NHL’s message to Canadian fans: drop dead: Editorial

People who know a lot more about hockey than we do, including some of our esteemed colleagues in the sports section, tell us that the National Hockey League’s decision to sit out the next Winter Olympics is just the result of a cold-blooded business calculation.

There’s not much point in getting worked up about it, is the message. It’s just the way the big boys have arranged things. In other words: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

They may well be right. The game of hockey and the business of hockey are two very different things.

But before we turn away and try to console ourselves with the idea that with the professionals on the sidelines Canada will have a chance to showcase some exciting young talent at the Pyeongchang Games next February, let’s make one thing perfectly clear.

This is a lousy decision, yet another example of the NHL taking its most passionate, loyal fans for granted. The bottom line, if this decision sticks, is that Canadian fans won’t get to see their best players taking on the best the rest of the world has to offer.

Does it matter? Clearly, not to the NHL. The league speaks for the owners, and only seven of their 30 teams are Canadian. Putting the season on hold for 17 days so that elite players can rush off to South Korea to play in a tournament 13 time zones away makes no business sense to them. They’ve run the numbers and it does not compute.

What’s omitted from this equation, of course, is what the international game means to Canada, the only country where hockey is woven inextricably into the national identity. We have few enough things that truly bind us together, and cheering on players wearing the maple leaf on their jerseys is at the top of a short list.

The numbers speak for themselves: the most-watched TV broadcast in Canadian history was the men’s hockey gold-medal game at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, when Canada famously beat the Americans in overtime. It drew an astounding average audience of 16.6 million – almost half the country. This is true devotion.

Canadians don’t have many moments like that, and if the NHL truly valued its fans in this country it would have gone the extra mile to make sure the best Canadian team headed to South Korea in February. Instead, it pulled the plug and airily declared that it “considers the matter officially closed.”

The sports experts remind us that there’s plenty of blame to go around.

The NHL Players’ Association fired off an angry statement condemning the league for a “short-sighted decision,” but in their last round of contract talks the players didn’t insist on including Olympic participation in their collective agreement. They say they want to go, but how important is it really to them?

And the International Olympic Committee hasn’t covered itself in glory. It first refused to pay insurance and travel costs for players to Pyeongchang and then threatened the NHL with being shut out of the 2022 Games in Beijing if the league didn’t agree to its terms. That gambit fell flat.

In the end, though, unless the parties somehow find their way back to a deal in the next few months it’s Canadian fans who will be most conspicuously left out.

The game itself will also be a loser. It won’t send its best to the biggest sporting stage in the world at a time when the NHL has been eyeing opportunities in China. Instead, the league will be thinking short-term and sending a disappointing message that second best is good enough.