NHL players might return to Olympics

Diana C. Nearhos Tampa Bay
Times (TNS)
Canada's Sidney Crosby (87) gets ready for a face off during the Men's Ice Hockey Semifinal Playoff against the United States during the Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia, on February 21, 2014.

TAMPA, Fla. - The coronavirus 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 Olympic Games in return for players making some concessions around contract structure, according to Sportsnet's Chris Johnston.

The NHL would still need to iron out details around insurance, travel, marketing and other issues with the International Olympics Committee for that to happen, but the IOC opened that door back in February.

Players and fans have made it clear that's what they want. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, neither of whom has ever played in the Olympics, have been the most vocal on the topic in the Lightning's dressing room.

Hedman lights up talking about how much it means for him to represent Sweden. He calls the 2017 World Championship win a highlight of his career and wants a chance at Olympic gold.

In 2014, Hedman's absence from the Swedish roster was considered one of the biggest snubs of the Sochi Games - at 23, Hedman wasn't yet established as one of the league's top defensemen. In 2018, he would have been a lock, but the NHL pulled out of the Olympics. At the time, Hedman said he was "extremely, extremely disappointed."

When talk of possible NHL participation in 2022 heated up this winter, Hedman seemed both 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 told Lucas Aykroyd. With the amount of talent we have on the back end as well, we don't know where we're going to be, but 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."

He just might get that wish.

The NHL pulled out of Olympic play after the IOC stopped funding for things like player travel accommodations and insurance. The league had already been taking a break from its season - which Commissioner Gary Bettman called "extraordinarily disruptive - without any profit share or even marketing rights.

It offered players a chance to participate in the 2018 Games in return for an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement. Then when the IOC offered a concession - restoring the funding and exploring new partnerships in media rights and branding - the NHL appeared to tie the 2022 Games to a new CBA that would start seven months later, when the current agreement expires in September.

Fast forward into a pandemic, and the league and players association find themselves negotiating a new CBA two years before the next Winter Games. It makes perfect sense for Olympic participation to factor into an agreement that applies to the next six years. Re-evaluating contract structure, a potential salary deferral and how the revenue ties into both the salary cap and escrow system opened up many new avenues for negotiations.

The best thing to come from this, from the standpoint of hockey fans across the world, might be NHL players wearing their countries' sweaters in Beijing.