“Assume we are not going.”
Those are the words said by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman yesterday in New York. So is this the end?
Far from it. This just the beginning.
The negotiations are about to begin. No more posturing. No more pleasantries. We will soon hear about a deadline date. We will know in short order whether NHL players will play on the Olympic ice in South Korea next February. All sides will decide how important it is to play in the Games. My gut says the next three weeks are key — before April 12 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. No one wants the Olympic discussion to become a distraction then.
Perhaps that day becomes the deadline?
Far to one side, the International Olympic Committee. Set in its ways and happy to spend other peoples’ money (not just hockey’s) for infrastructure and the glory of the Olympic movement. The formula has worked well for the IOC. Through summer and winter Games, scandal and deceit, doping and bribery, the Olympic movement just keeps chugging along. No reason to change, no reason to share the wealth. After all, if you change for the NHL, you’ll have to change for other leagues and organizations that are involved, such as the NBA, PGA, LPGA and both of tennis’ governing bodies. If you pay for hockey, you might just have to pay for other sports, too.
Far to the other side, the National Hockey League. The 31 owners and a senior executive at the league office who can’t comprehend what the value of the Olympics are anymore if there isn’t some form of compensation or acknowledgement of hockey’s best league. It goes beyond tickets and access or the ability to use video footage. It is about answering a simple question: What’s in it for us?
Up to now, none of the five Olympics the NHL has been involved in have given owners enough return on their investment. Has there been a bump in business because of Olympic participation? I’m not sure. If there has been, it isn’t noticeable. It’s been great for Hockey Canada and good for USA Hockey. I dare say the two women’s programs on this continent have had a bigger impact in growing the game from their Olympic experience than have the men.
As a side note, I find it interesting we all acknowledge the US Women’s team deserves a bigger piece of the financial pie, hence the stalemate with USA Hockey over the upcoming World Championships, but there is little acknowledgment the NHL should get a piece of the pie.
But I digress.
Short of asking for a lot of cash, the NHL has long been looking for status within the Olympic world as a key to sending its employees to the Games. It was not long ago the NHL discussed three ways the IOC could help make the decision to go easier:
No. 1: Move the hockey tournament to the summer Olympics and outside the NHL season. Not really practical considering how big the summer Games have become.
No. 2: Have the IOC actually “buy” some home dates from all NHL teams, so the league could reduce the season by a game or two and give teams cash in return.
No. 3: Get consent from the IOC to call the NHL an official supplier or sponsor, which would give the league an opportunity to brand content with its own shield and the Olympic rings. That value would certainly have benefits for the NHL.
All three of these were rejected. The NHL needs something from someone to justify delaying the season for two and a half weeks. In mid-February, baseball is still in spring training, the NFL is off, the NCAA March Madness tournament has yet to tip off. It is close to prime time for the NHL season, when hockey shares all the attention with just the NBA. Why would they give up that time for nothing? Aside from the romance of the Olympics, it makes very little sense.
Stuck between the IOC and the NHL are the IIHF and the NHLPA. Both have a great deal at stake with this decision. The IIHF, who actually runs the hockey tournament, has enjoyed this five-Olympic run with the pros, both financially and status-wise. Revenues for the hockey venues have never been higher. It has certainly improved Rene Fasel’s image with the IOC and levelled the playing field between the NHL and the IIHF when it comes to global growth of the game.
For the players, it has become a tremendous life experience and many now grow up with a dream to compete in the Olympics. They get to stay in the village and rub shoulders and share stories with other elite athletes from around the world. It is special. As painful as it may be to admit, winning Olympic gold might be as special (or perhaps more) as winning the Stanley Cup for players from all countries. But is playing in the Olympics and sacrificing your body enough of a contribution by the players to make it worthwhile to go? The standard players contracts they sign have made many of them very rich. But those contracts oblige them to play in the NHL.
I’m not sure. I had one member of the NHL’s board ask me two questions: “Why should we invest millions in players to risk losing them at the Olympics when we are in a playoff race? It’s lunacy!” Another senior executive wondered what the players were prepared to do to go: “The bigger question is why isn’t the Players’ Association doing anything but saying they want to go?”
You are certainly hearing players speak out more liberally about the desire to play. Jakub Voracek, Erik Karlsson, Brad Marchand, Max Pacioretty. It sounds very much like a campaign, tugging at the heart strings of the paying public, media and sponsors that it truly is important to take the 17-day break and get involved in the Olympics. Play for free, risk injury and expect to return to the NHL (or get a mid-season holiday if you’re not selected to go). At a certain pragmatic point, it becomes about protecting the core business.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I love Olympic hockey. I’ve seen some of the best, most emotional on-ice moments at the Olympics, with and without NHLers. But also know that I’ve had better access and made more money, personally, from the Olympic Games than any NHL owner. That sounds wrong to me.
Nhl participation at the Olympics might still happen, but it will require compromise from all four parties: NHL, IOC, IIHF and NHLPA. We will know soon enough.
And please let’s not get nationalistic and talk about best-on-best. That’s not what this is about. This is business. If you love the game, you’ll love watching Olympic hockey in any form. Remember, this is not purely about what is good for the game. If you truly believe that, go down to your local rink, buy a ticket, and watch kids play for the love of the game. This is about what’s good for the NHL. And at this point, obviously, the situation is just not good enough.
Gary Bettman made that point clear this week. The negotiations and a deadline now will come quickly.
Let the games begin.