In today’s off-season news, the NHL is dispatching one of its biggest and most recognizable superstars to China next month as part of its alleged continued outreach efforts in an untapped market of 1.3 billion people. That’s nice. Alex Ovechkin will be great there, doing interviews, hockey clinics and taking part in business development meetings.
According to a joint news release from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, “the announcement advances the NHL and the NHLPA’s commitment to grow the game globally,” and, “the NHL continues to collaborate with sports and other authorities across China in developing grassroots hockey programs while supporting local youth hockey and hockey development at all levels.” Again, really nice.
But do you know what would really exhibit the NHL and NHLPA’s commitment to grow the game globally and make inroads in China? Actually making a commitment to send their best players to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Instead, though, what we get is the game’s longest-running stare down with the Olympics being used as a bargaining chip instead of a positive force to grow the game.
The NHL’s history with the Olympics has been well documented. Two decades ago, it was thrilled to be part of the world’s biggest winter sports spectacle, but basically showed up for two weeks and played hockey, failing miserably to capitalize on its participation by opening an overseas office or making any real efforts to reach out to fans globally. Then as it continued to play in the Olympics and didn’t see an immediate bump in its popularity, it began to sour on the experience and played a ridiculous game of will-they-or-won’t-they leading up to the PyeongChang Games in 2018. It ultimately didn’t go, instead trying to lead fans to believe it actually was committed to global growth by giving us the World Cash Grab of Hockey™ in 2016, an event that has already been back burnered for 2020. So much for that commitment.
The players want to go to the Olympics. They’ve made that very clear. The league, on the other hand, decided to leverage Olympic participation as a bargaining chip. In fact, the league offered to allow players to go to the Olympics in return for extending the current collective bargaining agreement, knowing full well the players would not accept. Well played. If the players decide in September to opt out of the current agreement, that will trigger its end after next season, which would give the two sides time to enshrine Olympic participation as part of the next CBA, even if there is another ridiculously long labor disruption. If it were to happen, that would be the fifth one under Gary Bettman, right? We ask because we’re beginning to lose count.
The time to start laying the groundwork for NHL participation in a market as large as China is now, not in 2021, a year before the Games. Imagine if Ovechkin were going to China riding the momentum of Olympic participation instead of having to answer questions in every one of those interviews addressing the issue of whether or not the NHL will be there. When it comes to the Olympics and the game of hockey, the league could not have chosen a better international ambassador than Ovechkin. “It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in the news release. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”
Ovechkin’s Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings already have agreements with O.R.G. Packaging in China, which is owned by billionaire Zhou Yunjie, a hockey-mad guy who plays goal in a men’s league and is doing as much as the league is to bolster the NHL in China.
Goodness, this is so easy. It is all laid out right there for the NHL to take if it would only put aside the Olympics as a bargaining chip and simply make an agreement with the NHLPA to participate. Sending superstars for summer trips and playing exhibition games in that country is all well and good, but the way to really get this market engaged is to announce that the best players will be coming there in 2022 and marketing the living daylights out of the opportunity until then.
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