After 119 days, the pain is over. No more lockout talk. Promise.
Over the next few weeks, the complete CBA will be put together then put to bed. It will be finalized in the first two weeks of February, and then signed sometime in March. In the mean time, the NHL and its players will be on the same side of a negotiating table trying to finalize whether or not to participate in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.
As a timeline, the Games start in just over a year. Feb. 7, 2014 to be exact. As of this day, there have been no formal discussions between the parties to ensure that professional hockey players will play in the hockey tournament. There is no doubt that most involved want the pros to show up on the shores of the Black Sea. The Games’ organizers, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the networks, the fans all want the “best-on-best” tournament. I even believe that the players and the owners want to participate. But not at all cost, and that is the key.
It is a very complex issue to say the least. Revenues from the event are split between the IOC and the IIHF. Control of the venues and the product are policed based on protecting the broadcast rights holders and Olympic sponsors. At this point, the lucrative cheques written to be involved in the Games don’t get shared with the NHL and its players. And to put it in context, the men’s hockey tournament in Vancouver was the largest single revenue generator at the games. Reports have gate revenues for “ice hockey” as it is called, at levels that match or beat Phoenix, Dallas and Florida combined…COMBINED.
Compounding the issue of dollars is access. The NHL or the NHLPA cannot use footage or do interviews inside the arena on game day, off days, or even at practice for use on their own websites or on the NHL Network. It’s one of the reasons that Crosby’s Golden Goal has not been seen on air very much in the last three years to promote the NHL game, Crosby or the Penguins. Somehow, that has to change.
The IOC has already sold those rights to NBC in the United States and CBC in Canada and a consortium of networks in Europe. Video footage from the tournament has so many restrictions for use that it can’t be properly used to promote the game. For the players and the owners that is a key issue. Let’s face it, one of the biggest reasons for NHL players to play in the Olympics was to promote the game. They don’t get paid a salary to play in the Games, but there should be some promotional opportunities for all involved. It didn’t work after Nagano in 1998, it didn’t work after Salt Lake City in 2002, it didn’t work after Torino in 2006 and had marginal success after Vancouver in 2010.
On the topic of access, one memory I have of the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics was watching Chicago Blackhawks’ owner, the late Bill Wirtz, in the long lines at the Big Hat Arena. No VIP treatment like the IOC members or the IIHF members. You have to know that owners that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their players think they should get something for allowing the players to play. In Vancouver, while the NHL did purchase a hospitality suite, they had limited ticket access while the IOC VIP section of the arena stared them in the face, often times half empty. As well, any player injured during the games had little or no contact with their NHL teams, or medical staffs.
So, agree or disagree with the complaints, know that those are some of the key issues.
With no Olympic money to be shared (because that’s not what the IOC or the IIHF does), expect the players and league to push for more and greater access to the venue. Also, expect Bob Nicholson of Hockey Canada and a new vice president of the IIHF to be a catalyst in the deal. Growing revenues away from the Olympics, but still on the international stage will be key. However, there are a ton of questions to be raised in the meetings that will take place in the next few weeks:
– Can the Premiere Games be made more important? And at a time of the season when fans will watch games from Europe?
– Can the Victoria Cup play a bigger role?
– Is there a new brand of Super Series like we saw in the 1970s between KHL teams and NHL teams? (“They are going home, Yes, they are going home!).
– Finally, is the World Cup of Hockey of the verge of returning? And when and where should that tournament be played? September? February?
All of the above could be answered in the next few years.
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr talked throughout the lockout about growing the game internationally as key to growing HRR. The NHL owners have often gazed across the Atlantic as an underexposed market for the North American version of the game. Under the circumstances of an Olympics nine time zones away, can the NHL game be helped by attendance in Sochi? Is it worth postponing the NHL schedule for two weeks to grow the game with little or no input to the process?
Something has to change to make it worth everyone’s while. The talk will begin shortly and a resolution has to come quickly, because in terms of the Olympics, it’s not that far away.