The Shifting Power Dynamics of Olympic Hockey in the Post-NHL Era
By: Nate Lewis
There are many losers in the National Hockey League’s decision to deny players from participating in next year's PyeongChang Olympics. Hockey fans, media outlets, and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) stand to suffer losses in level of play, sponsorship dollars, and the general prestige of Olympic competition.
The legion of NHL talent from the United States and Canada, which were unleashed on Olympic competition in 1998, will no longer have sway. The percentage of Swedish players in the NHL has grown significantly since 2010, resulting in the eschewing of non-NHL Swedish players on the past two Olympic teams.
The largest advantage of NHL exclusion from Olympic competition will be to Russia and Finland, who benefit from their low representation in the NHL and the rise of the KHL as a contractually competitive league to the NHL.
It is important to point out that while NHLers will not participate in the 2018 tournament, this does not change the status for professionals playing outside of the sport’s top league. National teams will be able to call upon players in the American Hockey League (AHL), the Swedish Elite League (SEL), the Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), and the Finnish SM-liiga among others for professional talent.
The AHL has the distinct advantage of being the most direct training ground for the North American professional game, while KHL teams can offer big-money contracts at the same level as the NHL. SM-liiga and the SEL punch at a significantly lower financial weight class and can’t offer the preparatory benefits of the AHL. What they do provide is the opportunity for players under the age of 20 to play against full-grown men in a professional league, which is not an option available to junior players in North America.
The SEL and SM-liiga consist of older career players who didn’t cross the Atlantic, and raw young prospects brought in to fill the holes left by 19 and 20 year-olds who have made the jump to NHL teams and their AHL affiliates. Professional scouts put a premium on the experience that 16 and 17 year olds gain playing at a high level against grown men, while their North American peers play in U-20 Junior leagues. This is the cyclic exodus of young talent replenishing with the next wave of highly skilled prospects, who in turn are more likely to be selected for the NHL based on their quality of competition.
European AHL prospects would be eligible to play in the Olympics, but because of previous professional experience in their national leagues they are often called up to their NHL clubs more quickly than their North American counterparts.
Since NHL players can no longer participate in the Olympic tournament, it is important to look at how many players from each nation become ineligible. A nationality breakdown of Swedish, Russian and Finnish players in the NHL, accessed through QuantHockey, is important to see which national teams will be more or less harmed.
In the 1999-2000 season, Sweden accounted for 5% of NHL players while Finland and Russia came in at 2.8% and 7.7% respectively. This was the high-water mark for Russian talent in the NHL, with the numbers declining significantly over the next eight years. By the time the KHL was established in 2008 the percentage of Russian-born players in the NHL was down to 3.7% and sat at 4.3% in 2016. Finland’s proportion of representation has maintained around Russia’s current level, in the range of 3-4.4%. In contrast, Swedish participation has blossomed, accounting for 9.3% of NHLers in 2016-2017.
Every national team would have their overall quality reduced without NHL players. For Russia however, this is less of an issue than it will be for Canada, Sweden, and the United States. Certainly a Russian team without Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Vladimir Tarasenko will be worse off. However, because of the recent rise of the KHL, Russia has a high quality pool of talent that already plays a large role on their national team.
In Olympic tournaments since the 2008 establishment of the KHL, 18 players on the Russian team have been taken from non-NHL leagues, compared to four from Sweden and none from Canada or the USA. Huge contracts, coupled with the appeal of playing at home, has driven Russian players from their NHL teams, often breaking contracts in the process. Throw eligibility for the Olympics into the equation and the KHL can offer a sweet deal to top Russian talent.
Alexander Barkov, Patrik Laine, Olli Maatta, and Sami Vatanen exemplify the bright future of Finnish hockey. It is a huge blow to Finland’s Olympic prospects to not have these young stars on the national team. However, because only the best and brightest Finnish players go to the NHL, Finland has a pool of experienced talent in the KHL and SM-liiga.
Like Russia, the Finnish national team has integrated non-NHL talent out of necessity, due to the lower percentage of players in the NHL. In 2014, when Finnish players took up a 3.3% share of NHL talent, Finland had eleven non-NHL players (nine of whom played in the KHL) on their roster.
Finland may not win the Olympic tournament in 2018 but they will be able to ice a competitive team, something that may be a struggle for Sweden. The 2014 Olympic silver-medal winning Swedish team had only one non-NHL player. The Russian and Finnish teams of the same year boasted nine KHL players each in addition to two SM-liiga players on Team Finland.
The recent NHL success of Swedish players will make it far more difficult for the Blue and Gold to ice a competitive team without access to their plethora of NHL talent. Every international team will be worse off without their best players but Russia and, to a degree Finland, are harmed less by a post-NHL Olympic competition.
If nothing else, the lack of NHL players in the Olympics will artificially level the international playing field in favour of national teams who do not solely rely on NHL talent.
The low percentage of Russian and Finnish talent at the NHL level bodes well for their prospects in the post-NHL Olympic era. Coupled with their strong representation in the KHL, Russia and Finland have surprising advantages against the armies of NHL talent from Canada, the United States, and increasingly, Sweden, who will be grinding through the NHL regular season as the tournament plays out next February in PyeongChang.