Updated: Jul 20, 2022
In the aftermath of skipping the Olympics to reschedule regular season games postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the NHL announced that the owners and players’ association conducted initial meetings centered on hosting another World Cup of Hockey in 2024, when COVID-19 will hopefully no longer have an impact on public sporting events. For those unfamiliar, the World Cup of Hockey was the NHL’s substitute for their players competing in the 2018 Olympics after a series of disputes between the owners, players, International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) over costs and advertising associated with NHLers participating in the Olympics.
On its surface, this move looks like a positive response to the public dissatisfaction from many NHL players over not being able to participate in this year’s Olympics. NHL Players clearly want to compete at the Olympics and have the chance to be part of moments that will transcend their playing careers and live on in the histories of their respective countries. Men’s Ice Hockey at the Olympics has hosted some of the most memorable games in the history of the sport, games like the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”, the Crosby (BOO!) Winner in overtime in the 2010 Gold Medal Game, and T.J. Oshie’s legendary shootout performance against Russia in 2014. Those opportunities don’t exist in the World Cup of Hockey, a tournament with no such historic lineage and, while being well organized, has always felt like a money grab by the NHL and its owners.
The current CBA between the NHL and NHLPA includes a commitment to participate at the 2026 Olympics, but the current CBA also expires immediately after that Olympics and the 2026 season, where an unfortunate series of events could lead to an ugly rehashing of this dispute between the players and owners.
The Owners’ motivations for wanting to restrict their players from competing in the Olympics are somewhat easily understood and perhaps reasonable from a business perspective. The Owners do not want to pay for the travel of their athletes to the Olympics, assume the risk of injury in the middle of the season (when most teams are gearing up for a playoff run, as happened in 2014 with Toronto Maple Leafs’ star John Tavares, at the time a member of the New York Islanders) and get nothing of monetary value in return (as they can’t use the media produced by the Olympics without the approval of the IOC, one of the points of contention in 2018). So, they initiated the World Cup of Hockey to monetize their players’ desire for international competition in the short term, and may attempt to rehash this issue in the next CBA negotiation if the following, or something similar, happens:
The Beijing Olympics ratings come in lower than expected (The NHL Owners could argue this is because they didn’t participate, and attempt to leverage this into a new partnership with the IOC)
The 2024 World Cup of Hockey is a surprising success, capitalizing on the vacuum of international hockey competition involving NHL players over the past 6 years
The NHL Participates in the Milan Olympics and another major star gets hurt (Let’s say someone like an Auston Matthews, a US star playing for the Leafs, who are a Canadian Original 6 Franchise. This type of injury would have the greatest impact on NHL Owners across both countries)
If all of that were to unfold, you can imagine the NHL Owners would be pretty upset with their current arrangement. Now, all those things happening exactly how I described them is unlikely, but if it happens, the Owners of the NHL may be determined to monopolize their players’ participation in international tournaments in the future. Attempting to do so may cause another lockout, as it’s clear from the players’ reaction to skipping these games they are committed to participating in the Olympics in the future. The more likely outcome is that the Owners use this as leverage to ask for other concessions in the CBA, and whether or not they get them will depend on how attached the players are to having the opportunity to become the next Mike Eruzione or Vladislav Tretiak.
Michael DiLiello is an Army Officer transitioning to the Sports Law field and will enroll as a 1L in the Fall of 2022. His opinions are purely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or any other external agency. Michael can be found on Twitter @Mike_DiLiello and LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/michael-diliello-1057b439.
 Campigotto, Jesse. 2017. The NHL's beef with the Olympics, explained. April 2. Accessed February 11, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/nhl-olympics-dispute-1.4054830.