In February, the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) and the International Ice Hockey Federation met with NHL executives, including Commissioner Gary Bettman, and discussed addressing some of the issues which led the NHL to deny granting its players permission to participate in the Pyeongchang Games in 2018. Hockey fans around the world looked forward to watching the NHL’s best players represent their respective countries and compete in international play. Unfortunately for fans, the NHL has not granted permission to its players to compete internationally since 2016.
Last September, the NHL’s CBA was extended to 2022, when the League and the Players’ Association both opted not to exercise a clause which could have caused the CBA expire in September of 2020. Put simply, addressing a single issue, such as the Olympics, absent re-evaluating the entire CBA was not a popular strategy among players. Similarly, NHL executives were not going to permit Olympic participation without the players, in return, providing concessions. However, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly stated that both sides discussed possible changes that could be addressed in the upcoming negotiations and the productive discussions and decision to not opt out of the CBA laid the foundation for promising future negotiations.
At an appearance during the NHL draft last June, Gary Bettman indicated that issues which made the NHL hesitant about consenting to Olympic participation by its players included insurance and travel costs of up to $20 million, as well as not being able to feature any Olympic content on the NHL website and other promotional channels. Moreover, scheduling is also a significant issue, because allowing NHL players to compete in the Olympics requires the NHL to shut down the League for two to three weeks during the playoff push in February.
However, if the IOC is willing to make some concessions and the current labor peace continues, the Deputy Commissioner believes there is a scenario which could bring NHL players back to the Winter Olympics. Daly in a recent statement provided: “I think the only way, even if the IOC does everything we ask for, Olympic participation in 2022 is going to happen is if it really is part of a bigger negotiation with the Players’ Association . . . where we can come back to the board (of governors) and say, We’re recommending going to the Olympics and these are the reasons.”
As reported by Carol Schram of Forbes, in addition to Olympic participation NHL executives are considering bringing back the World Cup of Hockey, creating a new Ryder Cup-type international event, and instilling an “international flavor” into the 2021 All-Star Game. The NHL’s strategy to grow its market, emphasize international talent, and provide more opportunities to see the best players compete against each other comes at a time when the NHL is set to negotiate a new broadcasting deal. The NHL’s current agreement with NBC is set to expire at the end of 2021-22. According to the NY Post, the NHL will seek to expand its media platform by negotiating with several broadcast partners, including ESPN.
Unlike the NFL CBA negotiations, it appears the negotiations for the upcoming NHL CBA reflect that of a collaborative and peaceful labor environment. However, as the current CBA expires in 2022, the NHL is on pace to experience several substantial changes in terms of platforms, marketing, and a potential return of NHL players to international competition. Although the NHL does not generate as much revenue or coverage in the United States as the MLB, NBA, or NFL, it appears that the NHL is looking to implement changes to compete with the other professional leagues.
Although fans want NHL players back in the Olympics, the NHL Players Association and the NHL executives will need to come to an agreement on several topics to execute a new CBA. Ultimately, this will require the IOC, International Ice Hockey Federation, NHL executives, and NHL Players Association to be aligned, which is not an easy task. I believe I speak for most hockey fans when I say, hopefully we will see the return of NHL players to Olympic competition in Beijing in 2022.