Whatever lingering questions remained about the NHL’s participation in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have been answered. The Olympic break that had been factored into the 2021-2022 NHL schedule was a hint that the league was making a good-faith effort to allow for player participation. Now, we have confirmation that break wasn’t scheduled for naught. The NHL announced today that there will be player participation in the 2022 games.
This is the first Olympics for NHL players since the 2014 games in Sochi, as the NHL skipped the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea. The league decided to skip those games because of the interruption to the schedule, but as part of the last CBA talks, the NHL stated that they would work toward participation in the 2022 games if a deal could be reached with the IIHF. Players were very clearly disappointed in the lack of opportunity to represent their countries in international play as they had done since the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Before you begin to think that this is entirely about national representation, both the NHL and IIHF have a vested interest in the Beijing games. As IIHF president Rene Fasel stated:
“I know that I can speak for hockey fans around the world when I say that we absolutely welcome the decision to bring back best-on-best ice hockey to the Olympics. We had many constructive discussions, and a lot of hard work was put into making this happen within the time we set for ourselves, and I want to thank all parties involved for their support and commitment.”
If you read between the lines, it’s not hard to see “we know that the quality of competition was sub-part in 2018 and that made people not watch the games.” Factor in a massive time-zone gap and scheduling in the wee hours of the morning that makes spoilers impossible to avoid if you want to watch a delayed broadcast, and it’s no wonder why the men’s tournament floundered almost four years ago. The time zone issues remain, but people will at least be more interested in waking up earlier to watch games that involve NHL players as opposed to college kids and grizzled, retired veterans.
The NHL’s interest in participation is not hard to figure out, either. China is a huge market that the NHL’s been trying to break into for years - and have been beaten to the punch by the KHL. They’ve played pre-season games in China in the past, used Alexander Ovechkin as an ambassador for the sport, and had some sort of mascot wandering around the media day at the 2020 All- Star Game in St. Louis (I met him, whoever he was, and he was very nice).
Politics and ethics aside, China is a huge country with a huge market that other North American sports leagues have found success in. This is the NHL’s chance to break in, and there’s no way that they were going to let that pass.