By Ken Reed

On Monday, the NHL announced that it wouldn’t allow its players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. League owners and executives said the reason is they didn’t want their regular season disrupted.

“The league isn’t anti-Olympics,” N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We’ve been to five of them. The problem is the clubs are anti-disruption to the season.”

What they apparently don’t see, or at least appreciate, is that the Olympic hockey tournament represents a tremendous opportunity to promote both their sport and their league to a huge international audience, including in China, where the league is trying to make inroads. General sports fans — lots of them — not just hardcore NHL fans, turn into watch Olympic hockey.

Henrik Lundqvist, star goaltender for the New York Rangers, tweeted that the league is wasting “a huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage.”

The NHL needs the Olympics more than the Olympics need the NHL. Bettman’s league remains a niche sport, a distant fourth of the four major pro sports leagues in the United States. The NHL and its players would receive significantly more publicity from having its players in the Olympic tournament than it will from continuing to play regular season games during the Olympics.

Following the decision, the NHL may now have a fight with league players on its hands. The National Hockey League Players’ Association followed the league’s announcement with one of its own, saying that players were “extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree” with the league’s decision. Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has already said he plans to represent Russia at the Pyeongchang Games no matter what the N.H.L. might decide.

The players certainly seem to have a lot more business savvy than the owners and league executives on this one.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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