1998.
Yes, the IOC decided to pull funding for travel, accommodations and player contract insurance - which it had paid in 2014 - but the IIHF and Fasel worked to secure that same amount of funding for the NHL through federation and sponsor support. The NHL then balked at that arrangement, telling the IIHF they would rather that money be spent on player development.
“The League's efforts to blame others for its decision are as unfortunate as the decision itself,” the NHLPA wrote. “NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly … It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.”
The NHL’s first bone of contention was funding. When that issue was solved, Bettman and the NHL moved the goalposts to focus on the “disruption” of its schedule for three weeks mid-season. Increased player injury risk was also floated as a potential issue, though the NHL willingly condensed this season’s schedule to put on September’s World Cup of Hockey in Toronto to split a reported $100 to $120 million profit with the NHLPA.
“Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season's schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage,” the NHLPA’s statement read.
On top of that, all of the same supposed roadblocks that stood in the way of Pyeongchang in 2018 will still exist for Beijing in 2022: schedule disruption, games not played during primetime in North America, a 13-hour time zone difference, distance of travel, etc.
Yet, the NHL has been shy about admitting Beijing 2022 is “an entirely different discussion,” as Bettman said at last month’s Board of Governors meetings in Florida.
The NHL views China as fertile ground, proven by the fact that Bettman himself traveled to Beijing last week to announce preseason games between the Canucks and Kings for next season.
Yes, these 2018 Pyeongchang Games may not be played during ideal times for North American viewers, but as Fasel pointed out last week, they will still be in primetime for nearly 3 billion households. That kind of potential is just not one an accountant in league headquarters can point to as a tangible benefit for going.
The NHL’s decision to not attend the 2018 Olympics instead opens a pandora’s box of potential pitfalls ahead of next season:
How will the NHL handle players who are willing to breach their contract to represent their country?
The NHL reportedly sent a memo to all 30 teams on Monday instructing them to not comment on potential individual participation in the Olympics, saying that the league will rule on the subject later.
The Washington Capitals will be at the centre of the discussion. Owner Ted Leonsis said as recently as December that he would back star Alex Ovechkin temporarily leaving the Capitals to play for Team Russia again.
“He knows I have his back on this one,” Leonsis told reporters in December. “I’m not shy about saying it: I would support the player in this case. I hope the league works it out, but whatever Alex needs to do in this one case, I’ll support him.”
If Ovechkin goes, what about Evgeny Kuznetsov? Or Nicklas Backstrom, who would love to atone for his erroneous drug suspension prior to the 2014 gold medal game? Or half of the Team USA blue line that is currently featured on Washington’s backend?
“They're under contract,” Bettman told reporters last month in Chicago. “And they have a responsibility to the fans of the NHL."
That won’t stop NHL players from speaking out. McDavid said in January “100 per cent players should go” and he “can’t imagine” the Olympics without the NHL. Team Canada defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic simply tweeted a photo of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic logo in silent protest.
“Disappointing news, NHL won’t be part of the Olympics in 2018,” Team Sweden stalwart and Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist wrote on Twitter. “A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted. But most of all, disappointing for all the players that can’t be part of the most special adventure in sports.”
Price called the Olympics “one of the best experiences of my life.”
“I feel like we’re shortchanging some of the younger players that haven’t had that opportunity,” Price told reporters.
What will Team Canada and Team USA look like at the 2018 Olympics?
Former Phoenix Coyotes executive and NHL goaltender Sean Burke has been working behind the scenes for Hockey Canada to field a “Plan B” roster in the event the NHL decided to not participate.
Many questions still need to be answered, including the availability of CHL junior players, NCAA players, AHL players on two-way NHL contracts, and even when European leagues will halt their seasons to allow for player participation.
Depending on the eligibility and availability of players, Team Canada’s roster could be a hodgepodge of players from those sources.
Hockey Canada’s statement from CEO Tom Renney also seemed to allow for any potential movement in the NHL’s stance over the next month:
“Today’s statement by the NHL is not what we were hoping for because, ultimately, we want best-on-best at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games which, for us at Hockey Canada, includes the participation of NHL players,” Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney said in a statement. “This does not change our preparation for the Games - we have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward. However, for the next month, our priority is the 2017 IIHF World Championship, and we will be ready to advance the required plan following that event.”
Neither Hockey Canada nor USA Hockey would be expected to approach NHL players, should they be made off-limits by the NHL, since both receive a portion of their funding from the NHL.
“We respect the NHL’s decision and will examine our player pool options and plan accordingly,” said USA Hockey asst. executive director of hockey operations, Jim Johansson. “In the end, we’ll have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations.”
If NHL participation in Beijing in 2022 hinged on appearing in South Korea in 2018, where does this leave the 2022 Olympics?
It’s far too soon to tell. Fasel likely raised eyebrows at league headquarters when he said on March 22 that the NHL “can’t just come to China and skip 2018.”
Yet, Fasel told TSN in January during the IIHF World Junior Championship he wasn’t willing then to bar the NHL outright from 2022.
“I learned from Gary, who is the master of not painting himself into a corner,” Fasel told TSN. “The truth is, if the NHL wants to go in 2022, who is going to say no? I don’t think the IOC will say ‘no’ to having the best players in the world in their tournament.”
Will the NHL operate in a dark hole on television in the United States for three whole weeks next season?
NBC, the NHL’s U.S. television partner, is also the Olympic rightsholder through 2032. NBC plans to broadcast every Olympic event live across a myriad of channels, including NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC, etc.
Where would that leave room for the NHL, which will be competing head-to-head with those events? NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said NBC must fulfill its contractual requirement with the NHL to broadcast those games regardless.
“The Olympics have long been the world’s greatest international hockey tournament irrespective of whether professionals or amateurs are playing,” NBC Sports said in a statement. “Although we’re disappointed that NHL players will not get the chance to experience and compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics next February, we’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country.”
Bettman also reportedly attempted to negotiate an extension of the league’s broadcast rights deal with NBC in exchange for an agreement to attend the Olympics, but was also rebuffed.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli