This article first appeared in Sportsnet magazine.
Less than a year from now, in a land far away, the torch will be lit and the puck will be dropped on the Olympic hockey tournament. The burning question, however, is whether or not NHL players will be in Sochi, Russia, making a fifth straight appearance in the Winter Games. It’s not the sure thing — the Sidney Crosby tap-in — you might think it is.
The answer is still pending as the league and the Players’ Association continue to meet with the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation, most recently in New York City Apr. 13. As obvious as the decision would seem to a passionate hockey fan, the bottom line remains: How many dollars, and how much sense, does going to Sochi really make for the NHL?
Everyone agrees that growing the game internationally is important, and putting the best players on the biggest stage can’t hurt the game from a promotional standpoint — though with Sochi being several time zones away, the games won’t be played anywhere close to prime time, and that is a factor. But you can’t pick and choose which Games suit you best, so the league has to think outside the North American box and appreciate the global exposure it would receive.
Despite how grand the stage may be, there are owners concerned about closing down their business for a couple of weeks in the middle of the season (ironic, given they just shut down for four months, but I digress) and risking injury to their players. But the bigger concern is that the NHL and the players won’t fully cash in. As my Sportsnet colleague John Shannon pointed out, the gate revenues from the Vancouver Olympic hockey tournament would have matched or exceeded the yearly receipts of three of the NHL’s weakest markets combined. All that money went to the IOC and IIHF.
So will NHL players, other than torchbearer Alex Ovechkin, go? It will come down to the venue and player access given to the league, sponsorship recognition and promotional opportunities to generate revenue and enhance the NHL’s exposure.
There is another reason for going, of course, though it will never be consideration No. 1: the fans. On the heels of another excruciating lockout, which left them angry and indifferent, fans returned in record numbers, both in the seats and in front of televisions, when NHL games began. As unthinkable as the work stoppage was, would the NHL take away the Olympics, too?
Olympic hockey has given us incredible moments — the brilliance of Dominik Hasek, Canada’s first gold medal in 50 years in Salt Lake City and, of course, Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in Vancouver. We have been spoiled, but we have forever pined for best-on-best, which is how the 1972 Summit Series—and, ultimately, the NHL’s involvement in the Olympics — came to be. There is something special about watching NHL teammates playing against each other for a fortnight, or enemies coming together to play for their country. For many of the European players, Olympic gold matters more than the Stanley Cup. For Canadians, that’s not the case, but winning matters a lot because we still believe hockey is our game.
The Olympics do nothing but add to the greatness of the sport, and when the Olympic flame is doused, the NHL continues to matter. If it’s just about money, then bring back the World Cup of Hockey every two years between Games.
For the people ultimately making the decision, we understand the issue of profitability. But remember that, for the players and the fans, it is about an investment of a different kind. So figure it out guys. Figure out how to split that financial pie. Where have we heard that before?