GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Olympic hockey has survived without the NHL, it just hasn’t thrived.
Empty seats in the stands and a lack of big names on the ice have left the men’s tournament struggling to generate much buzz, especially when compared to the thrilling best-on-best final in the women’s competition.
Rene Fasel, the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said Saturday he was ”disappointed” the NHL didn’t come to the Pyeongchang Games and wants the pros back for 2022, but he played down the importance of their absence.
”You don’t need caviar every day. You can also live with leberkaese and weisswurst,” he said, referring to traditional German meatloaf and sausage.
Germany’s 4-3 semifinal win over Canada showed how the non-NHL format can deliver surprise results, but also highlighted players who wouldn’t have come near an Olympic team in previous years. Canada’s goaltender for that game was Kevin Poulin, who spent part of last season in a semi-pro league in Quebec.
Germany coach Marco Sturm, who played 15 seasons in the NHL, wants the league back.
”All the NHL guys should be in the Olympics,” Sturm said Friday. ”That’s just what the event is for and hopefully in the future they will be back on Olympic ice.”
Fasel portrayed Germany’s run to the gold-medal game as a commercial triumph for the IIHF, a way to finally crack a market dominated by soccer, all made possible by the NHL’s absence.
”Not having the NHL is still a disappointment, but actually with the result yesterday … in Germany nobody cares if the NHL is here or not,” he said.
Pyeongchang Olympic organizers say they have sold 80 percent of all available hockey tickets, but many matches have been far from 80 percent full.
Men’s games in Pyeongchang have averaged just under 4,600 spectators, but attendances have dropped as the tournament has gone on. Germany’s quarterfinal win over Sweden, an upset of the top-seeded team, was watched by only 2,029 people, according to the IIHF. That makes it the worst attended Olympic men’s game this century.
Only 2,265 watched Canada’s quarterfinal win over Finland, and 4,057 were in the 10,000-capacity Gangneung Hockey Center to see Germany defeat the Canadians – numbers which would be disappointing even for the world championships, the annual event which is the IIHF’s other non-best-on-best tournament.
”We were disappointed about the quarterfinals for sure, but it’s a non-hockey country,” Fasel said. ”I think the pricing was also relatively high for people.”
The IIHF said TV ratings are comparable to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but he didn’t provide any data.
”We will not have the results during the tournament,” general secretary Horst Lichtner said Saturday, ”but what we hear from the broadcasters in very positive. We do not expect big drops and big differences from Sochi.”
Fasel said organizers in Pyeongchang could have filled seats with Olympic volunteers and staff to increase the atmosphere at games, and said the IIHF is already planning to do that for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, another country where hockey is a marginal activity. The Chinese club playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League – with the explicit aim of growing the game in China – has sometimes played for home crowds of a few hundred.
The IIHF wants to include the Chinese men’s and women’s national teams in the Olympic tournament in 2022 even though they are far below even the level of the two Korean teams which lost all their games in Pyeongchang.
The men’s team won the fifth tier of the world championships last year, beating the likes of North Korea and New Zealand in front of as few as 100 people. The women’s team has had a little more success and is ranked 19th in the world, between Italy and Kazakhstan.
Fasel said Beijing organizers will have some reserve people to fill the hockey arenas.
”I don’t think we will have empty seats in China,” he said.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org