The NHL needs a game changer to be convinced to go to the Olympics in South Korea. What that game changer looks like is anybody’s guess.
LOS ANGELES – The fate of the NHL participation in the 2018 Olympics rests with 30 men at this point. They are 30 very powerful and very rich, but also very angry, resentful, bitter men who are sitting back and waiting for someone, anyone, to give them a game-changing, compelling reason to release their players and further compress their schedule for next season. Things are looking grim. “As of right now, there’s not a will,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
And it’s becoming more and more clear that if the players really do want to go to the Olympics, there’s going to have to be some movement from them. The league has basically put the NHL Players’ Association in an untenable position by offering to go to Pyeongchang in exchange for extending the collective bargaining agreement by two years. If the players accept, it’s a major concession. If they don’t, they end up looking being the group that scuttled Olympic participation.
“I made a suggestion of something that might get the board’s attention,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “We go back when we were discussing, ‘Let’s have two Olympics, two World Cups, two Ryder Cups…we each give up our re-openers and we have labor peace.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if the board will accept that, but at least that’s something to talk about.’ The status quo is of no interest to them. They think that’s too disruptive.”
First, the NHL said that the fact that the International Olympic Committee would not put up the money to pay for their accommodations and insurance to be a deal breaker. So the International Ice Hockey Federation and its president Rene Fasel, came up with a framework to have that issue addressed. Then as Bettman said in a state of the address Saturday afternoon, the Board of Governors has seen it as too little, too late.
The new head of the IOC, Thomas Bach, who drew a line in the sand by refusing to pay expenses, appears to be Public Enemy No. 1 with these guys right now. These are very powerful men and apparently it’s wise not to cross them.
“When the IOC said it wasn’t going to pay,” Bettman said, “it caused a lot of the owners to say, ‘If they want to pay now, like why are we doing this?’ (Owners) who really weren’t paying attention and just going with the flow said, ‘Wait a minute. They’re now saying they don’t want to pay, but we have to disrupt our season? Forget it, I’ve had enough.’ ”
Clearly things are getting to a critical stage here. The league has to put this matter to bed so it can get on with finalizing a schedule for next season and awarding an All-Star Game if it decides not to go to Pyeongchang. The only problem is that you ask these people what needs to change and they either won’t say. It’s almost as though no matter how far everyone bends to make this happen, it won’t be enough.
“I don’t know what that something is,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “Something we would bring to the board that would kind of change their current view of the situation. I don’t know what that is. If there was a compelling reason we could bring to the board that this is something we should do again in South Korea, then we present it to the board and see what they have to say. As of right now, there’s not a will.”
The only sliver of hope is that for some reason, the league hasn’t outright dismissed the possibility at this point, something it could have done as early as Saturday. But Bettman said the Olympics received, “about 10 minutes of discussion,” and were not on the agenda. The league pretty much has all of the information it needs. It can posture all it wants about being concerned where the money is coming from that is being put up by the IIHF, but that is a major hurdle that has been cleared. If the expenses are going to be paid and the league is still dead-set against going to the Olympics, what more can possibly be done?
Well, the NHL isn’t saying what that is at the moment. But it’s pretty clear the league is willing to take this to the final hour so it’s still holding out for something. As Fasel said earlier in the day, “Gary doesn’t like deadlines.”