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Summer Olympic Hockey? The Pros and Cons

Would Gary Bettman's pipe-dream idea ever work? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
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Imagine watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and witnessing Andre DeGrasse, Connor McDavid and Marie-Philip Poulin flying the Canadian flag together. How about Kendall Coyne Schofield, Auston Matthews and Suni Lee in the red, white and blue?

That’s how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants the Olympics. He envisions best-on-best international hockey as a summer sport.

During TNT’s broadcast of the 2022 Winter Classic on Jan. 1, Bettman, discussing the NHL pulling out of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games due to COVID-19 concerns, revealed he’s been trying for years to get hockey moved to the Summer Games. Bettman said he’s been urging the IOC to make the change since the mid-1990s but hasn’t gained any traction. The IOC remains adamant about keeping hockey a Winter Olympic sport.

It’s understandable if anyone’s initial reaction to the idea is to laugh it off as ludicrous for the aesthetic alone. A sport played on ice…as a summer event? The NBA plays a fall-winter-spring season schedule, however, and its athletes compete in the Summer Olympics. The benefits to the NBA are pretty obvious.

So what are the overall pros and cons of playing hockey at the Summer Games? Just for fun, let’s dig into the concept.

PRO: No disruption to the NHL schedule

We’ll start with the easiest pro. It’s already a common complaint that the NHL shouldn’t be playing games into mid-June, and the multi-week Olympic break pushes the Stanley Cup final’s last possible end date to the final days of June – while also creating a condensed schedule during the regular season. With no Winter Games wedged into the NHL’s calendar, the schedule can breathe more and end earlier.

The benefits are even greater in certain European leagues that are deeper into their schedules – almost at the playoffs – by the time the Olympic break hits. In the KHL, for instance, the season resumes just a couple weeks before the playoffs begin, so the Olympics disrupt the league's rhythm significantly. And what about the leagues that don't take Olympic breaks and simply lose some of their stars for a month mid-season? They'd be thrilled with a shift to Summer Olympic hockey.

PRO: Players don't risk injuries mid-season

A classic example of why NHL owners typically detest the idea of sending their players to a mid-season tournament that generates the league no revenue: goaltender Dominik Hasek at the 2006 Turin Games. He was putting together another dominant season on a powerhouse Ottawa Senators team that ended up finishing first in the Eastern Conference with 113 points. Repping the Czech Republic, Hasek sustained an abductor-muscle tear 10 minutes into the first game of the Olympic tourney. He missed the rest of the 2005-06 NHL season.

The Senators bombed out in the second round of the playoffs with Ray Emery starting in net and posting a .900 save percentage. Just a couple weeks ago, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk expressed that he’s still hung up on the 2005-06 season and believes Hasek’s injury cost Ottawa a chance at the Stanley Cup.

It’s not that injuries sustained in the Summer Olympics wouldn’t harm NHL teams. A torn ACL is a torn ACL. But mid-season injuries are more catastrophic. They can halt existing progress and stop a team that knows it’s a contender from accomplishing great things.

PRO: The top women's players don't have to centralize in the middle of the pro-league calendar

Obviously, this “pro” would make more sense in the heyday of the CWHL and the early seasons of the NWHL before it became the PHF, during which both leagues were dotted with the world’s best North American women’s players. It applies less during the current climate in which the PWHPA houses the sport’s true elite as they hold out and advocate for a unified league.

If we don our optimist hat and forecast a future in which we do get a sustainable elite women’s league: the Canadian and American national teams have typically centralized to train together for the full hockey calendar during Olympic years, pulling the elite players out of the pro leagues and watering down the talent for a year.

If hockey moved to the Summer Olympics: we’d get the best of both worlds, with the top players competing fully in the (currently imaginary) unified pro league and then competing for their countries in the summer.

PRO: Year-round exposure for the sport

Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer and executive vice-president of global partnerships, came from the NFL, where he was director of business development. While there, he absorbed the value of every week in the NFL feeling like an event, and he’s tried to apply the principle to the NHL, building an “event calendar” that includes the Winter Classic, Stadium Series and so on.

Separating Olympic hockey from the NHL season would serve Wachtel's mandate by essentially extending the calendar and creating a standalone event, albeit one that doesn't generate NHL revenue, to keep fans’ attention and interest during the summer. Also, while this season was going to be an exception, there’s typically no all-star weekend during an Olympic year. With no Olympics during the NHL calendar, the league would guarantee that revenue-generator stays in the calendar every season.

Summer Olympic hockey would also expand exposure for the women’s game, as the top North American players would still be around to raise the profile of any pro leagues or the Dream Gap Tour during the season and would get an additional big stage on which to perform in the summer.

CON: Hockey goes from big fish to minnow on the global stage

It’s safe to say Summer Olympic hockey would still be a cash cow, maybe even a boon, for Canadian TV networks. Any best-on-best tourney attracts eyeballs in the Great White North. In the U.S., however? The Summer Games are a much bigger deal, meaning the marquee events – the 100-meter dash, women’s gymnastics, swimming etc. – are game changers. They create instant celebrities. If you juxtaposed the world’s biggest hockey stars with the equivalent of peak Usain Bolt…will American viewers care as much? Hockey would get lost in the sea of summer sports and could take a ratings nosedive. That would be bad news for the IOC, because…

CON: The Winter Games lose their flagship event

The men’s and women’s gold-medal games typically appear in the final days of the Winter Olympics, with the men's finale ending the Games. The IOC knows what it has and makes sure to showcase its main event in hopes of pulling monster ratings. Not only would summer hockey remove a key TV-revenue generator from the winter slate, but hockey would get much smaller viewership in crucial markets such as the U.S. as a summer event.

CON: Not all summer host cities are equipped for hockey

Some Summer Olympic host cities have sufficient facilities to support hockey infrastructure. Tokyo’s Saitama Super Arena is hockey friendly, as is London’s O2 Arena. But (a) Olympic hockey requires multiple venues in order to operate smoothly. Beijing is using two, for instance; and (b) many summer host cities don’t have proper hockey infrastructures. Take 2016 host Rio de Janeiro, for instance. Brazil has zero regulation hockey rinks according to the IIHF. And there’s no way the IOC would muscle out potential host cities just because they don’t have the venues to support hockey. It would be Southern-Hemisphere discrimination.

CON: A long hockey calendar gets longer

Back to that common gripe about the hockey calendar being far too long. The NHL calendar already runs from October to June, and that doesn’t factor the free-agent season in July. If you add an Olympic tournament in the summer, might fans have too much hockey fatigue to tune in? They embraced playoff bubble hockey at first in summer 2020 after being deprived of NHL competition for more than four months, but TV viewership tailed off as the tournament progressed and other sports, from the MLB stretch run to the start of the NFL season, stole attention away.

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