New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist came home from an “Awesome” Sochi Olympics with a silver medal. New York Islanders captain John Tavares returned with a season-ending knee injury.
The different Olympic outcomes for the NHL All-Stars illustrates the debate on whether the league’s players should continue to participate. Proponents say it boosts the league’s visibility and that players love it. Opponents, including some club owners, argue that it is bad business and risks players’ health.
NHL players not attending would hurt the business of the Olympics and Comcast Corp’s NBC network, which in June 2011 agreed to pay US$4.38 billion to retain US television rights to the Games through 2020, but would not affect the league, said Brad Adgate, director of research for New York-based media-buying agency Horizon Media Inc.
“There’s no halo effect,” Adgate said in a telephone interview. “It’s not like suddenly 25-plus million people watched this, so we’ll have 25-plus million people watch the Stanley Cup Finals. That hasn’t happened.”
The league and players union together have to agree on whether it will participate. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week at a Sochi news conference that a decision on the 2018 Pyeongchang Games in South Korea could come in the next six months.
NHL Players’ Association head Don Fehr said he had no timetable for a decision.
The Olympic sport is popular with television viewers. Canada’s overtime victory over the US in the gold medal game four years ago in Vancouver was watched by an average of 27.6 million, the most-watched hockey broadcast since 1980.
Lundqvist, who led the Swedish team to the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games, said he told Fehr last week in Sochi that “I love everything about the Olympics,” and that continued participation is the obvious choice.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Lundqvist said in an interview a day before Sweden lost to Canada in the gold-medal game. “This is so important for the good of hockey and the league. A lot of new fans watch the games here, and we’re going to Asia next time, so it’s a whole new market.”
Tavares, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, tore the medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee during Canada’s quarter-final victory over Latvia. The 23-year-old forward was ranked third in the NHL with 66 points heading into the Olympics.
“Obviously you can’t replace a guy like him, but I think everyone is going to get an opportunity to pick up the slack,” Islanders forward Colin McDonald said. “Hopefully guys are looking forward to it.”
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin broke his hand during the US team’s quarter-final win over the Czech Republic. He is set to miss four to six weeks, the team said on Tuesday on Twitter.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters in Sochi that having the league’s players at the Olympics is good for the sport’s visibility, but added that NHL ticket sales and television ratings have not increased after past Olympics.
“It’s a practical business matter, for the clubs individually, the Olympics have no tangible positive effect,” Daly said.
Allan Walsh, whose Octagon sports agency represents 23 of the 148 NHL players who went to Sochi, said all of his clients support staying in the Olympics and that the league benefits from the global coverage of Olympic hockey on television and social media.