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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Did the NHL Pick the Wrong Fight?

The NHL informed the players' union that the league will not permit its players to play for their national teams in the next Olympics. 

On the face of it, it's a wise business decision.  The international soccer world is rife with examples of players who travel extraordinary distances on their "international breaks" to play several games for their national teams despite whatever condition they might be in save unable to walk.  I couldn't imagine how taxing it might be for Alexis Sanchez to travel from London to Santiago, Chile to play for his national team after a grueling round of games in the English Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.  But until they hit a certain age where it seems acceptable to retire from international competition and use breaks to re-charge, players seem duty-bound to put on their country's uniform and go full tilt for their national teams.  Even in friendly matches, those that do count as attempts to get the team to qualify for a regional or international competition. 

And, when they retire from international competition, it's a signal that they are close to the end of their careers and that they might not be as in demand on their professional teams or for the major professional teams any more.  That retirement is bittersweet.  Sure, they will get more rest, but they also are not as in demand as they once were. 

Move over to the NHL, where the commitment to one's national team is not nearly as pronounced.  Now, the NHL doesn't want to lend its players or see them get hurt, the latter a risk that is run continuously in soccer.  It would be awful, for example, to see Diego Costa rupture an Achilles' tendon in a qualifying match between Spain and Monaco for the World Cup (presumably Monaco is not very good so the third-string striker for Spain would get the nod over Costa in that match, but you get the point).  Except that this is not a qualifier, this is for the ultimate international competition in the hockey world -- the Olympics.

The NHL has told its players that their national teams are not important.  The NHL is making players choose their profession over their country.  In the business world, there's an old saying, especially when it comes to commitments from employees and having them come to work in extreme weather, that you should not make employees choose between their job and their families.  People will elect to protect their homes and take care of their kids, who might have a day off from school, over their jobs.  They have to -- it's a necessity.  And unless they are required for an emergency and knew that when they accepted the job, they will harbor resentment for a while and you might "lose" them.  So, managers are extremely careful in those situations.

How about country?  How about telling a Swede, sorry, but you cannot play in the Olympics?  Or any player?  That's something that almost every player wants to do.  The NHL is making players choose their jobs over their countries, and it just doesn't seem right.  This is a leaden decision that puts business over raw emotion, over patriotism, over playing for your country and the love of the game.  It's all because of money, and when that's the sole motivator, bad decisions can result and bad feelings will result.  And these are bad feelings of the type that can last for a long time.

I doubt that this is the last step in the process.  The NHL might think it has the right to do so and that it has good reasons, but they should remember another old adage, that one doesn't win by being right all the time.  Public opinion and the players are against this decision, and the NHL cannot afford a lot of bad publicity.  Their TV money isn't staggering, and their fan appeal is limited, no matter how vocal those who are about hockey advocate for it.  There is no law out there that protects a league or its wealthy owners from themselves, but if there were one, it would get invoked here.

This is a bad decision.  The NHL should fix it.


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