The National Hockey League announced Monday that it would not be sending its players to the Olympics in South Korea in 2018, ending months of debate over the issue of participation in Pyeongchang.
The league had been looking for conciliatory offers from the International Olympic Committee and/or the National Hockey League Players’ Association in order to placate an ownership group increasingly unhappy with the league shutting down for weeks every four years to take part in the Olympic tournament.
When that didn’t happen in recent weeks, the league decided to formally make the announcement that it would not participate in the South Korea Games, making good on a promise to resolve the matter prior to the start of the NHL playoffs, which begin April 13.
“In an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 Regular Season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games,” the league said in a release distributed Monday afternoon.
“We now consider the matter officially closed,” the release stated.
USA Hockey responded that the organization still plans to compete in South Korea.
“We knew it was a very real possibility for many months and certainly respect the decision of the NHL,” executive director Dave Ogrean said in a statement. “The good news is that because of our grassroots efforts over the course of many years, our player pool is as deep as it has ever been and we fully expect to field a team that will play for a medal.”
Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney also issued a statement on Monday, saying that “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.
He added that Hockey Canada had a “Plan A and a Plan B” and will move ahead preparing for the Games.
What remains unknown is whether this decision precludes the NHL from returning to the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2022.
The league’s decision to abandon the South Korea Games comes less than a week after NHL officials, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, visited Beijing to announce that two preseason games would be played in China by the Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings next September.
The league believes that China represents a significant opportunity to grow the game globally, but the IOC recently warned that if the NHL did not take part in the South Korean Olympics that it could not necessarily count on taking part in the Beijing Games.
That perceived threat was another factor in Monday’s announcement.
“A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialized. Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018,” the league said.
The league informed NHLPA executive director Don Fehr of the decision Monday.
The players are almost unanimously in favor of the NHL continuing its Olympic participation, and this decision will no doubt be greeted negatively by the players.
The league had been hopeful that the players’ desire to continue participating in the Olympics would lead to some sort of concessions, like agreeing to see the current collective bargaining agreement through to its conclusion in 2022 instead of exercising an opt-out option two years earlier. But the players’ association’s view was that they should not have to make concessions to ensure that Olympic participation continued.
“Obviously the players are not about to engage in collective bargaining in return for getting an opportunity to go to the Olympics for which they aren’t being paid, where very valuable things would go elsewhere in return for that,” Fehr told ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun in a recent interview.
Some players, including Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, have said they would play in the Olympics regardless of whether the league was formally committed or not. The league did not address this issue in its release, but league officials expect players to fulfill their contractual commitments to play with their respective clubs.
In December, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he’d support Ovechkin playing in the Olympics if the NHL decided not to go.
“He knows I have his back on this one,” Leonsis told ESPN.com in December. “If this is what’s so important to him and he wants to go to the Olympics, he should be able to do that.”
A source told ESPN’s Craig Custance that the NHL told its teams on Monday in a memo not to say anything publicly about individual players going and that the league will deal with the situation.