NHL players belong in Olympics

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

TORONTO — The session was called “Vancouver 2010 Evaluation,” but it was more of a pep rally for the Winter Games and a political rally for NHL participation in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

In a hotel ballroom Wednesday at the World Hockey Summit, there were rousing speeches, strong arguments and moving videos – the Olympic flame fluttering, Sidney Crosby(notes) scoring the gold-medal goal for Canada.

A moderator asked how many people thought the NHL should go to Sochi. Virtually every hand went up. He asked how many thought the NHL would go to Sochi. Virtually every hand went up again.

Then came The Bad Guy, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who tried to cool off the controversy without telling everyone what they wanted to hear. Sitting next to another moderator, otherwise alone on stage, Bettman reminded the crowd he led the NHL to the past four Winter Games and said it wasn’t that big of a deal that the league had not made a decision about 2014 yet.

“We started something that we thought was right, and we haven’t said no,” Bettman said. “And again, anybody who suggests that we’ve made a decision or that I’m anti-Olympics doesn’t get it.”

NHL players belong in the Olympics. For the league, there is no better vehicle to showcase its product to a broad audience. The positives outweigh the negatives. That’s why the league went in the first place. That’s why not going in the future would be a mistake.

But a lot of owners feel they are assuming too much risk without enough reward. There are issues to discuss with the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation, not to mention the NHL Players’ Association and television networks. There is no better leverage than the threat of non-participation.

Bettman called going to the Olympics a “mixed bag,” tilting toward the negative when the Games are held outside North America. He also called the fans’ feelings a “mixed bag,” though I question how that bag is mixed. What matters most is that Bettman said there is a “mixed sentiment” among the owners.

“There are some clubs that think going to the Olympics is a terrible idea under any circumstances,” Bettman said, “and there are some clubs that think it’s important no matter what the sacrifice is.”

Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland agreed with the estimate that 10 owners are in favor, 10 are against and 10 are undecided.

“From an emotional side, I want to be in the Olympics, but from a business side, there’s more to look at it than just to say, ‘Yeah, we want to be in the Olympics,’ ” said Holland, an assistant general manager for Team Canada in Vancouver.

“These things aren’t quite as easy as we want them to be. We always think of the good things. Sometimes bad things do happen. I don’t have an answer for you. My feeling is, you like to negotiate things so everybody feels good about whatever solution you come to. That’s the hope, I think.”

Some of the issues are petty, even silly, and should be easily solved, such as giving better access to NHL owners and medical staffs during the Olympics, jetting players back to North America privately and promptly, and allowing the NHL to put Olympic highlights on its website. IIHF president Rene Fasel said the sides simply need more communication.

Other issues are old, worn debates no one can solve. The NHL must shut down for more than two weeks. Its best players – high-priced assets to the owners – must put their bodies on the line. That’s the way it is, but the adversity can be overcome.

Take 2002. The Red Wings sent 11 players to Salt Lake, more than any other NHL team. Four went to the gold-medal game, including captain Steve Yzerman who played despite a bad knee, and forward Brendan Shanahan(notes), who broke his thumb during the tournament. Not only did the Wings still win the Stanley Cup, the Olympics might have helped.

Yzerman missed the rest of the regular season and later needed radical knee realignment surgery, but he gutted the Wings through the first round of the playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks. He said the Olympics “elevated the level of play.” Shanahan said the Olympics “invigorated” him and he never felt tired.

“I know it’s not ideal to shut the season down,” said Yzerman, who now has an executive perspective as Team Canada’s general manager in 2010 and as the new GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “But I ask, ‘What real harm does it do?’ I don’t see any downside.”

But the owners question whether there is enough upside, at least in the short term. This year’s United States-Canada gold-medal game drew 114-million TV viewers around the world – more than the last two Super Bowls. That doesn’t necessarily translate to more eyes on the NHL when league play resumes, let alone more ticket and merchandise sales.

“I don’t think from a business standpoint – from a tangible business standpoint – it has any positive impact on our business at all,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “And in some cases, it has a negative impact.”

So what’s in it for the owners?

Bettman said TV executives told him they plan to submit a two-tiered bid for Olympic television rights – one price with the NHL, one without – and that would create "an interesting dynamic."

That would increase the NHL's leverage in all aspects. As far as TV, the league could barter for a better deal for NHL games or ask for a piece of the Olympic premium price, all while making sure the players are featured prominently during the Games even though hockey won't be played in prime time in North America. All Bettman would say about the money was that "we haven’t even begun seriously discussing these issues."

You can be sure they will discuss them as the collective-bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHLPA expires in 2012. It’s no secret that the players want to go to the Olympics much more than the owners do.

“I would hope it’s not a CBA chip,” said Jamie Langenbrunner(notes), captain of the New Jersey Devils. “This isn’t something that we’re bargaining over who gets what. We’re trying to keep growing the game. The players aren’t asking for a chunk of the money. We’re just asking to be a part of it.”

The players should be a part of it. Russian star Alex Ovechkin(notes) and some of his comrades already have said they will go, even if the NHL doesn’t. Can you imagine what a mess that would make?

Olympic hockey matters in a way that can’t be measured. It isn’t about rink size or rules. It’s about the concentration of talent, the national pride and the environment. It produces something special that is good for the Olympics and good for the game, which is good for the NHL, which is ultimately good for the owners, at least in the big picture.

They got it before. We can only assume, in the end, after all the analyzing and bargaining, they’ll get it again. At one point Wednesday, Bettman asked for another show of hands.

“How many in this room have actually been to Sochi?” Bettman asked.

Only a few hands went up.

“Hmm,” Bettman said. “Well, I think we’re going to all have to learn a lot about Sochi. That may be part of the decision-making process.”

Yes, let’s learn about Sochi. And let’s see a lot more hands in four years.

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