Will NHL Be Out Of The Medals At The 2018 Winter Games?
It is less than a year now till the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Who knew waiting could be this fun?
The NHL, for one. With less than 12 months to go, the league still remains irrevocably stuck in a rut of its own making. For a variety of reasons— many of them logical for the NHL— the league does not see much upside to halting its regular schedule for close to a month so that the best players in its employ can trek around the globe to play for the International Olympic Committee.
Technically, the players are playing for their own countries, of course. The flag and all that. But from the NHL’s point of view, its employees are taking off the shank of the season to enrich the ladies and lads from Lausanne. The NHL gets little more than fairy dust out of risking that Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby won’t tear up a knee or shoulder.
At a time when injuries and fatigue are catching up to players, it’s also the worst time to be enduring a 15-hour slog across the Pacific to play in tiny arenas at all the worst hours of the day for prime time TV viewing. Ask any of the players who ventured to Nagano, Japan, how it felt resuming a heated playoff race after such a journey.
Then there’s the money. Having surrendered its players to the International Ice Hockey Federation five times with little compensation beyond visibility, the NHL rightfully wants a more equitable sharing of the massive profits generated by the IOC. Despite talking for much of the time since the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, the two sides don’t seem to have gotten anywhere.
The IOC thinks it has the whip hand. The NHL believes the alternative of scrubs on skates in South Korea should bring the IOC to its senses.
For these reasons and more the league’s owners remain dead set against the Olympic experience as it’s currently constructed. Sources say the vote is 17-14 against in the NHL Board of Governors, with several of the more influential owners (okay, it’s Boston’s crusty Jeremy Jacobs) unalterably opposed to the Olympic sojourn.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who plays the Board like a concertina, is doing his usual nudging and nodding routine to stay ahead of his employers and their whims. This week he was talking about adding a bye week in the season, but there was nothing about the Olympics.
While some dreamers see South Korea as a growth market, most of the hard-headed businessmen at the NHL table know that staging a tournament in southeast Asia is so much spitting in the wind. And staging the gold medal game at 3 AM ET? Who thinks that’s a good idea?
Bettman’s biggest problem isn’t the owners, anyhow. They’ll do what they want to do. But a number of the superstars of the league have made it clear that they expect to play for their countries next February, and they are telling NHL Players Association executive director Don Fehr that in no uncertain terms. For European players, to whom the Olympic gold is on a par with the Stanley Cup, this is a line in the ice they’re not willing to cross.
Players like Ovechkin are hinting that they could violate their contracts if it comes to that. Hey, with friends like Vladimir Putin watching your back, what’s a little contractual language?
The solution is obvious if the sides want to advance the puck. As IDLM has said for years now, the compromise is for the NHL to stage an Olympic tournament in concert with the IOC every four years. The catch being that the NHL stages their tournament in a location that is convenient to its annual season. Ergo, North America or Europe.
Right now, the IOC typically puts the Winter Games in smaller markets with very limited arena size and, in the next two Games in South Korea and Bejing, terrible times for television in North America. So here’s the solution:
Reduce the travel component to within seven or eight time zones, supply content that can play in primetime in North America’s lucrative TV markets, use large markets like Toronto, New York or Frankfort to maximize revenues in large buildings and marketing, and still award the IOC gold medals that everyone covets. And if the host city offers less money for the rights with no NHL in the Olympic Village, how much will they pay for the alternative?
The alternative is a group of enthusiastic amateurs or semi-pros playing at half-past-kiss-my-grits in the night for drastically reduced ratings and revenues. Both the IOC and the NHL are epically hard-headed about guarding their interests, but this model is so simple even they can figure it out, no?
We’re about to find out.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)