A note from the editor: In recognition of the upcoming Olympics, The Sports Journal has “temporarily” allowed for the addition of unique perspectives on Olympic Sports. Please enjoy the commentary from Dr. John Cairney from the University of Queensland.

For the first time in over a decade, NHL players are set to return to the Olympic stage, sparking widespread excitement among ice hockey enthusiasts worldwide. Announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman , this decision to participate in the 2026 and 2030 Winter Games ends a hiatus that has lasted since 2014. It reflects a strategic move to enhance international competition among the world’s elite hockey players, aiming to alternate between the Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey every two years.

The NHL’s withdrawal after the 2014 Olympics stemmed from logistical and financial concerns, including potential revenue losses and the risks of competitive imbalance and player injuries when resuming the season. The injury of John Tavares during the 2014 Sochi Olympics underscored the risk of injury, while also pointing to the demanding nature of Olympic play. Conversely, the break offered a rest period for those not participating, leading to concerns about unequal player fatigue and readiness. Players not competing in the Olympics could potentially benefit from the break, gaining an edge over those who did participate.

Despite these concerns, there was scant research at the time to evaluate their validity, even though professional sports, including ice hockey, are rich in data capable of informing such analyses. Our research team aimed to fill this gap by investigating the impact of NHL participation in the Winter Games on both team and individual player performance, with a
focus on injury and fatigue. Our findings offered some surprising insights.

Our first study looked at the team-level “fatigue effect,” suggesting that teams with more Olympic participants might experience a dip in performance post-Games due to player fatigue, potentially affecting their regular season play. We analysed goal differentials (goals for minus goals against) before and after the Olympics, taking into account the number of players each team sent and mid-season trades’ impacts. Although some Olympic years showed a trend towards a negative effect on goal differential, indicative of a potential fatigue effect, the overall impact on team performance was minor.

The second study focused on individual player performance, particularly during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. We examined performance metrics before and after the Olympics to test the “fatigue theory” at an individual level. Our findings indicated that the number of Olympic minutes played had no significant effect on post-Olympic performance for players overall. However, a closer look at player positions revealed that forwards experienced a slight decrease in points per game post-Olympics if they played more minutes. Defensemen, on the other hand, were unaffected. Overall, our research suggests that concerns about performance declines due to Olympic participation may have been exaggerated.

Our studies provide reassurance that NHL players’ return to the Winter Olympics is beneficial for the sport. While issues related to scheduling, injury risks, and competitive balance remain, the evidence indicates that these factors minimally impact the league and its athletes. The advantages of Olympic participation, including sport promotion, player experience, and fan engagement, significantly outweigh the potential downsides. As the NHL sends its stars back to the Olympic ice, this move is celebrated not only by fans but also as a victory for the global prestige of ice hockey.



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