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PyeongChang 2018: no thaw in frosty relationship between the NHL and the IOC

The XXIII Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are now well underway in what are reported to be some of the coldest and most treacherous conditions yet for a Games to be held in.

Great Britain’s darling of short track speed skating and current World Champion, Elise Christie, agonisingly crashed out of the 500m final today meaning Great Britain’s wait for its first medal continues.

The Winter Olympics has often been seen as the poorer (in sporting terms) sibling of the Summer Games, not least because the majority of sports are not considered ‘main stream’ on the wider Global stage.

This is unquestionably changing, with the Winter Olympics arguably catering more for the younger generation than the Summer Games’ more traditional sports, by showcasing events such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing in all their guises – Half-Pipe, Slopestyle, Snowboard Cross and Big Air to name but a few.

Of the sports that have been in the Winter Olympics for some time, perhaps the most mainstream/recognisable is ice hockey. However, in PyeongChang the sport will be unable to showcase its stars due to an ongoing dispute between the NHL, the World’s largest and most high profile ice hockey league, and the IOC.

In April last year the NHL confirmed that it would not sanction the participation of its players in PyeongChang ending an association going back to the Nagano Games in 1998. The decision, taken by the majority of owners of the 30 NHL franchises, appears to have been reached for the following reasons:

  • It would unnecessarily disrupt an already crowded schedule and at a time when the NHL could capitalise from the fact the NFL season had ended and the NBA season was yet to start;
  • Games were scheduled to take place in the middle of the night in the US resulting in a lack of TV viewers;
  • A lack of agreement in respect of the compensation to be paid by the IOC for the disruption of the NHL season; and
  • The serious injuries season ending injuries suffered by several players at previous Games.

In short, they did not think the participation of its players would produce a significant enough boost to the game in terms of money and recognition.

The NHL‘s decision has been the subject of much criticism by the player’s themselves with the NHL Player’s Association releasing a strongly worded statement which stated:

“the players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision to not continue our participation in the Olympics.

 Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season’s schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage.

Moreover, it is doing so after the financial issues relating to insurance and transportation have been resolved with the IOC and IIHF. The League’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself. NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone. It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.”

With Asia being one of the World’s largest growing sports markets and the next Winter Olympics being held in Beijing it is difficult to see how the participation of the NHL’s leading stars will be anything but positive for its marketing department.

Despite the player’s complaints, the Olympics will still be deprived of the opportunity of seeing the game’s biggest stars such as Henrik Lundqvist and Alexander Ovechkin.

As a result the competition has become wide open. Previously unknown players will have the opportunity to break onto the scene and gain recognition on the World stage, and possibly the NHL, who will undoubtedly be watching on with interest. One such player being Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin who is currently rated as the top eligible pick for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.

The Russian team, competing under the banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” are also likely to make a strong showing.

And for those Americans who think their team of journeymen pros are not up to the job, they must take hope from the ‘Miracle on Ice’ one of the Winter Olympics most enduring memories when its team of amateur players beat 5 times reigning champions…the Soviet Union.

© Copyright 2018 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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About this Author

Tim Lowles, Squire Patton Boggs Law Firm, Sport Litigation Attorney
Senior Associate

Tim Lowles is a Senior Associate in our Litigation Practice Group. Tim advises upon all aspects of commercial litigation with a particular emphasis on sport, contentious media and reputation management issues for companies, institutions and high profile individuals. He has been involved in a number of reported cases and was a member of the team which represented the Core Participant Victims in the Leveson Inquiry.

Tim has advised a number of household names from the sporting world on various issues ranging from contractual disputes to...

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