At a time when the National Hockey League is playing chicken with the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation over the participation of players in next year’s Winter Games in South Korea, the league is looking to make inroads elsewhere in Asia, a bizarre combination of events that make you wonder just what anyone on Sixth Avenue is thinking.
With great pomp and circumstance on Thursday in China, the announcement was made that the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks will play a pair of preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing this September, the latter of which is the host city for the 2022 Olympics.
The NHL, like every business on Earth, sees huge opportunity in China. Playing a couple of preseason games in front of 1.3 billion potential consumers is a good start to building the popularity of hockey, and the NHL should be applauded for hammering things out with the Chinese government and corporate sponsors Bloomage International and O.R.G. Packaging to make it happen.
“We look forward to our first games in China and to a variety of initiatives that will inspire generations of Chinese players and fans to enjoy our sport,” commissioner Gary Bettman said at the Beijing ceremony. “We recognize the importance of helping China build a strong national hockey program and are committed to supporting that priority in every way possible.”
Now, stop the applause, because another obvious way to support the priority of building interest in hockey overseas would be having the world’s best players play in the Olympics. No, it won’t be great for TV ratings in North America to have Olympic hockey played at odd hours on this side of the Pacific. But when it’s 8 p.m. in Pyeongchang, it’s 7 p.m. in Beijing, and, crazy as this sounds, having a compelling product in one Olympic year can help build interest when it comes back around four years later.
If you don’t believe that, well, just know that there are now people in America who unironically look forward to watching curling on television because of how much they enjoyed it as an Olympic sport.
Stopping the NHL season for Olympic participation is inconvenient, but it’s not like the league hasn’t been through it before. While the exposure in the Games doesn’t necessarily help the NHL with any kind of boost in TV ratings at home, it does grow the sport’s profile globally, and even in the U.S. In most basic terms, it’s the way that a lot of people are introduced to hockey.
The ruse here is that the league cares about the health of the sport more than the league itself. As businessmen, they do not, as evidenced by their willingness to shut down operations every time the collective bargaining agreement expires.
Next time that CBA time rolls around, try to remember that the NHL likes the current agreement enough that it asked the NHLPA – whose members very much want Olympic participation – to extend their deal in exchange for allowing players to go to Pyeongchang. The players rejected that deal.
So, when NHLPA special assistant Mathieu Schneider, a former top defenseman, said in Beijing that “the NHLPA is committed to growing hockey internationally, and the players fully appreciate the opportunity ahead in the coming years to expand the game’s footprint,” he’s not blowing smoke. That kind of thing is best left to Bettman, who is an expert at it, knowing full well the disconnect between the desires of his bosses – the NHL’s owners – and what is actually good for the game of hockey.
There’s going to be NHL hockey in China this fall because it’s good for the league’s bottom line, present and future. There should be NHL players in South Korea next winter because it’s good for the game itself. What the NHL so often fails to understand is that it’s the same thing, even if the financial rewards of playing in the IOC’s tournament in Pyeongchang aren’t as immediate as selling a bunch of tickets for exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing.