The coronavirus has forced a four-plus-month pause in the NHL season that could cause years of financial reckoning.
But it may have a silver lining if renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement puts NHL players back in the Olympics.
The league is willing to send players to the 2022 and 2026 Games in return for players making some concessions for the labor-deal structure, media reports have said.
The NHL would still need to iron out details for issues including insurance, travel and marketing with the International Olympic Committee for that to happen, but the IOC opened that door in February.
Players and fans have made it clear they want NHL players to return to the Games after the league chose to not participate in 2018 after the IOC stopped funding for expenses including player travel accommodations and insurance.
The NHL had been allowing its players to participate in the Olympics since 1998.
Commissioner Gary Bettman also had called taking a break from the season “extraordinarily disruptive” for the league without it getting profit sharing and marketing rights in return.
Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, neither of whom have played in the Olympics for their countries, have been the most vocal on the topic in the Lightning’s dressing room.
Stamkos was chosen for Canada’s 2014 team but couldn’t play as he recovered from a broken leg.
In 2014, Hedman’s absence from the Swedish roster was considered one of the biggest snubs of the Games. At 23, Hedman wasn’t established as one of the league’s top defensemen. In 2018 he would have been a lock for Sweden’s roster. At the time, he said he was “extremely, extremely disappointed” by the NHL’s decision to not participate.
Hedman lights up talking about how much it means for him to represent Sweden internationally. He calls playing for Sweden in its 2017 world championship win a highlight of his career and wants a chance at Olympic gold.
When talk of possible NHL participation in the 2022 Olympics heated up last winter, Hedman seemed cautiously optimistic and hopeful. He reiterated that playing in the Olympics “would be a dream come true” in an interview with the International Ice Hockey Federation last month.
“You don’t know how many more chances you’re going to get to represent your country,” Hedman said. “For us to go to the Olympics means the world to us. So we just hope that everything settles down here and we come to an agreement about going to the Olympics.”
Last winter, the IOC offered a concession for the NHL’s return to the Olympics — restoring the funding it had pulled and exploring new partnerships in media rights and branding — and the NHL appeared to tie the 2022 Games to a new labor deal that would start seven months later, after the current agreement expires in September 2022.
Fast forward into the coronavirus pandemic, and the league and players association find themselves negotiating a new labor deal two years before the next Winter Games. It makes sense for Olympic participation to factor into an agreement that would apply to the next six years. Re-evaluating contract structure, a potential salary deferral and how revenue ties into the salary cap and escrow system opened up many new avenues for negotiations.