All sports have risks and an invitation to participate in the Olympics ups the ante for any athlete. Yet as exciting as it is for a player to represent his or her country, an Olympic bid can also pose considerable challenges for sports franchises that send their athletes off and welcome them back after two weeks of intense, all-out play on the world stage.
For the National Hockey League, the motivation to take part in the Olympics currently outweighs the risks. “Olympic hockey participation is a league initiative and an effort toward raising the profile of hockey as a whole,” said Donald Fishman, assistant general manager for the Washington Capitals. “We have the best players in the world and NHL players are on every team at the games.”
The league agenda does not always mesh with the security of its franchises, however, opening each to vulnerabilities that could put a risk manager on edge. “Going to an isolated town in Russia is high risk, but the benefits to player, team and country tip to the positive,” explained Paul Vogelgesang, chief risk officer of H&S Ventures LLC, holding company for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. “As long as there are contingency plans that are well thought out, it should be a successful trip.”
But what do risk managers need to factor in to that calculus, and what does participation mean for the business interests that rely on these top athletes more than just every four years?
A Different Game
The style of Olympic hockey presents a notable shift for American NHL players named to Team USA, even though many have played internationally or taken part in tournaments abroad. Early hockey borrowed space from different precursor sports—the outdoor sport bandy in Europe and the indoor game of curling in Canada, hockey historian George Fosty explained to the Wall Street Journal. Today, the legacy of that difference remains clear to anyone who laces up their skates. In the United States and Canada, the standard rink is 85 feet wide, but in Europe, rinks are 100 feet wide. A smaller playing surface lends itself to the more aggressive style of play that dominates the NHL. On the larger European ice, there is greater emphasis on speed and finesse.
“The difference is a lot bigger than fans think,” Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman and three-time member of Team USA Paul Martin told the WSJ. “You have more room to cover, especially around the nets.”
With the Olympic recess coming at the height of the league’s season, the timing can further compound even these small differences for players both while they participate in the games and when they return to the NHL.
Team USA Roster
PLAYER NHL FRANCHISE
Jimmy Howard Detroit Red Wings
Ryan Miller Buffalo Sabres
Jonathan Quick Los Angeles Kings
John Carlson Washington Capitals
Justin Faulk Carolina Hurricanes
Cam Fowler Anaheim Ducks
Paul Martin Pittsburgh Penguins
Ryan McDonagh New York Rangers
Brooks Orpik Pittsburgh Penguins
Kevin Shattenkirk St. Louis Blues
Ryan Suter Minnesota Wild
David Backes St. Louis Blues
Dustin Brown Los Angeles Kings
Ryan Callahan New York Rangers
Patrick Kane Chicago Blackhawks
Ryan Kesler Vancouver Canucks
Phil Kessel Toronto Maple Leafs
T.J. Oshie St. Louis Blues
Max Pacioretty Montreal Canadiens
Zach Parise Minnesota Wild
Joe Pavelski San Jose Sharks
Paul Stastny Colorado Avalanche
Derek Stepan New York Rangers
James Toronto Maple Leafs
Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
“We worry about injury, particularly with the number of games played in a short time period and the fact that the players really go all out and need to win every match,” Fishman said. “We also worry about their re-entry. After the games, we have to try to minimize injuries and the players have to adapt again to a different style of play.”
Sidelined by Injury
The possibility of injury at Sochi may pose the greatest risk to both players and franchises. The NHL takes out an insurance policy with the International Hockey Federation to cover potential loss of salary due to Olympic participation, but the impact upon return can be far greater.
“It is hard to predict in advance, but franchises could see ticket sales be lower due to star players being unavailable before or after the games are over,” Vogelgesang said. Such absence could also impact an NHL team’s fate for the season, as the run-up to the Stanley Cup playoffs begins shortly after players return.
No other American organized sport has to take into account the risk of a season that overlaps the Olympic games, and there are many dimensions of that risk for players and franchises to consider.
“The Olympic recess is about 17 days in mid-February, and it’s really the worst time to shut down for us, with the NFL season ending and that competition for airtime gone,” said Fishman. “That time away—whether players are in the games or just on break—can also impact the dynamics of the whole team. It’s three-quarters of the way through the season, and the break can set a team back if they’re doing well. Then again, if a team isn’t doing well, it can help give them a jump-start when players return.”
A Win for the Bottom Line
Individual NHL franchises can benefit from the added publicity as well. Those who are already fans may look forward to seeing some of their favorite NHL stars take the ice abroad, further boosting players’ star power and fans’ engagement. But first-time Olympians may have the most to gain—both personally, and for their franchise. “I think everyone knows [star winger and Capitals captain Alexander] Ovechkin, but when John Carlson plays for Team USA this year, I could definitely see that boosting his profile as people take notice of him and associate him with both the games and our team. And that could certainly mean more merchandise sales,” Fishman said.
Vogelgesang agreed, noting, “Publicity due to star players winning medals at the games could benefit the team by 10% to 20% due to merchandise sales and higher attendance at future games.”
That boost will hopefully extend to the NHL as a whole—a central element of the league’s strategy. “The Olympics offer great exposure for our players and for the league,” Fishman said. “We all hope that people who tune in for the Olympic hockey games will stick around and watch NHL games in March and April. In the long-run, participation is part of a league effort to increase the number of fans watching hockey and tuning in to the NHL.”