Why this matters
The NHL has dragged its heels on supporting a consistent, "best-on-best" hockey tournament as seen in global football, basketball and baseball. Experts believe such a competition would be massive for the sport's fan base.
The best hockey nations on earth are currently competing for international bragging rights at the annual Ice Hockey World Championships in Finland and Latvia. But the best player in the world, Connor McDavid, isn’t there. Nor is potential Team Canada teammate Sidney Crosby. Unfortunately, that’s par for the course given that two of the greatest Canadians to ever play hockey have never represented their country together in international competition.
Men’s hockey is the only globally recognized sport without a regularly occurring best-on-best international competition. The World Championships are held annually in May, when they run concurrently with the Stanley Cup Playoffs and immediately following the National Hockey League’s regular season, disqualifying most of the world’s best players from participating.
Meanwhile, the NHL has not participated in an Olympic Games since 2014, refusing to send players to the previous two Winter Olympics. And the NHL’s own version of a best-on-best tournament, the World Cup of Hockey, has been irregular in its format and inconsistent in its timing, being held just three times since 1996, most recently in 2016.
Other team sports, from soccer to basketball to baseball, have their own regularly occurring best-on-best World Cup and Olympic tournaments, which continually bring new hype and fans to those sports on a global scale. But not hockey.
“I think for the generation of players now – for Connor McDavid, for Auston Matthews – for the best players in the world to be 27, 28 and never have had an opportunity to represent their country in best-on-best is a missed opportunity for those players individually, for those countries to grow the game, and for the game of hockey globally to have their best [players] show how great the sport can be,” said Mike Johnson, a Canadian former NHL player and current analyst at The Sports Network in Canada.
‘Where Were You When?’
The last time the NHL participated in an Olympic Games – the world’s biggest sporting event and the crown jewel of international hockey – was all the way back in 2014, when Canada ran away with gold in an anticlimactic competition. That means you have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a moment when hockey truly grabbed the world’s attention, when Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” for Canada to defeat the United States in overtime on home ice in Vancouver, British Columbia.
It was a dream matchup for the sport of hockey, the NHL and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It is to this day the most-watched television broadcast in Canadian history, with a final audience of 16.7 million viewers.
“The Olympics sort of transcends sports,” NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) TV broadcaster Paul Romanuk said about the importance of those moments. “It’s not just sports fans, or hardcore sports fans, who watch the Olympic Games. So, you’re gonna get somebody who might be a casual NHL fan or a casual hockey fan, but when the Olympics come around, they watch all the games, they really get into it.”
“You have to think that maybe somewhere in the world in some country, there’s going to be a kid who’s going to be watching that and go: ‘Wow! I want to play hockey.’”
Following that monumental game, the NHL saw ratings spike and participation numbers rise across Canada. But the game also acted as a formative moment for a new generation of hockey fans to be inspired by and as a historical marker in a long line of them that help establish a rich history of the sport.
After all, almost every generation in North America had a “where were you when?” moment in international hockey, from the 1987 Canada Cup when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux shared a line for the first time, to the “Summit Series” when Canada defeated the Soviet Union in an eight-game thriller, to the 1980 Olympics when Team USA defeated the Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice,” to the 2002 Olympics when Canada reclaimed its international hockey glory by winning its first gold medal in 50 years.
Johnson was 12 years old when he got a chance to attend a 1987 Canada Cup game in Hamilton, Ontario, where he was lucky enough to go home with Lemieux’s stick. “At 12 years old, I was impressionable and in love with hockey at the time, and just kind of being amazed at the game but also just kind of the passion of the people in the crowd rooting for Canada,” he said.
“We build a lot of myths around this game. Some of them are earned, and some of them aren’t,” Toronto Star sports columnist Bruce Arthur explains. “International Hockey, what it means to people in [Canada], is a true myth in this country. It is real.”
Unfortunately for the current generation of hockey fans and youth hockey players, there just haven’t been any of those moments in the past decade.
“The link really has been snapped here,” Arthur said. “... There’s nobody shepherding the sport in a way that cherishes the history of it, the importance of it, and the impact of it.
“You get lost years of what could be great international competition. You never get them back. … It’s such a lost era.”
It all raises the question: Why has the NHL refused to participate in an Olympic Games since 2014? What are the major obstacles standing in their way? And what could participation actually do for the sport of hockey globally and the NHL domestically?
The Power of NHL Owners
In order to answer those questions, we have to go all the way back to 1993, when Gary Bettman became the first commissioner of the NHL. It was then that former NHL Players Association Director “Bob Goodenow kicked Gary Bettman’s butt” during the labor negotiations of the 2004-05 lockout, according to Sean McIndoe, the author of “The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL,” causing Bettman to take a firmer approach the next time around.
Nobody could have expected what happened next because it had never happened before in the history of North American pro sports, and it has not happened since. In 2004-05, the NHL threw away an entire season due to another lockout, with Bettman stubbornly wielding his power until he and the owners got what they wanted almost a calendar year later: a salary cap linked to league revenues. Goodenow resigned from his post, and the owners have been on a roll ever since.
“I think Gary Bettman has done a good job for the owners,” said Gare Joyce, a hockey writer with more than 30 years of experience in jobs at ESPN the Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and Sportsnet.ca. “...The power has all tilted completely to the owners at the players’ expense.”
“It’s an owner’s league,” Joyce added. “Like the decision not to go to the Olympics, that’s generated by the owners and they’re in the business of being in the business. They are businessmen, and they’re looking at returns, and they don’t want to sacrifice an opportunity to sell a ticket unless they think it’s an opportunity to sell more tickets.”
“And I guess they have the clearest reading of what the return on investment is and what the risk is.”
There is, of course, risk. And there is a long and unfortunate history of star athletes getting injured during international play and missing their club season as a result.
The NHL knows this and cites it as one of many reasons for not participating in the Olympics. Another is that the Winter Olympics typically falls in the middle of the NHL regular season, usually around February, when the National Football League season has ended and the Major League Baseball season is yet to begin, giving the NHL a window to draw more eyeballs.
Plus, the NHL doesn’t actually make any direct profits from the Olympics, despite ice hockey being a huge revenue generator for the Games. Meanwhile, the IOC stopped paying for travel and insurance in 2018, requiring the NHL to foot the bill – the primary reason the league dropped out in 2018 when Olympic participation was not written firmly into the Collective Bargaining Agreement, even if that excuse falls short given that the IIHF offered to pay $20 million for the travel and insurance of players in 2018.
However, a new CBA that was ratified in 2020 (and that runs through 2025-26) set in stone that NHL players would return to Olympic competition at the 2022 Beijing Games and the 2026 Milano Cortina Games – or so they thought. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic continued ravaging the league and infecting its players, causing 2022 Games to be delayed and leading the NHL to drop out of the Games for the second consecutive time.
“It almost felt like they were trying to get out of it for a while and they didn’t want us to go,” Canadian winger Brad Marchand said at the time. “I know at the end of the day, [the league doesn’t] care about the Olympics, they don’t make money on it, and that’s ultimately what this is. It’s a business, and we’re an asset. Let’s just call a spade a spade.”
The Ripple Effects
Perhaps as a result of the lack of international best-on-best competition showcasing the sport’s growing talent base, hockey has struggled in recent years relative to other sports, and the NHL has struggled relative to other leagues.
Youth hockey participation has leveled off across the world, not growing nearly as fast as sports like soccer or basketball. In Canada, where hockey is the national sport, participation has seen a stark decline since reaching an all-time high of 720,000 participants in 2014-15, dropping to 521,000 in 2021-22 despite the population growing. And the number of Canadian teenagers who follow professional hockey closely decreased from 45 percent to 34 percent from 1990 to 2010, according to Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby.
The NHL has seen immense growth since Bettman took over, successfully adding two expansion teams in recent years. But the other three major North American sports leagues have far outpaced the NHL’s growth during the same timeframe. For example, the average value of an NBA or NHL franchise was around $300 million in 2012, whereas now the average NHL team is worth $1.0 billion while the average NBA franchise is worth $2.8 billion.
There are a lot of other reasons for this relative lack of growth, including the bad press the sport has gotten in recent years following allegations of racism, sexism, sexual assault, bullying, and homophobia tainting hockey’s image as an inclusive sport and hurting its ability to attract a broader audience.
But the history of other North American sports leagues prove that it didn’t have to be this way. In fact, the NBA in many ways went the opposite direction as the NHL, striving to grow the game internationally at the cost of potential short-term losses domestically.
The league opened headquarters in China in 2008 and in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2010, with NBA China and NBA Africa now reportedly worth a combined $6 billion, and youth basketball participation in China and across Africa has skyrocketed in recent years. And while basketball travels better than hockey due to the lesser infrastructural needs and cheaper costs to play, the NBA was a shell of its current self before deciding to go to the Olympics in 1992.
That was when the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) allowed professional players to participate in the Olympic Games, resulting in the NBA sending over a “Dream Team” of the best American players, who also happened to be the best players in the world at the time. The Dream Team dominated the tournament and captivated the world’s attention to help rejuvenate the sport, bringing a new wave of international audiences and, eventually, players to the NBA, including Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker.
Or look at MLB’s World Baseball Classic, which might provide an even more illustrative example for the NHL to follow because MLB has similarly refused to participate in the Olympics since it falls in the middle of their season. Instead, MLB created their own preseason tournament, the WBC, back in 2006. And while it took years of trial and error for the tournament to achieve real success, the 2023 WBC played out like a movie script, with Japan’s Shohei Ohtani striking out Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout for the final out to defeat the United States for the gold medal. The tournament earned legitimacy and attracted the best players on Earth as well as the biggest audiences and the highest TV ratings in tournament history.
The success of the 2023 WBC came at a crucial time for MLB, which struggled with similar issues of decline in youth participation and international popularity for the sport. But that tournament might have been the breakthrough moment the sport needed, potentially hooking new fans going forward.
“It’s what we’ve been asking for in hockey for a long time,” Connor McDavid said following the World Baseball Classic. “Best on best. Look, everyone’s been talking about baseball and ‘did you see Ohtani vs. Trout?’ That’s what hockey’s been missing for about a decade now.”
The NHL doesn’t even have to look outside of its own sport to find recent examples of how international play can benefit the sport and the league. For example, Auston Matthews spent his age-17 season playing professional hockey for the Zurich Lions of the Swiss National League A, where he scored 46 points in 36 games before getting drafted No. 1 overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016.
“It’s like they almost take ownership in him going forward now that he played there,” former Florida Panthers Director of Amateur Scouting Jason Bukala said about Swiss hockey fans. “And they identify him as one of their own, if you will.”
Swiss hockey broadcaster Silvan Schweizer acknowledged that when Matthews chose to play Switzerland over Sweden, Finland, or the KHL, “that made Swiss people proud.”
“It certainly was a blessing for Swiss hockey,” Schweizer wrote in an email. “The stay of Matthews … helped to give Switzerland more credit and also that Swiss fans got more interested in the NHL.”
The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur said many of the NHL’s problems can be boiled down to the fact that the league has played it safe and followed in the footsteps of other leagues instead of taking risks and daring to surpass them. “My biggest criticism of hockey is that it is a game that lacks greater vision,” Arthur said. “Hockey is a small town. And there’s a whole bunch of things that come from that. And this [lack of Olympic participation] is one.”
For better or worse, the NHL has all the power when it comes to stewarding the game of hockey on a global basis. With the exception of the NHLPA, which has struggled to attract player interest or have strong leadership since Goodenow resigned in 2005, there is no counterweight.
But considering that the players desperately want it and that competing pro sports leagues have clearly benefited from it, it’s hard to not see the long-term benefits the NHL could gain from regularly participating in an international tournament. And given the speed and skill improvements that hockey players have made in recent years, as well as the level of hockey talent spread across the world, there is no telling what a best-on-best international tournament could do for the sport as a whole.