NHL Acts as Dictator Over Player Participation in Pyeongchang Olympics

By: Jonathan Lund


The Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games are less than 3 weeks away and many fans are still upset that they will not see their NHL heroes competing for a gold medal for their country. This close to the Games, hockey fans would normally be debating whether Canada will defend its 2014 gold medal, or whether we will see another spectacular United States vs. Canada gold medal game like in the Vancouver 2010 games. However, without each country’s biggest NHL stars, the biggest news hockey fans have to talk about is the unified North and South Korean women’s hockey team, which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently approved.[1] Devoted hockey fans may be wondering, “how did we get here?”

While hockey fans have become accustomed to seeing their favorite NHL players participate in the Olympics, they must first understand that participating in the Olympics is not the players’ right, but a privilege.[2] The players are under contractual obligation to play for their respective teams, and, by extension, are contractually obligated to the league. Initially, many players, the most vocal of which was Alex Ovechkin, informed the league that they would participate in the games, even without the league’s permission. Many owners were also in favor of letting their players participate if they desired to do so. Article 18-A.2 of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), however, allows Commissioner Gary Bettman to discipline players “guilty of conduct . . . that is detrimental to the League or the game of hockey.”[3] Furthermore, if owners were to let their players participate in the Games against the league’s wishes, Section 6.3(a) of the League Constitution gives Bettman the power to punish owners through fines up to $1 million and the forfeiture of draft picks when an owner exhibits “detrimental” conduct contrary to the “best interests of the league.”[4] These provisions in both the CBA and League Constitution will be the ultimate reason that NHL stars will not participate in the Games.

Although NHL fans may be upset about the lack of star power at the Olympic Games, it appears that Bettman may really be doing them a favor in the short-term. Allowing the NHL’s best players to compete at the Olympics often alters the outcome of the NHL season. For example, the Detroit Redwings have twice sent the most players to the Olympics and later lost in the first round after being expected to advance much further.[5] The potential for injuries to top talent could also have substantial effects on the season, such as when John Tavares sustained a season-ending injury during the 2014 Games in Sochi.[6] Choosing to prohibit the League’s best players from participating in this year’s Olympics will most likely produce the best on-ice product come playoff time in April.

Finally, fans must understand that the League risks injury to major assets while receiving little in return. This year, the IOC informed the NHL that it would no longer pay the League’s participation costs associated with travel, insurance, and accommodations for the players and their guests.[7] Furthermore, the NHL must stop its play for more than two weeks, which will lose the NHL revenues from sponsors, television contracts, and concessions.

While the NHL will certainly miss out on current revenues, the NHLPA and many players have argued that the League is impeding its opportunity for international growth by not sending players to the Games in Asia.[8] However, the NHL would most likely counter this argument by claiming that it recently had a preseason game in China this year in an attempt to increase its international market.

We will have to wait and see if Bettman and the NHL’s decision will have a positive effect on the outcome of this year’s NHL season, but for now, all hockey fans should rejoice in the fact that they will have twice the hockey to watch for two weeks this winter


[1] Rachel Axon, Winter Olympics: IOC approves unified Korean team in opening ceremony, women’s hockey, USA TODAY Sports (Jan. 20, 2018, 8:49 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2018/01/20/korea-winter-olympics-unified-opening-ceremony/1050681001/.

[2] Eric Macramalla, How The NHL Can Stop Players From Going To The Olympics, Forbes (Apr. 4, 2017, 11:58 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmacramalla/2017/04/04/legal-look-stopping-nhl-players-from-participating-in-the-winter-olympics/#347cf68c49d6.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Dan Rosen, NHL will not participate in 2018 Olympics, NHL.com (Apr. 3, 2017), https://www.nhl.com/news/nhl-will-not-participate-in-2018-winter-olympics/c-288385598.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.