Winter Olympics: Why ice hockey is missing biggest NHL stars


Where are the best ice hockey players in the world?
XXIII Olympic Winter Games
Venue: Pyeongchang, South Korea Dates: 9-25 February
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, Red Button, Connected TVs, BBC Sport website and mobile app. Full coverage times

Imagine the 2018 World Cup without any Premier League players. It’s inconceivable, isn’t it?

Yet the Winter Olympics’ men’s ice hockey tournament is missing many of its biggest stars because of a row with North America’s National Hockey League (NHL) – the sport’s most popular competition in the world.

How did this happen, and will it affect the Pyeongchang Games? BBC ice hockey commentator Seth Bennett explains.

What has happened?

The National Hockey League, which is the top men’s league in the world, has refused to allow its players to compete in the Winter Olympic Games. That’s somewhere between 150-180 players stopped from competing on the world’s biggest stage.

The NHL board, which runs the league, is made up of the owners of the 30 individual teams.

The time difference between Korea and North America means many of the ice hockey games are being played in the middle of the night for US audiences and the NHL therefore felt it was not right to put their league on hold for three weeks and allow its players to go to Pyeongchang.

There was even talk of strikes as a number of high-profile stars like Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist and Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin expressed a desire to represent their nation and the event.

“I hate politics in general and it’s become part of sports obviously,” US assistant coach Chris Chelios told BBC Sport in Pyeongchang. “But what an opportunity for these guys. I’m just as happy. Now this is their time to shine and they’ll never forget this.”

How did we get to this point?

Captain of the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin, will not be allowed to represent OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia) at the Games

Since the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 the NHL and the International Olympics Committee (IOC) have had an uncomfortable relationship.

The NHL questions the business reason for sending its prize assets to the Games, whilst not receiving the level of compensation or the upturn in international interest in the league that it hoped.

In short, it is down to money.

Injuries in Sochi four years ago were cited as one reason, with the NHL also seeking compensation for having to shut the league down.

But the IOC does not pay any professional league or organisation to ensure participation – and so the two parties refused to budge, meaning a deal for the best players in the world to be in Pyeongchang could not be reached.

It will be interesting to see if the NHL is willing to take a similar stance when the Games move on to Beijing in four years.

China is a market which has been coveted by a number of sports because of people reach and commercial opportunities. The NHL has already made its own overtures, holding pre-season games there in 2017