Speaking at the PrimeTime Sports and Entertainment conference in Toronto on Monday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman remained steadfast that he prefers a League-controlled World Cup of Hockey tournament to Winter Olympic participation, saying he’s “very much a believer in the World Cup.”
It’s something he said back in June too, as a joint venture with the NHLPA: “We are very much committed, at least at 10,000 feet, to bringing back a World Cup and doing it on a regular basis.”
How regular? The NHLPA has long desired to have it run during the Summer Olympic years, i.e. every two years after the Winter Games. Former Players Association boss Paul Kelly argued that the League should shut down for the World Cup as it does for the Olympics, as he said in Jan. 2009:
"We think the eyes of the world will be trained more on our sport in February than they would in September, particularly in the United States, and that would make a great deal of sense. “
Bettman has viewed an in-season World Cup as a non-starter, as one of the primary issues with Olympic participation is shutting the League down for weeks.
But it’s clear that the NHL sees Olympic participation as an increasing hassle that doesn’t deliver enough to warrant the effort. They want an international hockey even they can own, control and profit from. So we’re going to get a World Cup of Hockey, and soon.
But what does that mean for the Olympics?
Bettman sees Olympic participation by the NHL as a “goodwill gesture” to the players, which probably understates (or ignores) what their participation means to hockey nations around the world.
The question is whether you can stuff the genie back in the bottle after five Winter Games with NHL players. Consider:
The Players’ Dreams. Olympic participation has become part of the Hockey Fantasy for players, along with hoisting the Stanley Cup. We’re going to have a generation of players that only know Olympic hockey with NHL players, and want that singular achievement in their careers.
Combine that with the legendary status conferred to players who excel on that stage – three words: Swedish postage stamps – and you’re going to have battles every four years with stars players that want to represent their nations.
Does that mean teams “allow” their stars to depart for two weeks? Does the CBA prohibit contracts with windows for Olympic participation? Does that mean a season in the KHL in order to live the dream and rep your nation in the Games? Who knows …
Television. The NHL’s American and Canadian television partners are in the Olympic business, most notably NBC which paid $4.38 billion to broadcast the Games through 2020. They’re also paying $200 million annually to the NHL through 2021, so one assumes they’d expect the League to bolster to Pyeongchang 2018 Games with its players and promotion, because those Games are going to need all the help they can get.
Could the NHL, in theory, make up for bailing on the Olympics with a World Cup tournament on those networks?
Pride. The NHL withdrawal from the Olympics would, in theory, reset the balance in the international tournament. So how many gold medals won by KHL All-Star teams before all of Canada urges NHL participation again?
I feel for the NHL when it comes to the Olympics. Shutting down the season is a massive hassle. You can’t point to a single tangible benefit for the League from the games; Sidney Crosby was pretty super famous before Vancouver’s heroics. It would actually benefit the NHL to have new stars born in the Olympics; maybe allow players below a certain age or NHL experience to leave for the Olympics if their teams allow it?
But for all the hassles, for the lack of benefits, for the fact that the IOC is making money off the backs of NHL players like the NCAA does college QBs … it’s great hockey. Maybe the greatest hockey. And you can’t replicate that with a World Cup. Because you could make the trophy a Stanley Cup replica made entirely out of drugs and money and players still wouldn’t lust after it like they do a gold medal.