Hate the IOC, not Bettman, for NHL players missing 2018 Olympics

It’s OK to be angry. Or disappointed or confused or frustrated.

It’s OK if you’re enraged about not having the chance to see the best players in the NHL, and therefore the best hockey players in the world, representing their countries at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

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It’s OK to be irate, because we can’t un-see what we’ve all seen for the last five Olympics: The best limited-run hockey tournament in the history of the sport.

There’s no going back to kids and international pros and pluggers like we had before 1998. There’s no replicating the excitement of NHL players competing in the Olympics. They’re like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine: Maybe he wasn’t your ideal fit at the start, but he owned the role, and now every subsequent Logan will be judged against that performance and will fall perilously short.

(Watching the World Cup of Hockey, for example, was like watching Liam Hemsworth in a Wolverine reboot: Shallow, easy on the eyes, ultimately disinterested.)

We’ve seen Sid and the Golden Goal, and T.J. Sochi, and teammates becoming rivals and rivals becoming teammates. The Olympic tournament plus NHL players equals the best hockey thing, and it’s genuinely upsetting to think the world is going to be deprived of this spectacle until at least 2022.

(Especially as an American, as we were about to unleash the Reign of Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel on all your [expletives].)

It’s OK to feel all of these emotions … as long as, at some point, you realize that what the heart wants doesn’t always square with what the head understands. And, please, understand this:

If you wanted NHL players in the Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee is the reason they’re not going in 2018.

***

The IOC is an organization that drowns in its own self-righteousness while filling its coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcast fees, sponsorship money and merchandise revenue, provided there’s still room in said coffers from all the municipal kickbacks they receive in staging the Games.

I’ve covered four Olympics. The IOC is staggering in its pusillanimity.

One of the ways the IOC is able to generate these levels of profit is by relying on the kindness of the leagues like the NHL and the NBA to loan their players, for free, to give the Winter and Summer Games some added luster. In return, the IOC covers some basic costs – accommodations, insurance. Or at least it did.

To put in relatable terms: March Madness just ended. The ridiculous profits made by the NCAA on the backs of student-athletes have earned it harsh criticism. They put in the time, assume the risk and in exchange, get their basic costs covered while being told it’s an “honor” to participate in the NCAA tournament or, like, the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl.

The IOC is like the NCAA, except instead of the charade that it’s an educational venture, they pretend that a swimming relay can end all wars and a new Velodrome is what your city really needed.

The NHL’s owners have spent the last 19 years trying to figure out if Olympic participation was worth anything tangible, beyond the pursuit of world peace and the speculative “growing of the game” that came with the exposure. Bettman – who led the League to the Olympics, in partnership with the players, in 1998 – made the annual case for continuing this participation, even as some of the owners wavered, wondering what’s really in it for them.

It’s not that they didn’t see the Olympics as something that could help grow the game globally, at least in theory; it’s that they started weighing the cost/benefit of it.

They were getting restless. Prominent voices were starting to gripe about the season being interrupted with no tangible financial benefit to the NHL.

They were griping about their assets being loaned, at no cost, so the IOC could profit from them for three weeks. After John Tavares was injured in Sochi, they started getting a little queasy about players getting hurt at a tournament from which the owners themselves didn’t profit (unlike the World Cup, where everyone can get hurt as long as there are jersey ads and strong ticket presales). They started griping about the season being interrupted, thus hurting their “marketing momentum,” or some nonsense. (It’s not their strongest argument.)

Then PyeongChang won the 2018 Games.

The owners didn’t really care about PyeongChang. The games won’t be played in a time zone that works well for North American audiences – 7 p.m. in South Korea is 6 a.m. in New York. It’s not fertile soil for hockey like they see in Beijing. If they had their druthers, they’d rather sit out 2018 to skip ahead to 2022.

But they also weren’t content with the status quo in the NHL’s relationship with the IOC.

So the NHL was prepared to ask for more. They had, before Sochi, asked for increased marketing opportunities and increased access to video highlights. The IOC asked them to kiss the ring and then kiss … well, you know.

Then the IOC, under new president Thomas Bach, made a decision in 2016 that really sent this thing off the rails: The IOC would no longer fund NHL players to attend the Winter Olympics, as they had in the previous five events.

According to Nick Butler of Inside the Games, it’s believed the IOC paid approximately $14 million on top of $18 million contributed by the IIHF on transportation and insurance to have NHL players attend the Sochi Games in 2014. IIHF President Rene Fasel believed those costs could be reduced to $10 million for PyeongChang, but the fact remained that the IOC wasn’t paying them any longer, and obviously wouldn’t be sharing any revenues with the NHL, either.

The NHL and its owners went from asking for more from the IOC, to getting nothing. And the IOC asked the hockey community to pay $32 million as, basically, an entrance fee to their party.

The IIHF scrambled to find funding to replace that IOC money, initially from member nations’ hockey development programs, which infuriated the NHL – the phrase “robbing Peter to pay Paul” became a rather overused metaphor.

Fasel later said “we were able to devise a financial framework that will cover these payments without drawing funds away from the IIHF’s development programs or those of our MNAs,” but never went into detail on from where this $10 million was being drawn.

The owners got it in their heads that they needed a little something for the effort to head to PyeongChang. Even as the IIHF found $10 million in the couch cushions of the executive lounge, there was still no guarantee that the NHL was going to go to South Korea.

Not without a “game-changer” for the owners.

***

That’s the word deputy commissioner Bill Daly used to describe what needed to happen for the NHL to go to PyeongChang. He also described it as a “new wrinkle” and, at times, “something, I don’t know, something.”

The NHL’s demands for “something” from the IOC would vacillate between reasonable and ridiculous. For example:

Reasonable: To allow the NHL to use the IOC’s trademarks and intellectual property in conjunction with promoting the League’s participation in the Olympics. In other words, putting the rings on crap and selling it. 

One of the more trite arguments in favor of NHL Olympic participation is that it benefits the players by growing their profile, or in some cases “makes stars.”

There have been exactly three “stars” made by the Olympics in hockey in the last 25 years: Peter Forsberg, who became a star in the last Winter Games before the NHL arrived; Ryan Miller, who won a Vezina based on the Olympics, basically; and Tore Vikingstad of Norway, for obvious reasons.

People like to claim T.J. Oshie became a star after his Russian shootout heroics, although the next ticket his name sells in the NHL would be the first. But let’s go with this premise for a second.

Oshie has his “T.J. Sochi” moment. Everyone’s into it. Now, imagine if the NHL had a ready-made Oshie shirt with “TJ SOCHI,” Team USA and Olympic branding, ready to be blasted to everyone on an NHL mailing list or visiting NHL.com. Imagine how much scratch they make in, like, a 48-hour period, based on one player’s exploits?

Here, let me help: Anything above “zero dollars” would be an improvement on the current model.

Unreasonable: 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. (Source)

This is the owners’ response to having to shut down the season for a few weeks. This demand is amazing, because the NHL’s owners know that a shorter season is better for the game but would never shave a game or two from the schedule unless the IOC pays for a bunch of days they don’t really want to buy, like it’s a minimum stay at a Sandals.

Reasonable: The NHL wanted to be “an official supplier or sponsor” for the Olympics, so it could have its branding visible while its players competed on Olympic ice.

They were denied, but again, this makes too much sense and is such a small concession.

Unreasonable: Move hockey to the Summer Olympics.

In order to ensure that, like in the NBA, the Olympics won’t interrupt the season. Never mind that ice hockey is, at last look, played on ice, a substance synonymous with the Winter Games. Plus the moving hockey out of the Winter Games would gut that event of its only team sport. It’s never going to happen.


But here’s the thing: Even the most reasonable demands were turned down, because the IOC knows that any concession it makes to the NHL needs to be repeated for the NBA and the PGA and the LPGA and the tennis federations and the soccer federations and everyone else that loans its star power to the Olympics in exchange for nothing tangible. They’ll all come calling, asking for the same deal, and that means the IOC sharing some of its wealth. And the IOC hates that.

So the IOC denied the NHL. And now, the NHL denies the Olympics from its players.

Oh, right, one more thing:

Unreasonable: Using the Olympic issue as a bargaining chip to force the players to extend the CBA.

Yeah, homie don’t play that.

***

I’m a union guy, so I’m a players guy. Anytime they can knock the owners down a peg, or claw something back from them, more power to them. Anytime they can laugh in the face of the NHL for using an IOC stalemate to force their hands on a CBA extension, good on them.

But sometimes, the NHLPA is its worst enemy.

The NHLPA was savage in its rebuke of the NHL’s decision:

“A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia. The NHL may believe it is penalizing the IOC or the players, or both, for not giving the owners some meaningful concessions in order to induce them to agree to go to PyeongChang. Instead this impedes the growth of our great game by walking away from an opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide.”

“Moreover, it is doing so after the financial issues relating to insurance and transportation have been resolved with the IOC and IIHF. The League’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself. NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone. It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.”

(Yes, we’re sure “patriotism” is top of the mind for the NHL players who support Olympic participation so they can get three weeks off; or as you might know them, ‘the majority of the NHLPA membership.’)

Look, we all want the players to play in the Olympics. Like we said off the top, it’s the best. But it’s hard to square slamming the NHL for not having “a decent respect for the opinions of the players” when the players didn’t have enough respect for themselves to collectively bargain for Olympic participation.

There are four references to the Olympics in the current CBA. Two have to do with revenue sharing. One is in reference to scheduling. One is in reference to the NHL All-Star Game being cancelled in Olympic years. None are in reference to the mandatory participation of NHL players in the Olympics.

There are, however, clear standards for NHL player participation in that legendary international tournament …

… the IIHF world championships:

Oh.

What the CBA does address with regard to the Olympics is how any revenue generated by the NHL from the event would be divided:

All revenues from such projects and initiatives (net of expenses incurred pursuant to budgets approved by the International Committee, including without limiting the generality of the foregoing, Direct Costs and NHL and NHLPA staffing costs) shall be excluded from HRR pursuant to Section 50.1(b)(xviii) and divided equally between the NHL and NHLPA.

In other words, if the NHL was to open up revenue streams related to the Olympics, the NHLPA would benefit. But this ends up, for whatever reason, the one extracurricular event where the players don’t actually care about generating revenue for themselves. They aren’t throwing elbows at the IOC for more marketing rights or a share of TV money or any of it. They just want to play.

Patriotism is a hell of a drug.

***

Despite the NHLPA having failed to secure its players the right of Olympic participation in the last CBA, should they still be allowed to represent their countries even if the NHL doesn’t go to South Korea?

Of course.

The NHL should leave it up to the teams. If the Washington Capitals want to let Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby leave for the Olympics, and put them at a competitive disadvantage for upwards of three weeks, why not? If the Edmonton Oilers want to do the same for Connor McDavid, or the Toronto Maple Leafs with Auston Matthews, why not?

(By the way, for Auston Matthews to play for Team USA, he’d have to get clearance from Lou Lamoriello and then have Canada’s Team ™ loan him to the Americans. So, uh, see ya in 2022, kid.)

The NHL would be within its rights to fine and penalize the organizations at a minimum, but the idea that it could step in and prevent players from participating in the Olympics feels a little tyrannical. Let the teams do what they want with their players, and face the inherent risks themselves. It’ll be messy chaos, but it’ll be up to each team on how to clean up that mess. States rights!

Of course, this isn’t going to happen, because for all the happy [expletive] shoveled by the owners, they’re the ones who decided not to go to PyeongChang. They said “no” to the IOC, but they don’t want to be the ones to say “no” to their own star players.

NHLPA chief Donald Fehr expects the NHL won’t allow players to participate in the Olympics, and we imagine that’s so the owners don’t have to be the bad guys: They’ll ask for a League-wide policy, and then act as if their hands are tied.

Let Bettman be the bad guy.

It’s what he does best.

***

The IOC released a statement on Monday:

“The decision is even more regrettable, as the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) had offered the same conditions to the NHL as at previous Olympic Games, where the insurance and travel costs were covered. The IOC, which distributes 90 per cent of its revenue for the development of sport in the world, obviously cannot treat a national commercial league better than not-for-profit International Sports Federations which are developing sport globally.”

Yes, obviously, there’s no reason the IOC should treat the internationally popular athletes and the federations that loan them to the Olympics differently than, say, someone race-walking. Everyone’s tuning in for the race-walkers. And it’s completely in keeping with the IOC’s mission to leave out that it refused to cover those costs for the first time in five years; that mission being to make the IOC look as altruistic as possible.

With this decision, the NHL is making this wager: That it will be invited back to participate in Beijing. That the 2018 Olympic tournament, at worst, is an underwhelming bust; and at best, manages to actually develop young NCAA and junior stars before they hit the NHL. (Something the Olympics should be used for anyway.) That the potential chaos of next year, with players looking to leave for the Olympics, ends up being a collection of empty threats. Lord knows there’s ample evidence that the will of the players can be broken with minimal pressure from the owners …

Look, there’s no goodwill for the owners. They win every lockout. They basically have players shackled to teams until they’re 27. They overspend, and then cry about the system they created. They make profits, hide the money from HHR, and claim poverty. The idea that they pulled NHL players from the Olympics over money – despite having, like, all of it – is incomprehensible to a lot of us.

It’s a PR war the NHL can’t win, because everybody hates Bettman and his owners and everybody loves grown men dropping tears on a gold medal while their national anthem blares from arena speakers. One group is clearly preventing the achievable dream of the other, and you end up with declarations like this one from Brandon Prust:


But using the nebulous romanticism of sports to obfuscate reality is basically the IOC’s mission statement. The torch, the rings, the pageantry, the “Olympic spirit,” the “Olympic movement,” the medals … they’re all bright shiny objects to distract from things like the financial ruin that follows the Games from city to city or doping scandals or how utterly insane it is that the IOC makes millions off the NHL’s assets and the NHL isn’t compensated for it in a meaningful way.

The default setting in situations like these is to side with the players, demonize Bettman and lament the notion that the owners are “holding the game back” through their avarice.

And while your heart goes out to every player who feels their gold medal moment was just taken from them, realize this: Bettman got us into the Olympics and the owners have allowed the players to “grow the game” pro bono for the IOC for the last 19 years. The NHL hasn’t seen any tangible benefits from it. No post-Olympic spikes in interest. No new revenue streams from the partnership. Nothing but “good of the game” platitudes, which have the cash value of a Chuck-E-Cheese game token.

The owners asked to share in the windfall their assets have created for the Olympics, and the IOC responded by not only denying them that but then denying them the basic funding the NHL has received for the last five Olympics.

The NHLPA claims “this is the NHL’s decision, and its alone.” Where are we today if the IOC never pulled its funding last year?

Like we said, it’s OK to be enraged about all of this … as long as the IOC is the target of most of your ire. Because the IOC has achieved a seemingly impossible feat: Making Gary Bettman seem sympathetic by comparison.

That’s a gold medal performance if we’ve ever seen one.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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