SOCHI, Russia – Why should the National Hockey League to continue to participate in the Olympics?
It guts the momentum of the regular season, and the owners hate that. It places players in a logistically complicated exhibition tournament that puts their health at risk for the coming Stanley Cup Playoffs. There’s no evidence that the Olympics give the NHL a bump in attendance or viewership; and from a revenue perspective, the League and its players are basically giving three weeks of a charity to the IOC.
“As a practical business matter, for the clubs individually, the Olympics have no tangible positive effect,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly, in Sochi before the start of the Olympic tournament qualifying round.
But really … what’s practical about the Olympics, right?
Spending tens of billions on a fleeting few weeks of patriotism, tourism and capitalism? That’s practical?
Of course not, and neither is sending NHL players to the Winter Games every four years, and not really getting anything out of it. Yet, the NHL continues to, and, frankly, will continue to allow its players to skate for their nations every four years.
Here are five major factors for why I believe the NHL will stick with this marriage, for better or worse:
The Players Want It
Matt Duchene is a first-time Olympian. Remember how he dominated the first half of the season, moving ahead of players like Claude Giroux on the Team Canada depth chart? It’s because he was worried this would be his last chance to play in the Winter Games.
“There was talk last time that we wouldn’t come to this one, too. It’s a big reason I wanted to make the team this time, and have this opportunity,” he said.
Duchene told me that the players, to a man, love Olympic participation and the chance to represent their nations on this stage.
And if the NHL ever tried to take it away?
“I think when it comes to that point, the players are going to put up a pretty big fight to keep coming to this event,” he said. “The players are honored and want to play for our country.”
John Tavares echoed that. "The Olympic Games is obviously a pinnacle of sports and it represents a lot. Certainly there are some tough challenges with it, being involved with the PA as much as I have I know this wasn't an easy process. But we feel as players it's important and we love to play, we love to represent our countries,” said the New York Islanders star.
“It’s once every four years. This is not a thing that comes around very often. I think it’s important we continue to try and find a way to work.”
The players want to go, and Donald Fehr serves at the pleasure of the players. So the fight would be on if the NHL attempt to pull out of the Games. I mean, they could just do it without any go-ahead from the Players ... but you won’t like Don when he’s angry.
“Oh, I suspect that the days of international decisions on things on which we need to cooperate, unilateral decisions, are parts of the past,” said Fehr.
The European Players Really, Really Want It
You know why the NHL is in Sochi?
Here are three reasons: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk.
They were all going to be in Sochi anyway in February 2014, whether the NHL was here or not. And if they went, who knows who else was going to leave with them? So the NHL decided to forgo a full-on European player mutiny and bring the traveling road show to Russia.
Rene Fasel made Gary Bettman all cranky pants when he said the gold medal trumped the Stanley Cup, but he’s not exactly wrong when it comes to European players.
“Our Holy Grail is the Stanley Cup,” said Duchene of North American players, “and for some of them it’s Olympic gold.”
So how would a European player live the dream if the NHL decides to stop going to the Olympics?
Could they build an Olympic Participation Clause into their Standard Player Contracts? Sure, but only if they want to see how quickly the NHL rejects that contract.
No, the solution for European players would be the aforementioned mutiny: Just up and leave during the NHL season for a few weeks.
What would happen? A team suspends the player and refuses to pay him during the Olympics. Players would need to purchase insurance to protect the remaining years of their deals and their future earnings potential.
But in the end, what are teams going to do? Would the Washington Capitals not allow Alex Ovechkin back on the roster when the Olympics are over?
OK, so the players are going to be a major factor in future Olympic decisions. But what is there to entice the League to continue to send them?
The World Cup
Both Daly and Fehr claim there’s no linkage between the impending World Cup of Hockey tournament that the NHL and NHLPA will create, but let’s be real: The players need to sign off on that idea in partnership with the NHL, and lord knows the Olympics could be a chip in that discussion.
What’s are the biggest gripes from the NHL about the Olympics? An inability to control things and an inability to collect revenue from the event. That’s rectified by the World Cup of Hockey every two or four years.
For example, the World Cup of Hockey doesn’t have a home on television yet. One assumes it would go to the rights holders; but what if ESPN or TSN came knocking for the rights to an NHL all-star tournament?
It could be a windfall for both parties. But it needs the players to cooperate.
Again, if the players want the Olympics, I can’t imagine that wouldn’t be a part of these talks.
Speaking of television …
NBC And Pyeongchang
NBC has the rights to the Pyeongchang Games of 2018. They have the NHL’s rights through 2021. They have a snowballs’ chance in Hades of turning a profit on the 2018 Games, but the NHL backing out could even make the situation more dire.
Does the NHL have to be beholden to its rights-holder in the U.S.? Or would kicking NBC the World Cup make up for the Olympics loss?
Speaking of revenue …
The NHL Hasn’t Even Scratched The Surface Of Olympic Revenue Streams
I think this is the key point here.
The NHL wants the IOC to understand how important its players are to the Games’ success. Like, really understand, in a “sharing the wealth” kind of way.
For example: Those Olympic jerseys the players model and the fans buy every four years? The NHL doesn’t see a dime. Nor does the NHL have the chance to sell its own Olympic-inspired swag; if you walked into the NHL Store in Manhattan and they had player T-shirts for every nation and star player, how many are you buying?
“I believe there’s a real opportunity to develop the game on an international scale,” said Don Fehr.
There is, and the NHL knows that whatever the World Cup of Hockey becomes, it won’t be the Olympics. The Winter Games are a cash cow, and the NHL’s continued participation might depend on how much they’re allowed to milk it.
And if they stop going? The players will still find a way to live their Olympic dream.