Friday, February 21, 2014

The NHL and the Olympics

I'm still reeling. I should be, since I just watched both the US men's and women's hockey teams lose to Canada in agonizing and heartbreaking fashion respectively. But that doesn't mean the hockey at the Sochi games wasn't amazing in spots. Watching both US/Canada women's games sparked a new interest in women's hockey for me (mainly for the anti-Canada stuff by now), and the US/Russia pool play game was probably the best game of hockey I've seen in 4 years. But the Olympic magic will soon fade, and everyone will be left to talk about the role of the NHL with the Olympics. It's complicated... far too complicated, even though it seems a cut and dry issue. Everyone in the world sans the 30 men signing NHL paychecks away want the NHL at the Olympic Winter Games. But it's never that simple, is it?

Ed Snider and Garth Snow have both been outspoken about their hatred of the Olympic break. If Snider cracked the door open, then Snow busted it down. On the Olympic break, Snider said "There's no benefit to it whatsoever. If anything, I only see negatives. The players want to play and the players' association has a lot to say about it. As an owner, I think it's ridiculous." Aside from reminding Snider that the Flyers made the Stanley Cup Final the last time NHL players went to the Olympics, he's only stopped short of calling Don Fehr a bad influence. And he's right. Even if his view is completely selfish, he's right. What good do the 30 owners get by sending their highly paid assets over to someone else with a high risk of injury and no way of covering the losses if they do get hurt? And the NHL makes, appreciably, nothing from sending their players over and stopping their season for 3 weeks, aside from maybe a little buzz and a few extra shirsey sales. While Snider might have been the only owner with the stones to talk, I'd bet the conversation in the 29 other boardrooms echoes similar thoughts.

After watching his prized asset John Tavares get injured in Sochi and be lost for the rest of the season, Garth Snow was understandably peeved. It's a "joke" he said that the IIHF can use NHL players and not reimburse their teams if/when they get hurt, but he was just getting started. He said it's the biggest reason why the NHL shouldn't be in the games, and it should be amateurs. He's right too. And please, silence your inevitable "the Isles weren't making the playoffs anyway" trumpets. Garth Snow might have been the only one to say anything, but do you think Ken Holland is happy that Henrik Zetterberg is out for the rest of the regular season because of an Olympic injury? Or Dale Tallon is any less peeved that Alex Barkov and Tomas Kopecky both got hurt during the games despite the fact that his team is crap? It's almost an all-risk, no reward situation for owners and GM's when the Olympics come around, to say nothing of breaking up the flow of a NHL regular season. All of them are right as well. Obviously though, this debate isn't one-sided.

The highest pinnacle for some players (mainly European) is to win Olympic Gold for their country. While this thought may seem foreign to American and Canadian fans, all of the talk of Russian players jumping ship if the NHL didn't go to Sochi should have at least brought that point home. Even then, ask any one of the players for the US or Canada and they would have said 100% that they'd go to every Olympics that they were called up for. Winning Olympic Gold might not be the same as hoisting the Stanley Cup for Patrick Marleau or David Backes, but they're certainly proud to be there at any rate. As they should be. And they're right too.

And what of the IOC and IIHF? This is the biggest possible stage for hockey to be on, and they make a killing off of it. Going back to amateurs and a few European professionals only harms their bottom lines, also saying nothing about NBC and whoever holds the Canadian Olympic rights from 2018 onward. Needn't we forget either, that hockey is attracting more buzz in the States now than the NHL regular season ever would, and only the Olympics really provides that stage aside from the Stanley Cup Final, and one could argue that's a stretch too. And everyone above is also right.

So if everyone's right (and they are), where does that leave us?

The IOC and IIHF need the NHL since the Men's Hockey tournament is the biggest event at the Winter Olympics and garners the most buzz. The NHL one could say needs the IOC and the IIHF to get more people watching their league, especially in the States, where the game can only grow. The NHL players will always want to go to the Olympics since not only is the door open, but there is pride in representing your country that will always be higher than representing a corporate logo on your sweater. But the NHL takes on all the risk and nearly none of the reward by doing what to many is a fait accompli. Now what?

How about a World Cup of Hockey? In this case, the NHL and NHLPA keep all the revenues, but will it ever be as a big as an Olympic tournament is? And will the players line up to play in it like they would for the Olympics? Probably not.

Getting the IOC to split some revenues from the tournament? God no. It was amazing that the NHL and IIHF could even agree on the protocol for sending the players to Russia in one piece, let alone getting all of those men in a room again to agree on a revenue split.

Cherry pick Olympics to go to? The IOC (wisely) wouldn't allow it, and it would set a bad precedent as some players would go regardless of whether the NHL releases their players to do so. Yes Pyeongchang is not a market the NHL is even remotely interested in, but the first Olympic tournament with NHL'ers in it was in Nagano. Close enough.

Abandon the Olympics altogether? They can't do that on numerous levels.

So this is an entirely complex and convoluted issue that is nowhere near an end, or even an end-game. There will be an intense labor battle with blood spilled and many knocked over in its wake.

What do I want to happen? The NHL in every Olympics. What do I think should happen? Have both a World Cup of Hockey and have the players go to the Olympics as well. What do I think will happen? A glorified world-junior tournament in South Korea. Wish I could be more optimistic, but I sat through 2 life-sucking lockouts with this league.

It stinks when everyone is right, and it stinks even more that everyone who is right has the bank account size to match their egos.

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