The Lookahead: NHL players could hold key to Beijing Olympics boycott

The emblem for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games is shown after being unveiled at a ceremony at the National Aquatics Center, also known as the Water Cube. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Let’s cut to the quick: If you really believe that Canadian athletes should boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics, aim high and start by applying pressure on NHL players to skip the hockey competition.

Otherwise, the notion of a boycott is and always has been D.O.A. Even if the evidence of Chinese human rights abuses against its Uyghur minority and its suppression of civil rights in Hong Kong are wholly justified reasons to do it, this isn’t 1980, when 66 nations boycotted the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Trade and economic ties between China and the rest of the world -- indeed, among all the nations -- render ineffective the idea of an economic boycott, let alone an Olympic boycott. As long as we’re buying stuff made in China or they’re buying stuff from us? It’s not the same as 1980; there weren’t as many layers of trade between us and the Soviet Union. There are too many ties that, in this case, bind. Tightly.

So I’m fine with the public stance taken by the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees, that boycotting Beijing’s Winter Games would be the wrong move. It was their decision to make thanks to the Federal government punting on the issue, and from a purely logistical point of view it was, as Chef de Mission Catriona Le May Doan noted, important that Canadian athletes be able to prepare for the games knowing COVID-19, not geopolitics, was the biggest impediment to their participation. We beat a path to Sochi to take part in an Olympics held in what is close to a criminal state. Odd to find morality now, even though the status of the ‘Two Michaels’ brings distrust of China closer to home for Canadians.

But let’s work with the boycott concept for a minute, and focus on NHL players? What would it mean if some of the game's biggest names -- Canadian players in particular -- took a stand?

Talk about an uncomfortable Zoom call question, eh?

The IIHF has already removed Minsk, Belarus, as a site for what was a joint Belarus/Latvia World Championship tournament, deciding to play all the games in Riga, Latvia, after several major sponsors threatened to pull out in protest of president Alexander Lukashenko’s police crackdown following an election in August that has not been recognized by the international community. (“Safety concerns,” were cited.) Yes, the IOC controls the Beijing Games but the IIHF oversees the hockey competition and the NHL and NHLPA are part of the partnership.

So why not China?

This should be the easiest call for any sport because no other athletes have less at stake in the Olympics than professional hockey players. Yes, a medal would be dandy but it is essentially a vanity project for a bunch of millionaire athletes, a nice bauble for a career but of much less significance than a medal would be to an amateur athlete who has devoted four years at least of her or his training for one shot at a reward. The Olympics are the apex for amateur athletes -- not so for the vast majority of NHL players who would in a heartbeat trade four medals for one Stanley Cup. Plus, no disrespect to other winter sports athletes, but if the athletes taking part in the marquee event of the games threaten a boycott, it would grab the attention of IOC partners in a way no other athlete could manage. And hockey is never going to catch basketball or soccer in China, so I’m not certain the Olympic tournament is going to help the NHL tap into a new consumer market. Shoot, the teams won’t even be wearing NHL jerseys.

So if you are serious about boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics or at the very least sending a message, no athletes are as well-positioned to take a meaningful stand as Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon or Auston Matthews or their peers. Forget the skiers and lugers and whatever elsers. There’s your target.


Stuff I’ll be checking out this weekend…

• Saturday, Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks, 8 p.m. ET. The Utah Jazz had their way with the Hawks, but this is a team that has held its opponents to 100 or fewer points on seven occasions, the second-highest total in the NBA. The Hawks are fun, and coupled with a Friday game against the Brooklyn Nets we could come out of the weekend with a better idea about how much of a turnaround the Raptors have managed. Their defence in the paint is among the NBA’s worst, which could play into Pascal Siakam’s hands. You can catch the game on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

• Sunday, Manchester City at Liverpool, Premier League, 11:30 a.m. ET. A win by the Blues and you can stick a fork in the defending Premier League titleholders, who will be 10 points in arrears (Man City has a game in hand) and could even be out of a top four spot by the end of the weekend. Blues manager Pep Guardiola’s been a big deal for some time but considering he’s been without a bona fide striker for most of the season and is currently without Kevin De Bruyne, one of the worlds best midfielders, and has figured out a way to get his team to play smothering defence in the middle of a pandemic without killing itself? This is one of his best jobs.

• Sunday, Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals, Noon ET. Yeah, the Scotia North Division is a cool thing but, guys, have you paid any attention to this three-way tilt between the Boston Bruins, Flyers and Capitals in the MassMutual East? It’s become a meat-grinder, and based on what we’ve seen so far I’m not certain anybody’s going to have much left when the playoffs roll around. You can catch the game on Sportsnet.

• Sunday, Kansas City Chiefs vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl, 6:30 p.m. ET. It’s all about Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes but I loved what former Chiefs Pro Bowler and analyst Bill Maas told us on Writers Bloc: Watch how the speed of the Chiefs receivers and their shiftiness in the flats creates a lot of the havoc that allows Mahomes to freelance. The pandemic has managed to return focus to the game itself; the week has been blessedly free of the usual exhibition of insanity.


• Fair: Wondering what impact Dexter Fowler’s trade from the St. Louis Cardinals will have on Maple Ridge, B.C.’s Tyler O’Neill. Fowler was traded to the Los Angeles Angels, and operating under the assumption highly-touted Dylan Carlson is now an every-day player, it leaves O’Neill, Harrison Bader, Lane Thomas and Justin Williams bidding for two other sports. O’Neill, 25, won the National League Gold Glove in left field but hit just .173 in 50 games. He raised his contact and walk rates, but his BABIP was under .200 and could find himself in a spring training battle.

• Foul: Being absolutely dismissive of the notion that home-ice doesn’t matter just because home teams in other sports have seen fan-less games wreak havoc on the idea of home advantage. Whether it’s the last line change or whatever… it seems as if home is where the points are in the NHL.

Through Thursday, home teams had gained .669 per cent of available points (96-43-18), significantly higher than last season. That’s an outlier. Going into this week, home teams in the NBA had won just a shade over 51 per cent of the time, according to the Associated Press, on pace to be the lowest figure in league history. Home teams won less than half of the NFL’s regular-season games, too. In the Premier League on Wednesday, all five road teams won, and of the 215 Premier League games so far, 88 have been won by visiting teams compared to 79 by the hosts. Road teams have never won more games than home clubs in the 29-year history of the Prem.

• Fair: Continuing to list the ways sports will be forever changed by the pandemic. Safe to say that many health protocols will remain in place limiting media access to athletes -- reporters won’t soon be allowed back into clubhouses or locker rooms, is my guess -- and many of the scheduling and travel nuances are likely here for good (NHL players seem to like the idea of two games in one city spread out over three or four days.) Major League Baseball will eventually have expanded playoffs and reduced spring training length… that’s just for starters.

Smaller, more efficient and focussed work will be the guiding principle overall. Likewise, it was intriguing to hear NFL commissioner Roger Goodell state in his year-end news conference that virtual meetings and learning “is going to be part of our life for the long-term. I think we learned, and the coaches and players learned, that it was actually a very positive way to install offences.” Don’t be surprised if that doesn’t lead to reduced physical contact in practice.

We are in an analytical sports age, and rest assured we are in the middle of a revolutionary re-think backed by numbers, not guesstimation.


Look, I really want to be an ally for women’s hockey. I really do. It’s never going to be a sport of world-wide significance the way womens soccer and basketball is because there simply isn’t an international depth of field, but there is no reason it can’t find a space in North America, especially since -- to its credit -- the overwhelmingly male hockey media corps is tremendously supportive of the game.

But the manner in which the NWHL collapsed because of what was either an overly-ambitious or at least ham-handed COVID-19 protocol in Lake Placid was a huge setback to the cause, coming as it did on the eve of playoffs that would have seen three games televised on NBCSN. I’m sure the rift in the women’s game between the NWHL and PWHPA is the result of some combination of competing good intentions and fractured personal relationships plus differences in philosophy but my goodness, get together and make a business case that makes sense for the NHL. The only way women’s hockey will grow is as an NHL product, with perhaps six teams to begin and a cost-effective structure. Women’s soccer is the model. It’s right there… right in front of you.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan as well as Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass, with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.

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