Shannon on NHL: Olympic, realignment remedies

I must admit, it may not be popular to say but, I’ve changed my mind on realignment and I’m on the verge of changing my mind on the Olympics.

The NHL’s current proposal in front of the players for a 16-team Eastern time zone conference, and a 14 team Central, Mountain and Pacific time zone conference is creative and certainly helps issues for a few teams like Detroit, Columbus, Dallas and Winnipeg. It does, however, penalize the players and teams in the East when it comes to playoff qualifying, and hurts teams like Tampa Bay, Florida and Nashville.

Can it work? Probably. But it’s not without its flaws. It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s not close to perfect. Any change has to be close to perfect. But for me, that’s not the issue. It would appear this is the latest contentious issue between the owners and the players. The NHL had hoped to get player support for the new proposal by last Friday and take it to the Board of Governors later this week. Instead, I’m told, The NHLPA continues to gather feedback from the membership and will have an Executive Board call at some point this week with that board deciding how they want to proceed. They still aren’t sure if the players’ leadership will vote on the proposal or if they want to take it to the full membership.

At the same time, the NHL sits and waits. Apparently there is some sort of deadline set for a decision on this issue because the 2013-14 schedule is waiting to be designed, but that can’t happen until we know the realignment plan. I’ve also been told that the league will not negotiate off of the current 16/14 proposal. There is no appetite to have the players being even more active in running what the owners view as their part of the business.

So wouldn’t it be simpler just to make minimal changes to the format until the business stabilizes in certain cities, and the league decides whether or not to relocate struggling teams or if a 32-team league is viable, necessary and good business? Wouldn’t it be better, for now, just to trade Winnipeg for Nashville, or Winnipeg for Minnesota, and wait the two or three seasons for new buildings in Quebec City, Seattle, suburban Toronto and Las Vegas to be built? Wouldn’t it? I now think so.

The other key issue on knowing the 2013-14 schedule is whether or not to allow time for the Sochi Olympics. That 14-day break would again force the NHL to compress the 1,230 game schedule and/or expand it later in the month of June. And while the groups involved in the Olympic discussions (NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and IOC) will be returning to the negotiating table in the next two weeks, two major issues are still on the table. Player travel to and from Sochi, as well as the players’ insurance for the duration of the games. In 2010, the insurance on the players and their contracts was funded by the Olympic committee and the IIHF. And while the two governing bodies are expected to foot the bill again, there are concerns that the bill will be much higher this time around. Issues of access, digital rights, NHL owners’ treatment appear to be “treatable.”

That said there has been little or no discussion on the issue of a World Cup or other non-Olympic international games. While the “best on best” tournament idea is a worthy goal, I now believe there should be full consideration the concept should be saved for an exclusive hockey World Cup, which will allow the NHL and its players full control of the product and the business.

Despite positive reviews from the winning teams from the Czech Republic (1998), Canada (2002, 2010) and Sweden (2006), the Olympic tournament has not truly helped grow the game in North America. Through Olympic bureaucracy and lack of vision the NHL has not truly created a positive exit strategy following the four Olympic games. Quite frankly, I don’t know what playing in Sochi will accomplish for the business of the NHL. I don’t buy that NBC views NHL involvement mandatory. Nice? Sure, but not mandatory. I don’t buy that it’s just “good for the game.” It might just be an example of the “grass is greener on the other side.”

During this short season, we have had an eye-opening display of what the compressed schedule does to the players. Injuries have become a huge factor for almost every team. Injuries just might have replaced talent when it comes to a team’s success in the NHL. The last time we witnessed injuries of this level? 2009-2010, when we prepared for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. This shouldn’t be construed as some sort of anti-Sochi rant. Perhaps there is another way to give the Russians the respect they are due as a hockey power and the host of the Winter Games. Perhaps individual teams should be allowed to release a limited group of players to play for their countries in Russia, but I really do wonder if it’s beneficial to shut down the game’s best league for two weeks.

There are those that suggest that the IIHF/NHL should follow FIFA when considering how to handle the Olympics. The Olympic soccer tourney is basically an under-23 tournament. Perhaps the IIHF should move the World Junior Hockey Championship to February every fourth year, and make it the Olympic tournament. We in Canada know how good the hockey is, and how passionate the hockey is, maybe it’s about time the world should see that too.

So there you have it. One man’s opinion on two important issues in the hockey world.

I am not suggesting for one minute you should change your mind about these issues. But consider that simple remedies might resolve them and remove the ever increasing list of agendas that always seem to be hurting, not helping, the game from growing.