It would come as no surprise if NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr spends the next couple of days trying to wring more out of the NHL’s latest offer. A higher salary cap than the projected $60 million in 2013-14 and a limit on escrow payments will likely be at the top of the list. And considering the NHL’s history of talking tough, then caving – something it has done once again in Lockout Part III – don’t bet against him being successful.
One item that has yet to be resolved on which the players should insist is participation in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and beyond. Actually, both sides should be eager to get this done. If the NHL and the NHLPA are truly repentant about putting their fans through this latest imbroglio and truly want to do right by them, then they will do the right thing and make sure the best players on the planet play each other on the biggest stage in the world every four years.
In fact, when you think about it, it really is the least they can do. Regardless of whether or not the two sides come to an agreement and the season is saved in the next week or so or the dispute drags on into next season, the owners will get a bigger piece of the revenue share and will undoubtedly recoup all their losses to this point and then some. And while the players will have undeniably endured a reduction in take-home pay, they will still be very well compensated for what they do.
The only real losers in this dispute are the fans who have had to live without NHL hockey for almost three months and those whose livelihoods depend on the league playing on a regular basis. While Olympic participation would not be a cure-all, it would be one in a myriad of things both sides could do to help improve their image and repair the enormous amount of damage they have caused.
The players have been in favor of continuing Olympic participation from the start. The league, on the other hand, has been non-committal about future participation because it doesn’t seem to be getting enough benefits in exchange for shutting down its business for two weeks every four years. A nine-hour time difference between Sochi and the eastern time zone doesn’t help things.
But if the NHL is worried that people won’t watch, it should consider that the Canada-Germany game to open the World Junior Championship peaked at 525,000 viewers in Canada. That game started at 4:30 a.m. and was basically a nothing game that would have been a shock of biblical proportions had Canada not won handily. When the game was replayed at noon, it attracted another 849,000 sets of eyeballs.
So when it comes to big international hockey events, the NHL will not have to worry about people in Canada either getting up at an ungodly early hour or staying up until an ungodly late one to watch their country play. And since Canadian fans are paying much of the freight here, the league should forget about what’s best for the business for one moment and think about what’s best for its most loyal fans.
If the NHL begins playing again by Jan. 19, it will have shut down its business by a total of 14 weeks, which would be about the combined time it would have to shut down for the next seven Olympics. Clearly the league has no problem shutting its doors since it has done so three times in the past 18 years. Continued Olympic participation seems to be a no-brainer for everyone but the ones holding the levers of power in the game.
Early in the lockout, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said his league has the best fans in the world. To be sure, they have proved time and again that they love the game despite those who run it. If not for their passion and loyalty – on both sides of the border – the league would be in even worse shape than it is now.
There are very real concerns fans will not flock back the way they did seven years ago. For many people, their sense of outrage has been replaced by indifference. And the league does not have near the number of things in its favor that it did in 2005. It does not have two instant and identifiable superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entering the league. It does not have a spanking new on-ice product to showcase. It does not have the advantage of a surging Canadian dollar to help fill its coffers.
It will have to do something to get its fans back. A good place to start would be to make sure they are at every Winter Olympic Games.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.