With the NHL out of the Beijing Games, the league is now mulling how to deal with future business opportunities in the host country, Bill Daly, the league’s long-time deputy commissioner, said Friday.
“The answer on China is that it’s a complicated question,” Daly said during a media conference alongside commissioner Gary Bettman preceding All-Star Weekend festivities in Las Vegas. “We do continue to invest in the spread of youth hockey in China. We’re obviously not looking to play games there next year.
“And whether and when we resume that is an open question.”
The league cancelled its Olympic participation because of COVID-19 implications amid the spike in omicron-variant infections, and the Chinese “weren’t happy about it, obviously,” Bettman said, adding there were coronavirus stipulations built into the NHL’s participation agreement, “so it came as no surprise.”
At the moment, the NHL seems more intent on dealing with its issues in North America as well as resuming European play later in the year in preparation for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan, Italy.
The league intends to revive its Global Series and play preseason games in Switzerland and Germany, plus regular season games in Finland and the Czech Republic prior to and during the 2022-23 season. Teams and dates are still pending and will definitely be dictated by the pandemic.
“Internationally for us is a no-brainer,” Daly said. “We had established momentum in terms of having a greater and more regular presence of games in Europe. With the pandemic waning and hopefully a return to normalcy, it only makes sense to restart those efforts and to further them.”
Pre-pandemic, the NHL had played exhibition games between league teams in China to builid toward participation in the current Winter Olympics. Any plans for future exhibitions are now on hold.
“China continues to be on our radar screen,” Daly said. “We continue to view it as an opportunity. We continue to want to shepherd the game and the development of the game in China, but what form that takes as we move forward is probably [another] open question right now.”
The NHL has postponed 105 games this season largely because of the COVID omicron variant. That has placed a scheduling burden on finishing the regular season and a severe financial burden on the seven teams playing in Canada, where attendance in arenas ranges from zero to 50% depending on the health-care protocols in each province.
The NHL is now using what would have been the three-week Olympics break to reschedule many of those games.
“In the absence of that roughly three-week period, I’m not sure how we would’ve been able to finish the season on any rational or irrational basis,” Bettman said.
Bettman added that though hockey-related revenue (HRR) will be slightly diminished by omicron, it will still be in the $5 billion range.
“While it’s not going to damage HRR as a whole, I will say that the impact is devastating to the clubs that play in Canada,” Bettman said. “Certainly, from an economic standpoint and even from a competitive standpoint, because we’re not getting the home crowds to support them the way American clubs do.”
Multiple games have been postponed in Canada where ongoing protests against vaccination policy have turned violent, particularly in Ottawa, that nation’s capital.
“It’s particularly painful to watch,” Bettman said, adding that only one NHL player right now remains unvaccinated.
“I’m not talking about 1%,” he said. “It’s one player. This is very frustrating for everybody, for all the clubs in Canada. We’re hoping that as COVID wanes the health authorities open things up.”
The upcoming draft is scheduled for July 7-8 at Montreal’s Bell Center, where the Canadiens are currently playing in front of empty seats. That event could be moved or virtual if the health protocols in Quebec don’t change.
In addition, Bettman said some of the Canadian teams have asked to play their regular season games in the U.S. That question has been broached, Bettman said, but hasn’t been acted upon yet.
“That’s how devastating and troublesome it has been for [those] clubs,” Bettman said. “All the clubs that can’t play at full capacity are losing lots of money. I don’t have concerns about a club going out of business, but it’s not unlike what we’ve been through for the last couple of years. It costs a lot of money. On average they’ve lost up to $50 million each. Some more, some less. Adding this on top of that for some clubs isn’t great.”