TORONTO — Even though no official decision has been made about NHL participation in future Olympics, China is definitely on the NHL’s radar.
After Pyeongchang, Korea, hosts in 2018, Beijing is on the docket for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Opening up the Chinese market to hockey could be a lucrative opportunity for the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.
“Obviously China is an important market,” commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday. “It’s a big one. If you can influence 1 per cent of the population you’re doing well, so obviously we’re going to need to take a look at what we think the overall impact on the game would be by participating.”
Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr are careful to say they haven’t had any formal discussions about going back to the Olympics. It’s no secret that the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation would love nothing better than for the NHL to be back to headline a premier event.
During and after the Sochi Olympics, which were considered an immense success given the play and how well the players were treated, Pyeongchang was still very much an unknown. It still is, but Beijing getting to host in 2022 may have changed the game.
Two straight Games in Asia, and on the heels of the first Chinese player being selected in the NHL draft, China could very well be the next target as a hockey market.
“Whenever you look at these kinds of things and whenever you attempt to do what we’re trying to do now, which is to say let’s take a long-term view and really develop this game in as many markets as you can, of course you look at all the decisions made by other parties, and that includes Beijing,” Fehr said.
During the entire public dialogue, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have pointed out that the Olympics don’t bring the NHL any tangible financial benefit. It helps the IOC and IIHF plenty, but the NHL and NHLPA would like some more for stopping their season in February.
“The toughest thing about the Olympics is obviously it’s during the season, you’ve got to fly to wherever the event is, and that’s difficult,” Canadian defenceman Drew Doughty said. “Coming back from Russia last year was, I thought, very, very hard.”
Sidney Crosby said that scheduling isn’t easy for the Olympics. But he and other NHL players have made it clear that they want to go back.
“Obviously we all know the impact of the Olympics and how everyone gets behind it,” Crosby said. “It’s a great brand of hockey and seeing the best go against each other is pretty unique.”
Time difference is problematic, too, especially because Pyeongchang is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone and 16 ahead of the Pacific Time Zone.
But players’ desires to go, coupled with the Chinese potential in 2022, might make the difference.
“Obviously if there is something broader going on with a China experience, whether or not that changes the ultimate decision I can’t tell you sitting here today, but obviously it could be a factor,” Bettman said.
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press