How to Fix Olympic Ice Hockey

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Men’s ice hockey players in South Korea for the 2018 Olympics. The N.H.L. did not allow its players to participate. Credit David W Cerny/Reuters

Men’s ice hockey begins on Wednesday at the Winter Olympics — but without the world’s top players. For the first time since the 1994 games, National Hockey League players won’t be competing. It isn’t that they don’t want to play. The Canadian star Sidney Crosby, probably the best player in the world, put it this way: “I’d love to be there.” The Russian star Alex Ovechkin, who has participated in three Olympics, and Patrick Kane, one of the best American players, expressed a strong desire to compete, too.

But the National Hockey League says it now cannot “see what the benefit is” in Olympic participation, and insists that its players are contractually obliged to skip the games. (Ovechkin and others threatened to break their contracts to play, but in the end the league got its way.)

How can we prevent the narrow interests of the N.H.L. or any other sports league from diminishing the Olympics, disappointing fans and thwarting the desires of athletes?

The idea that a league like the N.H.L. gets to decide what “its” players do is hardly an immutable law of nature. Soccer is even more commercial and lucrative than hockey, yet its rules work in the opposite way: Teams are obliged, by dictate of FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, to cough up their stars when they’re summoned by a national team for a tournament. The leagues may not like it, but there is no danger of a World Cup or an Olympics without players like Neymar and Lionel Messi.

Clearly, soccer has figured out the better system. The players want to play; the fans want to watch; there is nothing as uplifting and inspiring as international competition between the best of the best. Since 1998, when professional players were admitted, Olympic hockey has consistently been spectacular and exhilarating.

But the N.H.L. sees itself as a business first and foremost, and it cannot see any profit in Olympic hockey. Moreover, the league has a competing interest: It helps run another international tournament, the World Cup of Hockey, which has so far failed to achieve anything near the popularity of Olympic hockey. Weaker Olympic hockey serves the N.H.L.’s purposes, even if it is bad for everyone else.

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By TIM WU
2018-02-14 15:04:08
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