NHL’s decision not to send players to Olympics bad for hockey

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman discusses the breaking news that there will be no NHLers at the 2018 Olympics.

I have to tell you, I never thought they’d do it.

I thought someone would step up at the last second. Or, I thought NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman would hold his nose and say, “As much as I hate this…we’ll go.”

Let me say this in no uncertain terms: this is bad. It’s bad for hockey. South Korea may not be China, but it’s not the Solomon Islands. There are a lot of people and influential sponsors who could be exposed to the game.

The Olympics are a fantastic showcase, the pinnacle of sport. The players love it, fans love it. I loved covering them. It’s terrific. Hockey does not win by missing out.

Here’s the problem: it’s not so easy to pick the villain. Bettman is an obvious target, and being commissioner means you eat it. The job and salary comes with that responsibility.

But no one was willing to compromise. In 2006, we did an interview with late Philadelphia owner Ed Snider, who said he didn’t see the value in attending overseas Olympics, since the time difference kept hockey off North American television in prime hours.

That wasn’t a problem in Vancouver for 2010.

What 2014 had that 2018 doesn’t is the Russia factor. That government wanted NHLers there. We will probably never know exactly how everything worked, but the NHL and NHLPA got the IOC to pay travel and insurance costs to the tune of about $14M. (One of the reasons I thought this would work out is I never thought the league and players would get that four years ago, and they did. It was a surprise, as the IOC repeatedly said it would not go down that road.)

One owner told me his feelings really changed on the Olympics when John Tavares got hurt and missed the rest of that season. Islanders GM Garth Snow was furious, but later walked back his comments. Make no mistake, he said what others thought.

This time around, the IOC pushed back, refusing to offer the same deal. So this is what we had: the IOC offering no money. And the NHL looking for something — something financial.

Last fall, IIHF President Rene Fasel announced his organization would step up in the IOC’s place, but the NHL balked. The league didn’t want money earmarked for developing the game worldwide to be used for this. And, even more importantly, the NHL and many of its owners wanted the money to come from the IOC directly.

The Olympics are making money off hockey and they felt very strongly the organization should pay.

As John Shannon reported last month, the NHL tried to negotiate some financial compromise. It asked for the IOC to “buy” a home date or two from each team. Failing that, the league wanted to be named an official Olympic supplier or sponsor, so it attach use the world-famous “rings” to its own brand. Those were rejected.

According to sources, another recent attempt was made to have the NHL receive some portion of the television rights/sponsorship for hockey, but that didn’t go anywhere, either.
The league also tried with the players, asking them to guarantee they would not opt out of the current CBA, including a three-year extension past its current expiry of 2022. The players declined, saying they believe they should not have to give up anything in exchange for Olympic participation.

So here we stood. The IOC not willing to give up anything. The NHL, feeling it’s not getting anything. The players felt this wasn’t their problem to solve.

Everyone stood and looked at each other. Until the NHL decided time ran out.

Like I said, it’s bad. But, the honest truth is that this is business, not unicorn world. The NHL owners are taking all the risk and the IOC isn’t the most sympathetic organization. The problem with hockey negotiations in the last 25 years is that they aren’t about what’s best for the game. No one does anything unless they get something.

That philosophy killed everyone here.

Is this really over? God only knows. Remember when we thought the Wayne Gretzky/Mario Lemieux intervention would save the 2004-05 season days after it was cancelled?

But, there are players and executives who believe there will be one more attempt to save it. But what can be offered that hasn’t already been denied?

There are now two big unanswered questions.

One is what will happen with individual players. As a group, they will be disappointed and angry. Being an Olympian has become a huge honour among the group. They love going.

And while Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk has said he would not support Erik Karlsson playing in the Games, Washington’s Ted Leonsis said he will not stand in the way of his Capitals players, a team loaded with potential Olympians.

The second question is what impact, if any, this will have on the NHL’s participation in the 2022 Beijing Games. Last week, the NHL announced it will play a pair of exhibition games in China as part of a long-term strategy to tap into that giant market. The Chinese government, with help from the NHL, is making major investments in hockey infrastructure leading up to the 2022 Games. The Chinese may have a big say in whether we see NHLers return to the Olympics for 2022.

The optimist in me says maybe you have to hit rock bottom before you can really repair a relationship. But that’s probably too late to save hockey in 2018, in South Korea.