This week, hockey players will be heading to PyeongChang, South Korea as the 2018 Winter Olympics begin. The rosters host a few familiar names among them, but none with quite the level of notoriety as Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Alex Ovechkin, or Sidney Crosby. This year, many of the men’s ice hockey national teams find themselves in a Miracle on Ice scenario without any of their biggest stars.
While the NHL sits at home as the largest ice hockey tournament goes on without them, they will be celebrating Hockey is for Everyone Month, an initiative to support inclusion in all of its forms in the sport.
It feels like a slap in the face to an entire nonwhite, non-European market that they just turned their back on.
While there are several reasons the NHL has decided that they will not be participating in the Olympics this year — to the point that they threatened players with arrest should they try to go anyway — it’s hard to imagine that the conversation would have gone exactly the same if the Olympics were held closer to home. And while it may not have been the motivating factor, can the NHL really claim their commitment to inclusion and diversity when they threw away the best chance to grow the sport in an Asian market?
The NHL hosted preseason games between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks in Shanghai and Beijing this year, in a partnership with Bloomage International to grow the game in China. It gave people in China a chance to see the NHL in action, up close, and see what the highest levels of competition in the sport look like. The effect Bloomage International was hoping for is that it would inspire a new generation of hockey players in China.
It was a good move for the NHL, but make no mistake: it was absolutely a marketing decision. The NHL brought their own product to China, in jerseys with their logo stamped on them, and showcased their own league.
They did the same thing with the World Cup of Hockey, an international tournament created by the NHL, with NHL players, to show the best of the NHL talent — further evidence by the creation of Team North America, a combined USA-Canada squad of players under age 24, and Team Europe, composed of European NHL players whose home countries don’t have enough NHL players to sport their own team. Once again, it was exclusively an NHL product, held in an NHL arena, where the NHL profited from the entire thing.
The Olympics, plainly put, aren’t about the NHL. And if the NHL doesn’t have something to gain, then the opportunity for diversifying and growing the sport is no longer a priority, let alone a concern.
They are the world’s biggest stage for athletes to showcase their sport and this year, they’re being held in the middle of an untapped market for growth. The timezone difference between South Korea and North America has been pointed out as a limiting factor in making Olympic games accessible, but that again is prioritizing existing fans over creating new ones — the timezones that will find the games most accessible would reach a massive Asian market and blow the effects of those two preseason games out of the water.
The NHL is purposefully withholding the best products in the sport because the Asian market doesn’t matter to them if they can’t directly benefit from it. Just as easily as having the top competition in the world competing before billions of people can bring in new fans, putting out an inferior product before those same fans can just as easily turn people off to the sport. It’s damaging a real opportunity for growth and diversity.
Those players and those fans are out there, and they want access to the NHL. Take, for example, how hockey has grown in Japan, but Japanese players don’t often make the leap to playing for the NHL.
Gord Graham, an English teacher from Toronto who coaches hockey in Saitama, Japan told the New York Times about how seeing hockey in North America changed his players’ perception of what their future could be in the sport.
Graham said he and a fellow Saitama-based coach, the former Russian Olympian Vasily Pervukhin, began taking their players to overseas tournaments and exhibition games several years ago to expose them to a higher level of competition. He said that in Canada, the boys were pleasantly surprised by how much hockey pervades daily life — unlike in Japan, where it is overshadowed by judo, baseball and soccer.
“That kind of got the ball rolling and peaked their motivation to look above and beyond Japan to further their ice hockey aspirations,” Graham said.
Among the players he coaches is 14-year-old Aito Iguchi, who has gone viral with his stickhandling skills and is the biggest name in Japanese youth hockey. He has aspirations of playing in the NHL someday and said he was inspired by former NHL player, Pavel Datsyuk.
Iguchi said later that when he was learning to play, he had been inspired by Pavel Datsyuk, a Russian stickhandling wizard and longtime Detroit Red Wings star, who now plays in the Kontinental Hockey League.
“He can deke and stickhandle like no one else,” Iguchi said.
The Japanese national men’s ice hockey team did not qualify for the Olympics this year. So when these young hockey players watch the Olympics, not only will they not see themselves competing, but they won’t see the best players in the world, either.
Think about the first player to make you fall in love with a sport. Think back on how you felt as a kid the first time you ever watched professional athletes compete. Remember the awe and reverence you felt watching players who were the best at what they do doing what they love.
The NHL is denying entire groups of people they spend an entire month claiming to advocate for the opportunity to create those memories and develop that interest and excitement about the sport. They can’t have it both ways.
Diversity doesn’t come in their own backyard, but that’s the only place the NHL is looking for it.