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VOL. 42 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 16, 2018

Predators not happy about missing Olympics

By John Glennon

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Former Nashville Predator Ryan Suter, then a Team USA defenseman, celebrates a goal with  forward Zach Parise, right, Phil Kessel during the a match against the Czech Republic during the 2014 Olympic Games at Shayba Arena in Sochi, Russia. NHL players are not participating in this year’s games.

-- Ap Photo/Matt Slocum

Growing up in Finland, Predators goalie Pekka Rinne always imagined what it would be like to represent his native country on sports’ greatest stage – the Olympic Games.

But as the men’s hockey competition gets underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this week, Rinne and all his fellow NHL players find themselves thousands of miles away, confined to turning on the TV and cheering for their countrymen.

The NHL based the decision not to allow its players to participate in the Olympics – for the first time since 1994 – on a number of reasons.

There was the large discrepancy in time zones that would limit live viewing of the games, the hesitation to interrupt the NHL season and the newfound difficulty in paying for the players’ travel and insurance.

But the bottom line is still that the best hockey players in the world, who would normally be showcasing the sport and competing for their countries, are not participating this year. Instead, Olympic teams will be made up of lesser talents – young prospects or players who’ve finished their NHL careers.

For a player like Rinne, arguably the greatest player in Predators history, the NHL’s decision likely means he’ll never get a chance to play in the Olympics.

Had Rinne been healthy in 2014, he would have represented Finland in the games that were held in Sochi, Russia. But he was sidelined by complications from a hip injury at that point. By the time the next Winter Olympics rolls around in 2022, Rinne will be 39 years old, probably too old to be picked for his national squad.

“I think when you talk to pretty much any player, they all have their individual careers – whether it’s in the NHL or in Europe – and then they also have their international careers,” Rinne says. “That’s how I grew up, always dreaming about going forward in my personal career, but also in my international career for my country.

“But obviously in my case, I don’t think I’ll ever play in the Olympics because I probably won’t be doing it when I’m 39. So it’s a disappointment to me. It would have been unbelievable.”

Letting the pros play

In the old “Miracle on Ice” days of 1980, Olympic hockey was – at least in theory – the domain of amateurs, which eliminated NHL players from participating in the Games.

But the International Olympic Committee eventually allowed NHL-ers to join the fun, in large part because it was clear the former Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries had long been sending their own paid professionals.

NHL players first participated in the Olympics in 1998 (Nagano, Japan), followed by appearances in 2002 (Salt Lake City, Utah); 2006 (Turin, Italy); 2010 (Vancouver, Canada); and 2014 (Sochi, Russia).

In each case, the NHL shut down its regular season for about two weeks, figuring the exposure of the games offset the temporary stoppage in league play as well as a more condensed league schedule.

The 2010 gold-medal game was especially memorable for Predators fans, as it featured former Nashville defensemen Ryan Suter (U.S.) and Shea Weber (Canada) going head-to-head in a thrilling contest that Canada won 3-2 in overtime.

“I really like watching the hockey (with NHL players),” says Predators coach Peter Laviolette, a former U.S. Olympic coach and two-time Olympic player. “I think it is the best players in the world representing their country. The Olympics are special.

“It does shut down our season, so there’s a lot that goes to both sides (arguments). But if you’re asking me whether I’m a fan of what I watch on the T.V. when I watch the Olympics, I am. I think it’s really good hockey and guys are passionate about playing for their country.”

A disruptive dynamic

So why did the NHL choose not to participate in this year’s Winter Games?

The primary reason appears to be an increasing reluctance by NHL owners to temporarily stop their seasons, especially in February, when the NFL’s season has ended and Major League Baseball is still months away.

In addition, the distance required to travel to and from South Korea would mean an even longer break in the NHL regular season than usual – 17 days.

Speaking of distance, South Korea is 15 hours ahead of U.S. Central time, meaning those wanting to watch Olympic hockey live would have to stay up very late or get up very early. But a lack of prime-time games didn’t stop the NHL from participating in the Olympics in Japan and Russia, two sites that were on vastly different schedules than North America.

“Obviously this time around the distance between these places are huge, no question about it,” Rinne acknowledges. “Still, I just always look back to how we did it in past years. I understand a lot of the NHL’s reasoning, but at the same time, we’ve done it so many times before.”

Another factor mentioned by the NHL is the cost of travel and player insurance, which up until this season, had been paid for by the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC informed the NHL it wouldn’t pay for those costs this year, but then the International Ice Hockey Federation indicated it would pick up the tab instead. Still, the NHL declined, saying it was concerned the money would come from assets that would otherwise be used to grow the game at the grassroots level.

“All things being equal, it would be great to have the best players on a world stage at the Olympics,” Predators general manager David Poile explains. “But things are not equal or fair. The fact that it’s very disruptive to the NHL season, the fact that the time zones are so different … it’s a very difficult dynamic.”

‘It’s a bad decision’

Predators center Mike Fisher says he can understand the arguments of both sides, noting also that players participating in the Olympics could suffer serious injuries – which would cripple their respective NHL teams in the months leading up to the playoffs.

In 2014, for instance, the New York Islanders lost star center John Tavares for the rest of the NHL season when he suffered a severe knee injury while playing for Canada at the Olympic.

“But even still,” Fisher says, “I just think to represent your country in the Olympics … something like this is special for the players. It would be really fun to see, but we’re not the ones making those decisions.”

High-scoring Predators forward Filip Forsberg would have been a lock to play for Sweden in this year’s Olympics. He says he believes NHL players should have been allowed to participate – both for their own sake and for the benefit of the sport.

“It’s sad (we’re not playing),” Forsberg adds. “I agree with everything that’s been said. It’s a bad decision we’re not there. It is what it is now and obviously we play hockey here.

“But it’s the best tournament you can have. You play for your country. It’s all the surroundings, all the other sports, all the other athletes. Watching Sweden win the Olympics in 2006 – it’s something you always dream about doing.”

Whether the NHL will return to the Olympics in 2022 is unclear, as many of the same issues will remain.

The 2022 Winter Games will be played in Beijing, China, which would pose similar distance and time-zone concerns to Pyeongchang’s. In addition, the IIHF has said it will not be able to pay for insurance and player travel costs estimated at $15 million in 2022.

So it’s not out of the question that a generation of the NHL’s best might never play in the Olympics, forced to miss at least two straight Winter Games because of the business side of the sport.

Bargaining between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association might be the only hope for change.

“The economics and the risk the NHL takes without getting the proper coverage just doesn’t line up,” Poile says. “So, hopefully, the International Olympic Committee, the NHL and (the NHL Players’ Association) can meet in future years and make it work for everybody.

“There are so many things to take into consideration. But my answer is the same. If it’s beneficial to everybody and makes sense – and more things are equal – it would be great for (the NHL) to be in the Olympics.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him @glennonsports.

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