With the NHL’s recent decision not to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, it feels as though they have failed to properly consider the potential ramifications of their actions. While holding their players back from the Olympics has been a topic of conversation for years in the NHL, strong opposition from mostly foreign-born players had always kept them from taking the leap. While North Americans expressed concerns as well, it is unsurprising, that those from other continents have felt strongest when it comes to representing their countries in the Olympics. After all, Canadians and Americans playing in the NHL have the pleasure of playing in front of their families, friends, and countrymen on a regular basis. Foreign-born players, and Russian players in particular, however, see the Olympics as their opportunity to don their countries’ colors and enjoy a taste of home. All that being said, with the NHL marketing itself as a truly international league that counts on international talent and popularity as its driving force, the decision to not participate in the Olympics has the potential to result in some seriously negative consequences.
Homesickness is a Ticking Time Bomb
The fact that many foreign, and Russian-born players in particular, have a certain desire to play in their home countries is not surprising. In fact, with all the perks of doing what you love close to home, it speaks volumes about the NHL’s success to-date when it comes to luring foreign talent with the promise of the best competition in the world. But the benefits of staying home continue to grow, making one wonder how much longer the NHL will be able to keep up.
One cannot understate the social and cultural advantages to playing in one’s home country, surrounded by friendly faces and familiarity. While this cultural element has always been a factor, the financial circumstances in leagues like the KHL have become increasingly favorable as well. In fact, the contracts overseas are not far off from what a player might expect to make in the NHL, making staying home all the more tempting. Further, while KHL salaries are proportionate with NHL levels, KHL players experience a level of popularity that NHL players could only dream of. While some NHL players are highly recognizable, they usually pale in comparison to NFL, NBA or MLB athletes. There are countless stories of players standing next to fans wearing that player’s jersey, internally laughing at the fact that they are going unrecognized by the supposed fan beside them. In countries like Russia, professional hockey players are treated like rock stars, mobbed by fans wherever they go. These factors have combined to cause a serious rise in talent level in the KHL that has improved steadily in the last decade.
All of this is meant to demonstrate the delicate position in which the NHL finds itself. While the NHL undoubtedly remains the best hockey league in the world, it seems almost arrogant to assume that this will always be enough to draw players from the other side of the world. Up to this point, the competitive promise of the NHL has been enough to draw the likes of superstars, such as Russian-born Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, to this side of the world. But with the benefits of staying home growing with each passing year, why would the NHL add fuel to fire? The NHL’s decision to stay out of the Olympics just gives these players another reason to leave. Perhaps more damaging (and likely), it gives some another reason to never come in the first place.
What if they leave?
The story of Ilya Kovalchuk is a cautionary tale the NHL would be wise to take note of. In 2010, the Russian superstar signed a jaw-dropping 15-year contract worth approximately $100 million dollars with the New Jersey Devils. While the Devils reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, this would unfortunately, be the extent of any positive outcomes from the Kovalchuk signing.
The following season would be delayed substantially by the 2012-2013 lockout. In response to this, many players, including Kovalchuk, decided to head to the KHL for a chance to play at home until the NHL CBA was settled. What was supposed to be a temporary measure quickly became permanent, as Kovalchuk came to realize how much he had missed playing in his homeland. By the time the lockout ended, Kovalchuk had decided to remain in Russia for the KHL All-Star Game, despite being called in by his team to begin getting ready for the season. That shortened season would be Kovalchuk’s last in the NHL. According to Kovalchuk, “This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia. Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.” Kovalchuk’s experience and feelings are not uncommon among foreign-born players. But, it took a taste of that life to show Kovalchuk exactly what he was missing, propelling him to leave the NHL. Knowing this, you would think the NHL would work hard to keep foreign-born players happy, recognizing how fragile the league’s status might be. Unfortunately, the recent announcement is indicative of their short memory.
This same patriotic mindset was displayed by Alex Ovechkin prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Leading up to the games, the NHL expressed doubt as to whether it would allow players to participate. When asked about the possibility, Ovechkin spoke candidly, explaining that he would consider leaving the NHL for a year to play for his country if the NHL would try to prevent him from going. Other Russian-born players followed suit. Thankfully, the NHL ultimately decided to let their players go, and Ovechkin never had to make good on his threat. Looking back to Kovalchuk, it’s hard not to speculate as to what could have happened if Ovechkin had gone home for a year. As an NHL fan, its not a pretty picture.
So, in simplest terms, why give them a reason to go? If players actually start choosing to leave every four years for the chance to play for their countries, can the NHL be confident that they will always come back? The improving circumstances of KHL players are only going to keep improving. The NHL should be doing everything in its power to hide that from their foreign talent. If that means sending some players to the Olympics every four years, so be it.
What if They Stop Coming?
Some might view the previous scenario as highly unlikely to occur. Superstars like Ovechkin and Malkin are not going anywhere. And, with Russia not scheduled to host the Olympics anytime soon, it would seem unlikely that either of them would leave the NHL out of anger for not being able to play in South Korea.
But what about the next generation?
Currently, a large number of international players come over to North America as teenagers. This is quite an advantage for the NHL, as it gives these young players more time to adapt to their new surroundings and culture. Knowing that, it would not be a stretch to say that for every year a player remains in their home country, they become less likely to willingly make the leap to the unfamiliarity of the NHL. Until recently, players could join NHL teams knowing the opportunity to represent their Olympic squads would remain an option. Now, staying home and developing in the KHL for a while with the knowledge you will retain the right to be an Olympian seems pretty tempting.
This offseason, several young players have chosen to return home and play in the KHL including Mikhail Grigorenko, the 12th overall pick in the 2012 entry draft. Despite the departures of several players, no one is too upset. After all, Ovechkin and and Malkin are still here. But what happens when they aren’t? Who will take their places? Will the next Ovechkin be playing in the KHL, having been lured by the prospect of sticking around there a little longer in order to play in the Olympics? We just don’t know. We shouldn’t have to. Just let them play.
Ultimately, I understand where the NHL is coming from. I simply just do not agree. Professional hockey players, like all other professional athletes, face the risk of injury every time they step onto the ice. Players will get hurt. However, the idea that it is better for a player to get hurt playing for their NHL team rather than their home country is frankly, dumb. The fact that a player is wearing a Capitals jersey as opposed to the Russian national team one will not prevent injuries from occurring. However, never letting him wear his National team jersey at all could be enough to stop him from coming here all together.
Would the NHL trade the next Ovechkin for the knowledge that its players would not get hurt overseas in a two-week period every four years? I’d put money on the fact that they wouldn’t.
Photo courtesy of: Jeff Vinnick